Bulletproof: BANG, BANG, BANG | 2020 Hot Docs Film Festival
Updated: May 18
By: Hooman Razavi
“My intention is for Bulletproof to be both a map and a mural.” Todd Chandler commented on making his most recent documentary to be screened at Hot Docs Film Festivals (May 28 – June 6). The director of A Debtor’s Prison and among the Filmmaker magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film scenes last year, explores another troubling social issue in American cultural landscape. The film meditates on many themes as schooling, safety, privacy, violence prevention and state of teaching and administration in contemporary America.
The title is evocative of a war movie and knowing beforehand film’s documentary style, one may think of depiction of battle against corona virus or a motion picture critiquing wars fought in the name of democracy promotion in distant lands as Syria and Iraq. Surprisingly, the few opening scenes direct the gazes and collective thoughts inward, into classrooms and schools in the US. The viewers are not taken back much by the novelty of the story and images, but by how marginal is teaching to the school and the whole story telling. It seems that schools have repurposed and became a ground for military training. As Chandler pointed out he wanted to show the rituals that are common in American schools to stop violence, and it was done effectively. The scenes of staff meetings and simulated training, board of education gathering and discussions and gun training of teachers take the viewers deep into center of actions and the perspectives and preparation grounds that justify militarization of the schools. The justification for all the funding, installation of cameras and security infrastructure is simple: to prevent gunshots and to minimize the damage to students and whole-school environment. In parallel, the film aptly shows the side-businesses growing such as the home-grown Kevlar hoodie that supports the garments that schools and gun industries purchase. Nevertheless, the viewer can still ask and wonder is there any other side to this story? Can preventions be done differently? The film’s ending dialogues provides that food for thoughts as the principal of school in Texas brings up the idea that funding could have been used to support more initiatives on mental health, social and emotional learning, suggesting that focus on securitization of schools are not totally futile but alternatives exist too.
From a formal perspective, the camera’s strength in many scenes is its static position. It captures scenes without making judgement. It shows the routine of the school and the environment affected by militarization as minimally invasive as possible. This aspect helps the viewer to better sympathize with the subjects in the film-both students and teachers. Viewers can also see the images and scenes and form judgement on range of key issue. They could think and decipher if so many surveillance cameras are needed? They can see the startled and fearful face of school subjects in the state of lockdown and ultimately they could judge if all these measures are necessary. The editing is another strong feature of Bulletproof. The juxtaposition of scenes supports the storytelling and provides full pictures of practices across schools in America. In one powerful scene, a shot from the feet of workers who are working in the garment factory making protective hoodies are superseded with shots of feet of teachers in training camp with bullets on the ground. In a sense, it is a thematic continuity through formal discontinuity. Another feature that makes the film to have the impact is the depiction of difficult themes with subjects off-the frame. In many instruction and classroom scenes, faces are not shown directly and camera instead zooms on the hands. These unique scenes may complement the old footages and interviews and balance the overall emotional content and receptivity for audience. Overall, Bulletproof aesthetically shows violence, the background behind prevention strategies, subject involvements and emotionality behind their participation and modern schooling not in a watered-down manner but as real and digestible as possible.
In the end, one can ask if this documentary can really capture the horror of school violence and militarization of schools across America. Could it have been more successful if Chandler would take the camera in the center of action and show the tragedy of shootings as Parkland and its victims instead? One response is that he deliberately decided not to take that path. He and his team along with producer Danielle Varga choose to focus on “what is happening around the edges…” instead. The cinematic depiction can be judged by US. and viewers across the world but the main and thorny question remains “Which is more important? Your gun or your students”?