by Olivia Hird
"As the parents muse over personal responsibility, guilt and hope, their acts of everyday life are imbued with resilience"
Certain events hold such weight that the gravitas of the occurrence can be communicated in a single phrase. We keenly adopt brevity to cope with the desolation of incomprehensible situations. Columbine is one of these events. ‘I remember thinking that if Dylan was hurting people the way they were saying he was, I prayed he would die.’ Defying biological instinct, mother of Columbine shooter, Sue Klebold’s bold confessional blow opens the film; unashamedly candid about the emotional complexity and perplexity that emerges from such an unwonted position. It’s an intriguing start.
Parents, Sue Klebold, Jeff Williams and Clarence Elliott are left in the aftermath of their child’s reprehensible actions. Their lives are marked by what, to most of us, is a tragic yet distant news story - each child a statistic amongst the 1,677 school shootings in the US since 1970. These three individuals have spent decades working to find a language and a life beyond that one event. Judiciously denoted in the film’s title, blaming the parents is the default direction for pointing fingers. The documentary looks at how to go on existing when a life becomes inextricably entangled in the unimaginable.
Following the equally demanding Pervert Park (2014) and Death of a Child (2017), Raising a School Shooter wraps up Lasse and Frida Barkfors’ American trilogy, receiving its premiere at this year’s CPH:DOX. Whilst locale ostensibly unites the films, this is secondary to what holds the subjects together. The Barkfors’ overriding thread is in lending a generous, open ear to the stigmatised and the shunned.
Produced by Final Cut for Real, the Danish production company renowned for their impressive nonfiction roster including Songs of Repression, The Distant Sound of Barking Dogs, and most notably, The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence - there’s sufficient ground to trust anything they release, favouring projects and filmmakers who are capable of plunging into the depths of the human experience, resurfacing to gently reveal its scars.
The simplicity of the documentary’s form accommodates the weighty subject matter. Steadily paced wide shots and long takes allow necessary breathing space as the parents' testimonies accompany observational shots of them performing the unending maintenance that domesticity demands - unpacking shopping, mowing the lawn, doing the washing up. Jeff, father of Andy Williams, polishes family photographs and trophies - objects of achievement - alluding to the ways in which his sense of parental pride may have been reconfigured over the years. As the parents muse over personal responsibility, reintegration, guilt, hope and forgiveness, the normalcy of these acts is imbued with resilience.
Whilst warning signs retrospectively emerge, for Sue, one of the hardest reveals comes with learning about the dangerous and troubled side of her son that she had no inkling was bubbling under the surface for years. With a place secured at Dylan’s university of choice, he attended prom with a date three days before the shooting; from Sue’s perspective, Dylan’s future looked bright. Twenty years on, she lives with the guilt of not recognising that her son was suffering and she laments not 'shutting up’, sitting down together and really asking, ‘how are you?’. She also laments praying for her son to die - a reflex that better reflects society’s stigmatisation and vilification of shooters than Sue’s love as a parent.
Whilst Jeff and Clarence call their sons in jail, with a renewed attentiveness in their unfailingly supportive approach, Sue is left without a child to try and make sense of this with. Her predicament points to how difficult it is to absolve yourself of guilt when there’s no one to alleviate your sense of responsibility: ‘if I could say anything to him, I would ask him to forgive me for not being there to listen to him.’ It's hard to think of a situation where the extent of a parent’s ‘unconditional’ love could be so tested; Sue, Jeff and Clarence’s experiences affirm the innate and extreme elasticity of this bond.
The film softly proposes a reassessment of what constitutes a victim, beyond the fatalities. The definition broadens as you sit with the parents’ suffering and when informed of the shooters’ sentences, it’s further redefined. Black 16-year-old Nicholas Elliott received 114 years with no parole for killing a teacher and wounding another in 1988, whilst the white Andy Williams received 50 years with a 2025 parole hearing for killing 2 students and wounding 13 others in 2001 at aged 15. For those familiar with the US criminal justice system’s historic treatment of black offenders, Nicholas’ sentence presents as an unsubtle and indisputable exhibition of white supremacy.
The correlative conclusion also points to bullying - and a sore lack of institutional management - for motivating each shooting, seeding a lack of connection and a sense of rejection that spiralled into a disorderly cry for help. As Jeff states, school shootings will continue to happen therefore understanding how to handle and prevent them is critical. Just this May, a sixth grader opened fire at a middle school in Idaho. After attending to a wounded victim, teacher, Krista Gneiting disarmed the student and soothed her until police arrived: ‘after I got the gun, I just pulled her into a hug because I thought, this little girl has a mom somewhere that doesn’t realise she’s having a breakdown and she’s hurting people.’
Whilst there are lessons to be learned by parents and institutions regarding young people’s mental health, the backlash experienced by the parents unsurprisingly proves that adults have a way to go. Jeff’s girlfriend (their meet cute provides some tender light relief) reports of Jeff being followed around the supermarket, having their chairs removed at restaurants and of people breaking into his apartment. Having worked to understand her son’s action since 1999, Sue proclaims that the core issue affecting everyone is, ‘our ability to dehumanise other people...to reduce people down to one element of themselves.’ As Sue wills us to connect and listen better, you sense an impassioned meeting of minds between the subjects and the filmmakers’ purpose: to generously seek the full picture of a person by leading with inquisition and following with silence.
Olivia Hird is a freelancer in documentary production. Obsessed with all things non-fiction, she has a taste for the milk of human kindness. You can find her on Instagram at @oliviahird