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AFI Docs 2015 + HBO: 'Requiem for the Dead: American Spring 2014'

As Requiem for the Dead shows, the clues that signal the violence committed by gun-bearing killers found on social media are missed until it's too late.

Requiem for the Dead: American Spring 2014

Director: Nick Doob, Shari Cookson
Rated: NR
Studio: HBO Documentary Films
Year: 2015
US date: 2015-06-22 (HBO)
"There's a famous saying, praise the Lord and pass the ammunition. There is a reason why the Second Amendment is right after the First."

-- US Senator Ted Cruz

"It is insane: the number of guns, and the ease of guns in America. It just doesn't fit with the other achievements of this country."

-- Charleston, South Carolina Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr.

"He's such a good daddy!" Kyla Ryng's Facebook post in May 2012 would be innocuous in any other context. But in Requiem for the Dead: American Spring 2014, her note is only ominous. Just a few weeks after her declaration, accompanied by photos of her husband Alex and their three young children, all smiling evidence of what she's said, Kyla is dead sot by her husband, who then shoots himself as well.

The story is familiar, of course, and that's at least part of the point made by Requiem for the Dead, premiering 22 June on HBO and recently featured at AFI Docs. The documentary opens on a title card that lays out grim numbers: 8,000 people are shot and killed in the United States each spring. The documentary goes on to note many other deaths that occur during this particular spring, whether by accident or on purpose, most committed by people who know their victims. The Ryngs' story is one of eight that include names. Others pass by as headlines: "Mother of three gunned down in front of her husband," "New dad killed by stray bullet while celebrating baby's homecoming," "Wellington clerk fatally shot during robbery was new to job", or "Three-year-old caught in crossfire."

While you can glean some ideas from clips of TV reports or upsetting 911 calls, the film doesn't explain exactly how the shootings occur or how the killers obtain their weapons, whether the victims are fearful or the shooters are apprehended. That leaves you to focus on other sorts of details, namely, the film's footage, "found from social media, news accounts, and police files."

Nick Doob and Shari Cookson's decision to use such "found footage" makes their film at once immediate and distressingly distanced, as it offers images both ordinary and specific, families and individuals posing for photos, their faces turned to the camera. Other images are surely common, but also disturbing: police tape stretched across doorways, cruisers parked in front of homes, blood smeared on walls or furniture.

The juxtaposition of these pictures speaks to an idea that threads through the film, that most people don't expect to be victims, and don't live lives that appear to be at risk -- at least on their Facebook timelines. Instead, they share shots of happy times, of little boys in matching outfits or couples at their weddings, teens headed to prom and kids with their pets. Sometimes, these photos begin to look ominous, because you have an idea where people are headed.

So, when Alex Ryng appears in his Connecticut Army National Guard uniform, grinning as he displays his gun alongside his fellows, you worry. When he poses with his kids, you worry. The audio accompanying this chronology includes Kyla's mother Michelle's 911 call, reporting that two of her three grandchildren have come to her door -- she lives next door to her daughter's family -- and that they've told her, "Daddy's shooting mommy." This phone call goes on for a few minutes, the operator trying to calm Michelle as she struggles to say what she knows, including the fact that her youngest grandchild, just 20 months old, is in the house with the killer, her son-in-law. "Oh my god," Michelle wails, "I'm having a heart attack."

It's a gripping few minutes, not least because the narrative is so fragmented. It's not fragmented as chronology, but as self-representation. You can't guess what goes on between cheerful Facebook updates or kids-on-bikes YouTube videos. You can't imagine how a young dad might decide to shoot his baby. You can, however, hear Michelle's horror, the grip of it. So too, you can see the awful incomprehension in Andrew Austin's voice when he calls police to tell them he's found two bodies at home, his 12-year-old son Ethan and 16-year-old daughter Kate. The operator suggests he back out of the premises, for his own safety, and yet, he doesn't, he keeps looking through the house, talking to the operator. When at last they arrive, the cops discover the gun, bloody, under Austin's body.

As frantic and frightened as phone call audio may be, these bits of images are more chilling. The same can be said for sequences of pictures showing two brothers (the youngest shoots the older) or a doting grandmother (her husband shoots her through a bedroom wall, by accident), and a boy's new bike (he shoots his best friend by accident, in a parent's bedroom with some five weapons within reach). It's a process: your process of putting these broken pieces together.

It's this not fitting that might especially give pause. Even today, as authorities comb through what appears to be the website of Dylann Roof, the Charleston shooter, describing his fears and logics, adorned with photos where he poses with weapons and flags and sunglasses. What process was missed here, what did someone not see when looking at this self-construction, this effort to be and say what he might have wanted? So many stories appear on social media, and so often, their meanings, their efforts to share or to hide, are missed until it's too late.


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