“I Started to Think of the Film as a Kind of Ethnography of Fear and Violence In and Around Schools in America”: Todd Chandler on His Gun Violence Doc Bulletproof
There’s a truly startling sequence beginning about a half hour into Todd Chandler’s unsettling, formally assured documentary on school violence, Bulletproof. Until this point Chandler, with cool, distanced precision, depicts the “capitalist spectacle” that has grown around the issue of violence in schools. Active shooter drills, teachers given firearms training, a first-generation immigrant starting a business producing Kevlar hoodies, and a Las Vegas trade show where high-tech surveillance equipment and classroom accessories like bulletproof whiteboards are hawked to school board purchasers — the parallels between this education/security industrial complex and our post 9/11 security state, where weaponry and advanced surveillance co-mingle, are hard to miss. But then Bulletproof suddenly cuts to a classroom, where a group of elementary school students are being trained in mindfulness techniques. “If you notice any thoughts pressing through your mind, let them float away and bring your attention back to the sound and silence,” the teacher says, as students sit, hands palm down on their desks, eye closed. After a beat, the teacher says, “Are we ready to start math?” “Yes,” the students cheer.
As I discuss with Chandler in our discussion about his perceptive and artful film, he could have continued in the vein of his first act and made an entirely revealing documentary on the school security industry, one highlighting the grotesqueries and militarist mindset of these businesses. And perhaps I was conditioned for that other, easier film, which is why his expansive second act shift seemed startling at first. But by moving from technology and physical deterrents to studying socialization and learned behavior — and by charting these shifts across schools with different class and racial compositions — Chandler has made a film that, in 84 concise minutes, becomes a deep inquiry into the ways in which the threat of violence in schools shapes our very conceptions around safety and community. As he discusses below, Bulletproof is not an advocacy film marching towards proscribed answers — indeed, there are ironies in its third act, such as gun manufacturers being the primary buyers for the hoodie-maker’s wares — but the film is consistently compelling in the probing and artful way it asks the questions.
Bulletproof is Chandler’s second feature. His first, 2013’s Flood Tide, was a hybrid feature about a group of artists on a personal boating exhibition on homemade vessels. Here discusses the journey from one film to the other, as well as about this new film’s financing and production and the issues around advocacy faced by creative non-fiction filmmakers today. Out from Grasshopper Films, Bulletproof opens in New York at the Metrograph, in LA at Laemmle theaters, and in virtual release today.
Filmmaker: I’m interested in the journey from your previous film, Flood Tide, to Bulletproof. They are very different formally and in terms of subject matter. Could you talk about how one followed the other?
Chandler: Flood Tide was a radically different kind of film, at least in terms of content. When I started making films in the late ’90s, early 2000s, I was working in the realm of advocacy-based filmmaking, oftentimes in schools and with community-based organizations. I was working as a facilitator often, and it was a kind of social justice work. After a number of years of doing that, I wanted to experiment with a different kind of form. I went to grad school and started making work that was more fanciful. Flood Tide is this speculative documentary, or hybrid, following a group of friends on sculptural rafts floating down the Hudson River. It was a re-imagining of an actual [art] project that was happening that I was part of. When I went through that period, which involved a number of short films and this feature, I really wanted to be able to experiment with poetics, and play with form and an almost indulgent way of thinking about visual language that I wasn’t able to do with the form I was working in before. I always thought that at some point in this trajectory of making work that I’d find a way to combine these two things.
Filmmaker: That advocacy work was more straightforward, talking heads?
Chandler: Well, for example, I was the lead editor at Witness, the human rights video advocacy organization. I was helping human rights organizations around the world make their own videos that were going to be used to convince stakeholders, or for community campaigns, and yes, it was often interview driven—videos for testimony at human rights commissions, things like that. It was super important work that I still feel is a big part of how I think about media making. But at a certain point, I wanted to explore some different things formally and think about how to combine these [modes] so they didn’t need to be mutually exclusive. I guess Bulletproof is that combining—asking questions and exploring subject matter than I’m really interested in, and find compelling and urgent, in a form that is meditative and creative, where there’s room for a playfulness, relying more on juxtaposition and contrast than exposition.
Filmmaker: There’s so much talk in the doc world about impact campaigns, and funders wanting work that is digestible and clear in how it can function in the world. Was there a part of your brain that was pinging you during the filmmaking and fundraising process about having it be more in that direction? I only ask that because you are dealing with such an urgent and visible topic.
Chandler: There’s this part of me—maybe it’s the 15-year-old in me—who gets edgy around that. One can make about all kinds of things in all kinds of ways—there shouldn’t be restrictions on that. I’m interested in doing some kind of “impact campaign” with Bulletproof, but we haven’t gotten any funding yet. I had conversations along the way, one with a funder who said, “Talk about your impact campaign.” And I was like, “I can’t talk to you about that because I’m making the film right now, and I don’t know what the film is going to be.” I mean, if I knew what the film was going to be before I made it, if I’d already answered the questions that I hadn’t, or if I had an assumption that the film was going to answer questions, which it doesn’t, it would be a boring film, right?
I would love the film to do some kind of work in the world, but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t letting the idea of that sort of advocacy or impact potential lead the film. I wanted the film to be the film that it needed to be. Since it’s been done, I was connected with a really major gun violence funder. They watched the film and said to me, “We think it’s really great, but we really only support films that hue very closely to our agenda.” As someone who’s done a lot of that advocacy work, I said to them, “I will make the case that there’s room for a multi-pronged approach here. In fact, only supporting films that hew closely to your agenda means you’re only appealing to a particular audience. It might actually be the films that have less of an outward-facing agenda that will open up spaces for interesting conversations.” But that didn’t really work!
Filmmaker: Since the film wasn’t going to be leading to a proscribed answer, what were the questions you wanted to explore for yourself and for the film to ask?
Chandler: That shifted over over time. In 2014 or ’15, it did start off as a kind of investigation [into] this whole school security industry. I’m a teacher, and I hadn’t really thought about this because I’ve been teaching in particular environments that are handling [this issue] in different ways that aren’t as apparent or present. I was drawn to look at all this money being poured into security, how it all connects, and how these security measures are being implemented in such extreme ways and playing out differently in the suburbs among mostly white populations as compared to communities of color. It was never going to be a survey, but I wanted to understand how these things were playing out in different places around the country. And as the film continued, the question became bigger—more about the culture of violence and, specifically, [about] masculinity, capitalism, and whiteness. I started to think of the film as a kind of ethnography of fear and violence in and around schools in America.
But, I couldn’t call it [a pure ethnography]—it’s not complete in that way. And [the film] was also informed by what was going on for me. During the middle of production, my partner became pregnant, and we found out we were having a boy, a male sex child, and that made me think a lot more about masculinity and identity. So, as we would go to different locations, I was thinking less about what was happening at the center, like the training drills, and more what was happening on the edges, especially certain behaviors of masculinity. That is not the text of the film by any stretch. It’s total subtext, and some people might not even get it. But for me, I was observing, thinking and asking myself these questions about whiteness, masculinity and capitalism through this lens of fear, violence and school. It was a personal journey even though the film is decidededly not a personal film in that way.
Filmmaker: Did you start with specific ideas about gun violence that were altered by your experiences in the field?
Chandler: I think when I started I was a little naive and a little seduced by the sensational elements—teachers being trained with firearms, bulletproof whiteboards. Pretty quickly, it was like, “Oh, wait, this is actually not a surprise at all.” This stuff has been playing out in, in schools, particularly in communities of color, since the ’70s and ’80s. The mass shooting phenomenon has expanded the way that the industry operates and that decisions are made within schools. At first, I didn’t totally see those connections, but pretty quickly they opened up when you start mapping the trajectory. Also, this idea of ritual is so American—it has its roots in the roots of the United States. My hope is that the film is not only about school shootings, or responses to school shootings, that it complicates or deepens that [dialogue].
Filmmaker: I want to ask about your use of archival. There are at least a couple startling cuts to archival. In one, a school that’s predominantly students of color are going through a metal detector, and the time stamp is 1993. You hold that for a while, and that clip makes the connection you just made, but there’s no voiceover saying, “This goes all the way back to 1993!”
Chandler: That’s the hope. Is it enough? And what does “enough” mean? I’m not sure, but metal detectors were being installed in schools, and there are two schools [pictured in the archival footage]. One is in Chicago, one in Dallas, and they’re both mostly Black schools. We worked with a great archival researcher, [and we told her], “There were [TV news] stories about metal detectors being installed in schools. Find the outtakes, the hours of footage that didn’t get used.” I wanted to use the archival, but also wanted it to be in the same formal language of the film. I didn’t want to drop in a pre-packaged news segment. We were lucky to be able to find that material, and the idea is that all of this is connected. That predates Columbine and what people think about when they think about mass shootings.
Filmmaker: Throughout the first section of the film I was very seduced by the capitalist spectacle, the bulletproof whiteboard and such. So. the cut to the meditation practices and then the anger reduction workshop was quite startling; I almost felt I was in a different movie. Then, moments later, I was almost ashamed of myself because I realized that as a viewer I had internalized the security mentality of what came before. Because, of course, there are different ways of looking at this problem.
Chandler: Yeah, and I think that’s because I wasn’t looking at it like two sides. This is a landscape, and it’s fluid, and all these things are connected. In terms of everyday life in school, I started out thinking that there are these contrasts—the good way and the bad way, intense security measures and innocent students. But as I got further into the film, what I was interested in was looking at all these things as kinds of rituals and performances that are all connected. They all share roots, which is not saying that they’re all the same. I didn’t want to say, “Here’s the problem and here’s the solution.” And the same was true for that other archival segment, which is mostly centered around media.
Filmmaker: The sequence with the reporters and all the satellite dishes.
Chandler: Yes. Again, in thinking about ritual or performance or preparation, of course there was the media. And I don’t mean “the media” in a derisive way, but the way that media responds and shapes the way the public thinks about violence is important. I was looking for images that are a little tricky to find, of television journalists preparing to report on acts of violence—not the actual reporting itself, but the visual of checking of the notes, fixing the hair and the setting up of lights. All that sort of preparation felt in conversation with some of these other rituals of preparation. Then we used aerial footage, archival, of actual incidents. Those are specific but, again, I think there’s something about that aerial perspective and the kind of flattening [they produce] that has an impact, at least on me. I’ve seen those images before. Obviously, were I a victim or were someone I loved a victim of an incident of violence, it would not feel flat. But we’ve seen [those images of] kids streaming out with their arms in the air over and over again. The act of consuming those images becomes a kind of ritual that is part of this landscape also.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the production and the genesis of the project. How long did you work on the production phase?
Chandler: Like forever. [laughs] The idea percolated in 2014, 2015. It’s the way I’ve always worked, whether it’s film or music or installation—you just figure out a way to do it. You find some friends and try to make the thing. Luckily enough, I had friends and called on them and we worked together to do three shoots. One was quite long, at a school on the Upper West Side. None of that footage made it in the film, although we did go back to that school to film the lockdown drill that did eventually make it into the cut. We went to a factory that made bulletproof whiteboards. It didn’t make it into the film. We went to a trade show in Philly, and I think maybe one shot snuck into [the cut], because the actual trade show in the film is in Las Vegas. But I spent about three weeks at this school on the Upper West Side really early, just to figure out the language of the film. We started experimenting and used that to create a work sample. In 2017 we were invited to pitch at Points North Forum at Camden, and that was the first support we got. In early 2018, Danielle Varga came on as producer, then we were full bore.
Filmmaker: You self-funded that early shoot?
Chandler: Yes. [Production company] C41—Pete Sillen and Brendan Doyle helped out a ton. Jem Cohen shot a bunch with me at the school on the Upper West Side. All Ages Productions and Ted Passon, the folks who did Philly DA, helped out with the shooting in Philly. People were really generous.
Filmmaker: How much experimentation did you do around the form as you went along, or did you land on this kind of formally composed verite from the start?
Chandler: Early on, we did interviews with the knowledge we probably weren’t going to use that much of it, and we did more handheld work, but it was never run and gun. It was always slow—that’s generally my sensibility. It was always going to be sort of vérité, but those shoots helped me understand what lenses we wanted to use and to set up parameters, both technical and in terms of visual aesthetics. They helped us set rules for the actual shooting that in editing would help shape the film to some degree, even though we broke those rules.
Filmmaker: What were some of those rules and early decisions?
Chandler: We used larger cinema zooms with eventually, a big tripod. I want to be fixed and have a range. That distance, that flattening effect I was talking about with the aerial footage, there’s something about shooting on a super long lens that does that. In Vegas we had a cinema zoom that’s like a 300 millimeter lens, so we could really close in when we needed to but still be distant. [Shooting from that distance] tied back into those words I was saying earlier: “performance, choreography.” And also the idea of “making strange.” How do we set this askew in the way that we’re shooting it? There was also the idea of “just hold the shot. Don’t follow. Just let people walk out of frame, let them come back into frame. The action is not the important thing here.” In post, one of the rules was, adults can’t talk about kids’ experiences They can talk about industry, or school policy, but they can’t talk about young people’s experiences. Only young people can talk about their experiences. And the withholding of catharsis became a real thing that we were playing with in the edit. Like that “ready, aim” sequence, we cut out before the gunfire. Shannon Kennedy, who co-edited the film with me, and I made this decision to do that as much as possible, and to have [that idea] infused in the film.
Filmmaker: And tell me about working with your DP, Emily Topper. She came on after the test shoots? And did you ever consider shooting the whole film yourself?
Chandler: [As a cinematographer] I felt a little bit over my head,. These situations were really intense, and that’s not really my thing, my personality. It was really important for me to direct, and to set people at ease. I needed to see [the big picture]. It was a good experience for me to not be shooting, and Emily is incredible. She described the shoot as being fun: “Oh, I don’t have to run around and follow the action. We can go out to the park while teachers are being trained with firearms inside and film anthills for 45 minutes.”
Filmmaker: Were you financed entirely by grants? Did you go to other pitch forums?
Chandler: There were no other pitch forums other than Points North. We had applied everywhere, and people would say, “It’s interesting, but we need to see more.” Or the whole thing! Even organizations that come on early and fund you to make a sample reel were like, “Can you make it more character-driven?” I was like, “I’m sure you can find someone else to make that film.” But Points North was the turning point, because they really believed in the film and helped coach me through that situation, because I was really skeptical. The idea of a pitch forum was just horrible to me. I felt like it was this gamification of a difficult and already challenging process, engendering a scarcity mentality more than creating community. But it wasn’t like that. It was a great experience. Through that pitch, a lot of funders were exposed to the film. Over the next six months Sundance, Doc Society, ITVS and eventually Creative Capital all came to support. I don’t think all of that was directly because of Points North, but it helped a lot.
Filmmaker: To bring this conversation full circle, I’m interested that your film is in release and you are still thinking about the impact campaign. There’s a portion of the doc world, and, as you note, the doc funding world, which focuses very heavily on impact campaigns as an essential part of the non-fiction process.
Chandler: It’s been my wheelhouse in the past, but it’s much more challenging to pair a film that doesn’t have that kind of direct advocacy approach with an impact campaign, because people who fund impact campaigns are used to [thinking], “The film is a tool,” right? It’s propaganda effectively—and I don’t mean that in a bad way, but that’s what it’s doing in the truest sense of the word: agitate people, stir people up, propagate information. I get inspired by filmmakers like Brett Story, for example, or Cecilia Aldarondo’s most recent film Landfall. There are filmmakers who are thinking about these things that you’re just talking about and doing that work. And that, for me, is an exciting space. That conversation around story—who gets to tell whose story—is an essential conversation. And it’s complicated, because it also assumes that all documentaries are story-based, that all documentaries are character-driven. I think it’s important that there are all kinds of ways to make a documentary. What about essay films, for example?
Filmmaker: If someone wants to make a character-based documentary, more power to them, but when the idea of story becomes a kind of ideology, it’s tremendously limiting, and when it’s calcified into the funding mechanisms, our very expectations of what a documentary can do are severely impoverished.
Chandler: Exactly. I’ve had some interesting conversations with filmmaker friends about Brett Story’s article about this, and about this idea of story. There are filmmakers who are really smart and make character-driven work who can bristle and feel sort of attacked—like, “What’s wrong with story?!?” There’s nothing wrong with story, but when it becomes the default, or an ideology, and when it is the thing that’s driving the funding mechanisms, it is really limiting. It’s in part a semantic issue, right? Like that word “story” gets bandied about, and it can mean a lot of different things. There are stories in Bulletproof, ideas that have meaning or some narrative thread that you can follow. But that’s different than every film being in the mode of “we’re following these three characters and there’s this competition and here’s the arc….” That [kind of film] can be done really well as an art form if it’s an intentional decision. That’s what excites me about filmmaking, about collaborating with other filmmakers and enjoying people’s work—the intention behind it. When I set out to make a piece, I’m thinking, what do I want to do formally with this as a piece of art, and not just a vehicle for telling a story? How can I make all these decisions really intentional? For me, that’s the metric. One can make a story, follow characters, have it be a three-act structure. But if you’re just defaulting into that mode because, well, that’s what documentary is, that’s where it gets boring.