Decades after the cameras and the spotlight are gone, those touched by school shootings can continue to suffer as they try to process a day that changed their lives.
That’s the subject of Virgil Films’ documentary We Are Columbine, due on EST, VOD and DVD April 9 and directed by Laura Farber.
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Farber has a unique perspective on the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado; she was a freshman at the school when two students shot and killed 13 people (12 students and one teacher) nearly 20 years ago on April 20, 1999.
“I wanted something to be told by the people that experienced it,” Farber said. “And I felt like I could bridge that gap between outsiders and the people that were there. It’s a lot more difficult than anticipated because a lot of us don’t like talking about Columbine — still to this day.”
It took some convincing, but Farber was able to gather a collection of freshmen at the time of the shooting as well as teachers and administrators to revisit the event.
The director herself wasn’t immune to the effects of recalling such a terrible time when she went back to film at her high school.
“Everything was the same, so much so that the first day of filming —I didn’t know I needed more therapy until I went to film — that first day of filming, thank god, I had one of the producers with me,” Farber recalled. “She had to do that first walkthrough of the school with Gus [former student Gustavo D’Arthenay] because I was emotionally ill, physically ill the entire day because I think just coming back that first time was a lot — not anticipated for sure.”
The first interview subject she was able to convince to participate in the project was her friend Amy Staley.
“I’m doing this only because it’s you, only because of our friendship,” Staley says in the film. “I don’t like talking about it like this. I don’t think anybody likes us talking about it. I don’t like people exploiting our experiences, and I know that you won’t.”
During Staley’s interview, Farber learned just how close she had come to something awful. Bomb equipment had been under the lunch table at which they had sat on that fateful day, Staley recalled in the film.
“I was with Amy on that day, and I didn’t know that until we sat down together and talked about it,” Farber said. “I totally forgot.”
Columbine principal Frank DeAngelis had become wary of students asking to film at the high school, creating another potential obstacle.
“I had to get Frank’s permission, because he’s the principal, and once I told him what I wanted to do, which was not sensationalized, he trusted me to come in and film,” Farber said. “But at the time, there was an issue with a student from an Ohio high school that came to the school, did a tour, asked a bunch of questions, and he said he was doing research for a presentation, and then went and threatened his own school. So after that Frank was like, ‘Hey, I’m not letting anybody in unless they are students from Columbine.’ And that was kind of perfect timing for me.”
“You’re one of my kids; I trust ya,” DeAngelis says in the documentary.
The kids she knew from Columbine were loath to discuss the shooting, though teacher Kiki Leyba (also interviewed in the film) had them write down their thoughts 20 years ago.
In addition to D’Arthenay (a musician who provides some of the soundtrack for the film) and Staley, Farber interviewed two others who were freshmen at Columbine during the shooting.
“I think for our class, for those four years, we got to all be together,” Farber noted. “We were the youngest, and we were there the longest. It was a big part of our recovery being able to go back every day and be with each other.”
But it was different for everyone who experienced the shooting.
“Everyone has their own Columbine,” she said. “I’d love to find out what’s going on with the seniors that had to leave immediately after, and they were surrounded by no one and what that did to their recovery.”
Since the shooting at Columbine High School, which is recognizing a 20th anniversary this year — including a screening of Farber’s film in Colorado on the exact date of the anniversary, April 20 — many other school shootings have dominated the news and then receded.
Though Farber talked to Media Play News before the recent suicides of victims affected by shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in 2018 and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn., in 2012, she stressed the need for victims to express their feelings.
“We’re going to carry this with us for the rest of our lives, but we can decide what that’s going to look like,” Farber said.