Premiering at this year’s Slamfest, Sundance’s edgier sibling, is a documentary by Columbine High School graduate and director Heidi Yewman called Behind The Bullet. The film explores the impact that “pulling the trigger” had on 4 every day individuals in four completely different scenarios.
Using an interesting technique of telling each individuals story from present to past, we get a glimpse of each person’s lives years after each incident, culminating with the story of each incident as the documentary’s climax.
The film starts with Christen McGinnes, the victim of an attempted suicide. Christen was one of the very few that survived a gunshot to the head. She has endured nearly 50 surgeries to reconstruct her face after the gunshot wound blew off her lower jaw. She spent three weeks in a coma before even realizing she was still alive. Through all of the pain and trauma she endured, both before her suicide attempt and after, she now has a renewed interest in life and has been happy to wake up every day since.
Will Little started out in life with a narrow outlook on life. Basically raised in the streets of Philadelphia, Will fell victim quite young to the gangster lifestyle in his neighborhood. There was a lot of violence, drugs and plenty of guns. Guns helped him feel protected and safe in a place he never truly was. It was just another night on the street when Will, at only 19, shot and killed another young man. He spent many years in jail and now spends his life educating other people in his community about the effects of violence and the consequences of gun use. Through the forgiveness of his victim’s brother and his own 180 degree life turn around, Will finds the courage to forgive himself and create something advantageous out of tragedy.
Kevin Leonard lives in a rural area of North Carolina. Though he lives in a quiet, remote area where residents were used to being able to leave their doors unlocked when they left their houses, he found himself a victim of a home robbery one night. Unable to see the intruders at first, he ended up shooting one as they tried to escape. The man laid on his front lawn for over thirty minutes before he died. It was a night that has haunted Kevin ever since. He was let off for the man’s murder because it was in self defense, but he has never been able to let go of watching someone die. Plagued with nightmares and other symptoms of PTSD, Kevin attempts to navigate his life since the incident and find peace, but feels less safe now than he ever did before.
Taylor Dwyer was only 8 when tragedy struck. His father, who traveled a lot for work at the time, bought a gun for his wife and family for protection. One day, his wife accidentally left the gun out and Taylor got a hold of it. Innocently playing with it, he shot and killed his 5 year old brother. His family knew it wasn’t his fault and spent the next ten years trying to raise Taylor the best they could with compassion and forgiveness. But no one can escape consequences of something so utterly final and consequential. He says that this incident hasn’t changed his outlook on using guns other than heightening his diligence on keeping them locked away.
Our Gun Problem
Since there are multiple shootings every single day in the United States, and recently, seems to be a mass shooting every other month, the debate on gun violence is at an all time high. Let’s just be honest here, without big corporations and the NRA consistently fighting for greed, there would be less of a debate and more answers. A constitutional amendment created in a time of war used as a means for the public to buy machine guns today is preposterous. But we know it’s only a front for the true reason gun incidences keep rearing their ugly heads. It’s more about power and money.than self defense.
Fear is sold in just about every single thing we buy today and guns are no exception. Nine times out of ten, the reality is that no one is sneaking around your house trying to figure out how to kill you. Most rape victims know and trust their assailants. Researchers say that there is less than .00039% chance of being killed by a serial killer, even though 49% of serial killers kill with guns. Americans are more likely to die from cancer and heart disease than anything else and guns don’t lower that risk. In 2018 there were 82 school shootings, the highest amount ever since 1970. So is the answer more guns for “protection”?
Director Heidi Yewman herself lost people she cared for in the Columbine shooting and she has since spent her life advocating against gun violence, yet more and more mass shootings continue to happen. She isn’t the first documentarian to address gun violence and, most likely, won’t be the last. Though bringing this film to life was meant to impact us in some way, I’m not quite sure that it will make as great an impact as she intended.
The film’s way of presenting the stories is interesting, leaving the “juiciest bits” until last, rather than telling each person’s story up front. However, I’m not sure it really worked in this instance. Because we were following each of the subjects and their friends and family around, we do get intimate glimpses into their lives, but not knowing what actually happened to begin with leaves a bit of a hole throughout the entirety of the film.
For example, we see Taylor and his family as they live day to day, going to church, talking to others about their son/sibling being shot, but without background on what happened, it seems more like boring reality TV than a compelling story.
We see Christen going to appointments for the restructuring of her facial deformities, but since we don’t even know what happened, it’s hard to try and relate to or sympathize with all she is going through. We find out that Kevin is a bit of a recluse and his segments focus on his day to day life and the death of his dog, rather than knowing how he was affected to begin with.
I felt like the incidents involving the guns were supposed to be the focus, as it’s about how using a gun on someone affected each of them, yet we don’t know what actually happened until the end.
The most interesting part of this is getting all of the incidents, pretty much at once, at the end, which does make for a compelling climactic feel. But the rest of the film suffers because of this choice and makes an imposing, colossal societal issue seem commonplace. I wanted to care more about each of the people since their stories are devastating and deserve to be heard. But choosing to film in the order Yewman did, made a huge difference on the film’s overall impression and effect.
I might be wrong, but I don’t think we are meant to be focusing on a person’s day to day life when the subject of a documentary is about gun violence.
In All Honesty….
I don’t want to leave the impression that the film is bad. Regardless of structure this is still a very important story to tell, from a fascinating slant. Most of the time we only get to hear from victims of gun violence, and this time we hear about how using guns affects those who use them legally. I really wish Yewman had chosen to structure the documentary differently to make a greater impact and generate as much emotion as possible from the viewer.
I can only imagine the difficulty these people had in telling their stories to the world, so it behooves any filmmaker to tell their stories in the strongest possible way. Because the audience never knows why we are following these people for certain until the end, it creates a level of “every day” that becomes more “ennui”. This should never be the case in a documentary about such an important and relevant subject that infects and kills Americans every single day.
I think this film will struggle finding distribution because of this. In an already competitive industry saturated with films, a filmmaker must create inventive, visionary work, even with strong subject matter, because the subject matter can’t carry an entire film alone. A strong, artistic piece comes down to creativity coupled with smart choices and this film, unfortunately, didn’t quite have what it took to leave an impression.
Behind The Bullet premiered at Slamdance January 25,2019.