South Florida

‘It’s not an easy thing to watch’: First Parkland documentary debuts in South Florida

Maddy Wilford, who was shot three times in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre, addressed the audience after a a private screening of the first documentary on the topic — “Parkland: Inside Building 12.”
Maddy Wilford, who was shot three times in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre, addressed the audience after a a private screening of the first documentary on the topic — “Parkland: Inside Building 12.” aharris@miamiherald.com

Less than a year after the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day, the first feature-length documentary opened in South Florida to a small, private audience of interviewees and survivors.

Parkland: Inside Building 12” is a gutting — at times graphic — two-hour retelling of the day a gunman killed 17 people and injured dozens more.

The first half of the film is tearful, dramatic interviews interspersed with shocking cell phone footage inside the school during the attack. Director Charlie Minn returns again and again to a clip of wounded student Maddy Wilford slumped against a desk, nearly passed out, as blood stains grow on her jean jacket. “Maddy? Maddy?!” the person taking the video asks in a panic.

Other clips show officers carrying dead and injured students from classrooms as students wail and shriek, or wide-eyed students hiding under desks as rapid-fire gunshots come closer and closer. They’re horrific — and blurred.

Minn did not originally blur any of the footage he convinced students to share with him.

“My opinion is people need to see it,” he said. “Obviously showing people getting murdered is more impactful than just telling them. That would be a radio report. I work in a visual medium.”

“That’s how you get real action, instead of cliche-ridden thoughts and prayers.”

The Parkland parents disagreed.

When the initial trailer came out, highlighting the bloody video of Maddy, “we bolted right into action,” said Tony Montalto, father of murdered student Gina and head of Stand With Parkland, an advocacy group for the families of the 17 victims.

Minn agreed to blur any video that showed dead students. He said these films are victim-centered and he wanted to respect their wishes.

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The first documentary about the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, “Parkland: Inside Building 12,” is a gutting and graphic two-hour retelling of the day a gunman killed 17 people and injured dozens more. Alex Harris aharris@miamiherald.com

Like the last several pieces of Minn’s work, this movie does not name the shooter. He said he believes focus on the attacker is disrespectful to victims and leads to copycats, a view many Parkland victims share.

This is the latest in a series of victim-focused films for Minn. His 26 films offer a grim, often graphic, look at some of the bloodiest mass casualties in recent history. He’s produced documentaries on the Las Vegas mass shooting, the Pulse massacre in Orlando and a mass shooting on a Long Island train, as well as a slew of films about violence in Mexico.

He shoots, edits and debuts the films quickly. This one took about four months and includes interviews with dozens of students, teachers, family members and first responders. Several Miami Herald reporters were interviewed for this documentary.

Minn made his South Florida debut for the film at the Paragon Ridge 8 theater in Davie with a private screening for Stoneman Douglas families. The theater plans a weeklong run for the film starting Oct. 25 at both the Davie and Coral Springs locations, with all their ticket proceeds going to various charities, including Parkland Cares. The documentary will also be available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video after the theatrical run.

He previously showed the movie in Long Island, where slain geography teacher Scott Beigel’s family lives. Minn is New York-based and credits the Beigel family with inspiring this film and helping him reach all the students and teachers.

Many of those interviewees were in the audience Friday night, including Tony and Jennifer Montalto.

The movie relied heavily on the simulation created by investigators piecing together the timeline of the shooting, which represented students as moving dots.

“I can’t stand this,” a teacher moaned when the footage first appeared. She hid her face in her hands.

The shooter was black, with a jutting line for his gun. Students and faculty started green and turned yellow if they were injured, blue if they were killed. Minn’s film added names to the dots, coupling their color changes with video of students describing the death of their classmates.

“It’s not an easy thing to watch,” said Tony Montalto. “We knew where our dot was.”

More than 150 teachers crammed into the Tamarac headquarters of the Broward Teachers Union for an emergency meeting to provide emotional guidance and support.

The second half of the film was mini profiles of all seventeen victims. It touched upon the major controversies in the wake of the shooter: school resource officer Scot Peterson not entering the building — “coward,” a woman spat during the movie; whether schools should be hardened — “amen!” came the chorus; and the teacher who accidentally locked himself and his students out of his third floor classroom when the shooter came.

It did not include the policy changes enacted since the deadly shooting, including the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Safety Act in Florida and the STOP School Violence and Fix NICS Acts passed in the omnibus spending bill.

‘We need to get all Americans to come together and come up with solutions,” Montalto said. “We are happy the community is beginning to heal, but at the same time don’t forget us.”

In the small audience at the private screening, the concept of healing came up often. The informal Q&A session at the end of the film quickly became somewhat of a town hall as the microphone was passed from teacher to survivor to parent.

“This was the perfect time for this film,” said Ronit Reoven, an AP Psychology teacher at Stoneman Douglas who was heavily featured in the film. “We’re healing now. We feel like we’re ready for everyone to understand the real stories of the real survivors.”

Today marked the first day of classes for Broward County public schools. Superintendent Robert Runcie, outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, tells us what has changed in regard to safety.

The survivor at the heart of the movie, Maddy Wilford, took the microphone to cheers, applause and shouts of “we love you.”

“Just because it’s been seven months doesn’t mean we’re OK,” said Maddy, who was shot three times. “I’m just glad our voices are finally out there and we can keep making changes.”

After encouragement from the audience, Marjory Stoneman Douglas student Ashley Baez stood in the front of the theater and, clutching the microphone close to her mouth, shared her story. In a near whisper she told of walking into the freshman building to use the bathroom during band class and seeing a boy in a JROTC polo holding a rifle she assumed was fake.

She was hit in her leg. “I think you can see,” she said, gesturing to her warped but now healed left thigh.

She still managed to run into a classroom, where other students wrapped a t-shirt around her leg and kept pressure on the wound until help arrived. She walked with a cane for awhile, even attending the March For Our Lives.

When she finished, Maddy’s mom, Missy, walked to the front of the theater and wrapped Ashley in a tight hug.

She took the microphone, telling the audience she hasn’t watched much news since the shooting. This documentary, she said, has given her a clearer understanding of what happened than anything she heard from officials or from her traumatized children.

“Now I get it. Not just from her, but from all the other students. I’m just grateful for this film so I could witness what I couldn’t,” she said. “It’s part of the healing process.”

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