(USA, 85 minutes)
D. Todd Chandler
Program: International Spectrum
“Let’s end the year with a BANG,” says a Bristol board poster on the wall of Woodland Middle School. A few minutes later, as students and teachers stroll through the halls, there’s the sudden spat-spat of gunfire. Relax—it’s a drill, another day in the life of an American school, where active shooter preparation is folded between morning announcements, math class and basketball practice.
Apart from a few on-the-nose moments, the overall tone of Todd Chandler’s Bulletproof (winner of Hot Docs’ Emerging International Filmmaker Award) is an artfully meditative, fly-over view of the military, entrepreneurial and educational effects of the American school shooting phenomenon. His measured observational style often evokes one of Frederick Wiseman’s institutional documentaries, although it is far more free-roaming. Chandler visited schools around the United States over a multiple year period to collect revealing moments of social performance, in classrooms, parent meetings, conventions, focusing on the pragmatics of potential tragic situation. Plume-hatted marching bands march with cadets in fatigues, home-coming queens wave to their fellow grads, and earnest primary school teachers practice applying tourniquets to child gunshot victims.
Bulletproof has been in the works since long before the Parkland shootings, though after Columbine and Sandy Hook. No expert opinions or historic context is offered in the film and the timeline is indistinct. What we get instead is a group portrait of the widespread institutionalization of paranoia: we visit gun conventions, with models in sparkly bras, where ex-soldiers sell mobile shield doors and present dollhouse models of schools under attack. Former military instructors making a new career as educational consultants, quote the Bible to bolster their message. Some sell the message that the danger is from “the street,” leaking into the sanctity of the school. Others warn of the danger within, with false claims about the dangers of students on anti-depressants.
While Chandler doesn’t show his ideological hand, the secondary theme is how capitalism embeds itself within crisis and feeds on anxiety. About twenty minutes into the film, we’re introduced to our first extended interview, a can-do story of American entrepreneurship, Vietnamese-American Vy Tran, who, after a neighbour was gunned down for her purse, created the Wonder Hoodie, an item of teen-aged apparel that can stop a bullet to the torso. From Tran’s story, Chandler cuts to an image of scurrying ants, before taking us to grainy images of a simulated school shooting, an audio-video aid for teacher’s practicing.
There are hopeful signs as well. Sensible teachers challenge the wisdom of adding paranoia to the curriculum and students object to the constant state of psychological warfare. Brief clips of the 2018 March for Our Lives protests and quiet scenes of clusters of TV crews outside a school evoke the larger social conversation. A couple of grainy videos, dated to the 1990s, initially seem out of place, until we realize their meaning: These rehearsals for terror have been normal part of education for more than a generation.
Bulletproof screens at Hot Docs’ online festival beginning May 28.