Todd Chandler’s sobering film, Bulletproof – partially developed at the Sundance Institute Documentary Program – reveals the extent to which American schools have become simulacrums of prisons over the past 30 years.
As the deadly drumbeat of school shootings continues – with more incidents in the two decades of the 21st century than the entire 20th – Chandler concentrates on the attempts to prevent shootings, rather than the depressing litany of deaths that rolling 24/7 news relentlessly pumps out.
There are no statistics in Bulletproof – and with the exception of a couple of interviews (one of which, with the ex-military security chief of a large Texas high school that boasts a $6.5 million state of the art security system, forms a loose thread through the narrative) – Chandler lets the images and snippets of conversation tell the story.
At times the director’s approach is apparently as random as a school shooting: he moves seamlessly from the Texas school security boss showing off one of the $40,000 worth of 22 AR-15 automatic rifles he purchased for his 19 uniformed staff, to a school security convention in Las Vegas; from there he interviews a young woman who was prompted to design and make bulletproof hoodies with Kevlar inserts after a neighbour was shot dead in a mugging.
It is not clear quite what connection the armour-plated hoodies (that retail at $500 each) have to school security, but the digression gives some idea of the sort of society Americans are forced to live in because of the way the 2nd Amendment has been interpreted.
At times the director’s approach is apparently as random as a school shooting
Of greater relevance to the subject are the array of novel devices school security firms are hawking: armour-plated school whiteboards or desks, anyone?
Grainy video footage dating to 1993 of metal detector gates being installed in a Chicago school seems to suggest that the current crisis began to spike 30 years ago, but with no narrator to guide the viewer that is sheer guesswork.
It does not really matter as the story is clear enough, showing the extent to which American schools have become armed daily detention camps, although alternative approaches (such as the breathing and mindfulness classes shown in the second half) are clearly a minor part of the attempt to prevent tensions reaching boiling point such that students (and it is usually the case in school shootings) go home to pick up a few weapons and a bag of ammo before returning to campus to wreak havoc.
Foxes in the hen house
Chandler seems undecided about whether to adopt a less nuanced and more signaled approach to his subject: the school security chief is firmly established early on as a hawk, noting: «As a security professional I understand the need for having superior firepower.» But later on, after the images of mindfulness classes, he reflects that given the choice between spending his $6.5 million budget on guns and security cameras (hundreds of the latter), he claims he would rather have spent money on emotional support for students. Indeed, it is he who earlier states with regret that the deadly threat of school shootings virtually always comes from «the foxes already in the hen house» – students themselves.
The teachers taking weapons training – with a pinch of medical training thrown in – from instructors who quote from the Bible as they encourage their sharpshooters, remind us of the degree to which many Americans see the answer to gun violence as more guns. Chandler hardly needs to remind well-informed viewers that school shootings always precede a spike in gun sales.
the deadly threat of school shootings virtually always comes from «the foxes already in the hen house» – students themselves.
<h2?The depths of culture
At a time when mostly white, right-wing thugs carrying military-grade weapons are so frequently seen taking part unmolested by the forces of law and order in counter-demonstrations as American streets a roiled by anger over police violence against blacks, the depth to which America’s gun culture has dragged the country is a hot topic.
Chandler’s film is a valuable contribution to the debate on how to keep American students safe, although Bulletproof might just have benefited from one more critical look in the editing suite to sharpen its message before release.
Bulletproof screens as part of Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival «Constellations», IDFA «Best of Fests», & doclisboa «Archives of the Time Being» programmes, as well as having been in competition for the DOK Leipzig Audience Award.
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