Aspen Shortsfest: ‘Speaking is Difficult’ portrays 5 years of mass shootings |

Aspen Shortsfest: ‘Speaking is Difficult’ portrays 5 years of mass shootings

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
A.J. Schnack's "Speaking is Difficult" will play at Aspen Shortsfest on Thursday.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘Speaking is Difficult’ at Aspen Shortsfest

Where: Wheeler Opera House

When: Thursday, April 7, 8:30 p.m. program

How much: $15

Tickets: Wheeler box office;

More info: the eight-film, 87-minute program will be followed by a filmmaker Q-and-A.

The steady drumbeat of mass shootings across the U.S. over the past five years is portrayed in the visually subtle, emotionally powerful short film “Speaking is Difficult,” which plays today at Aspen Shortsfest.

Director A.J. Schnack worked with 20 cinematographers to film in 25 different locations of shootings, capturing the murder scenes years, months or days after the fact. The film presents those visuals against a soundtrack of audio tapes from victims and survivors calling police.

The panic, chaos and gunshots on the 911 calls play out in stark contrast to the relative normalcy and banality of the scenes on screen. Some, like the movie theater in Aurora where 12 were killed in 2012, and the Orange County, California, hair salon where eight were murdered in 2011, appear back to business as usual. In Newtown, Connecticut, we see construction crews pushing dirt around the site where Sandy Hook Elementary School once stood. Outside the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic, yellow police tape flaps in the wind. In Menasha, Wisconsin, a man fishes in a lake near a bridge where four people were shot dead last year.

The film eventually will be released online through the visual-journalism unit Field of Vision, which Schnack launched in the fall with fellow documentarian Laura Poitras (“Citizenfour”) and writer-producer Charlotte Cook. The company commissions short-form documentaries about ongoing events, matches filmmakers with topics and posts them for free on its website. Thus far, projects have included films about conflict over LGBT rights in an Arkansas town, street art and a satanic temple in Detroit and a multi-part look at the Greek financial crisis titled “#ThisIsACoup.” Another new Field of Vision short, “The Black Belt,” about voter suppression in Alabama, will screen at Shortsfest during today’s 5:30 p.m. program.

Schnack and his partners have been working on Field of Vision for about a year. They began by assigning films to documentarians, but the way it works is evolving.

“Some are still assignments; some are things that filmmakers wanted to do or had been working on, and we came on board to work with them and bring them to fruition,” he said.

But Schnack, whose films include the features “Caucus” and “Kurt Cobain: About a Son,” didn’t spearhead Field of Vision to give his movies a platform.

“Laura and I didn’t set up Field of Vision to make our own films,” he said, “but we did want to make sure that if there was something that struck us immediately that we would have a chance to do it.”

In October, shortly after Field of Vision went live, a gunman killed 10 at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. Schnack was inspired to make what would become “Speaking Is Difficult,” addressing the familiar national routine of outrage and ambivalence in the wake of mass shootings.

“The first thing I was struck by was the nature of our response to these events, where — a lot of it you see over social media — there’s great horror and shock followed by finger-pointing on both sides, and we would a few days later forget about it,” he said. “Until it’s happening again.”

He wanted to capture the repetition of shootings in the U.S. over the past five years, when the prevalence of such events has grown measurably worse. Between 1982 and 2011, mass shootings occurred every 200 days, according to a Harvard University research study. Since then, the rate has increased to one every 64 days.

“It’s actually tripled in frequency,” Schnack said. “So we wanted to show that repetitive nature and force people to reckon with the place we find ourselves.”

The film moves backward in time, beginning with the massacre in San Bernadino, California, late last year. The 2011 shooting in Tucson, Arizona, that injured former state Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is the last in the film’s litany, and Giffords features prominently in the credits sequence. The aftermath of that incident, during which gun-control legislation fizzled in U.S. Congress and efforts to address mental-health issues failed to gain steam, appalled Schnack.

“Congress just says this is the price of doing business as America, which I find outrageous,” he said.

Yet his film, with its simple visuals and shocking 911 audio, is almost apolitical in its presentation.

“Everything we do at Field of Vision we don’t necessarily hope it will inspire action,” Schnack said. “We’re not a social-justice organization where we look down the line and say, ‘We made this film so that this would happen,’ the way that ‘Blackfish’ might have affected SeaWorld or ‘Gasland’ affected how fracking is dealt with. But we do hope that it helps people to have a different perspective about something in the news.”

As long as the epidemic of mass shootings continues in America, “Speaking Is Difficult” will be an ongoing project. The version set to screen at Shortsfest opens with the December shooting in San Bernadino. But as Schnack was preparing the film for its festival run, a gunman in Hesston, Kansas, killed four and injured 14. Schnack plans to add footage of Hesston and police audio from that incident to the film’s beginning, along with any other mass shootings that follow in the coming months and years.

If the rate of shootings continues, the film is likely to expand far beyond its current 14-minute running time.