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Parkland shooting documentary: With families on edge, director cuts

The director of the first full-length documentary about the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School believes in showing raw, unedited crime-scene video as a tool to bring an end to such violence. Thanks to young witnesses of the Parkland bloodshed and their cell phones, filmmaker Charlie Minn has plenty of it.

Brutally direct and emotionally draining, Minn’s film, titled “Parkland: Inside Building 12,” will make its South Florida debut on Friday, Oct. 12, a prospect that has had people close to the school, survivors of the shooting and parents of those lost apprehensive about how friends and loved ones will be treated in the film.

“I can understand the pessimism. It’s such a horrendous event. And they don’t know me. … That’s human nature. I get it,” says Minn, who also directed the harrowing “49 Pulses,” about the 2016 massacre at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub. “All I ask is for people’s open mind. That’s all I’m asking for.”

About six weeks ago, Minn posted the first trailer for the documentary, which included startling scenes of the horror as it happened inside the school, with blood-splattered floors and the distressing sight of a girl slumped on the floor of a classroom, possibly deceased. This prompted some Parkland parents to contact Minn with a request to remove any video from the film in which a victim could be recognized.

Over the course of a decade as a TV journalist, with more than two dozen films to his credit, Minn has developed a reputation for taking a tough, unblinking approach to chronicling such terror in graphic terms. But this time, he blinked.

“I blurred them,” Minn says of several figures in the film shown with their faces or entire bodies unidentifiable behind a digital haze. “The parents were very vocal. I had long talks with some of them. They were polite talks, and I listened to them, and decided to blur it. At the end of the day, it’s my decision, but I wanted to honor their wishes. Their opinion is so important to me.”

The New York-based Minn spent about four months on the film, encouraging more than 40 students, teachers, first responders and family members to take part in the nearly two-hour movie by promising them a “victim-driven” salute to the 17 people who died and the heroism on display at the school that fateful day. The name of the shooter is not mentioned.

That was among the reasons that Tony and Jennifer Montalto agreed to speak on camera about their daughter Gina, who was killed in the shooting, during one of the interviews Minn set up with local residents in June and July. They also were among the families who supplied Minn with personal photos and videos that appear in the film.

“Why we do anything that we do to talk about that day is to have the world remember our daughter. It’s about remembering what a great kid Gina was and to point out what we all lost that day,” Tony Montalto says. “Not only was our daughter special, but when you read the stories about these other kids and the staff members and the coaches, they were all phenomenal people, and we’re all at a deficit for having lost them.”

Montalto was part of the group of surviving parents who confronted Minn about how he would use the video that was available to him. He’s pleased that Minn acted on their request.

“We live in a society that believes in shock value, and we believe in human decency,” he says. “We want to remember our children the way we want to remember them.”

South Florida premiere

The opening half of “Parkland: Inside Building 12” offers an almost unbearable minute-by-minute account of the shooting, layering cell-phone video and interviews with students, teachers and first responders over Broward Sheriff’s Office animation of how shooter, victims and survivors moved among the three floors of the building.

True to his word, Minn uses the second hour of the film to showcase poignant individual portraits of the 17 victims through the words of friends and family.

“Parkland: Inside Building 12” will be shown for the first time in South Florida on Friday, Oct. 12, during an invitation-only screening for Stoneman Douglas survivors, families and community leaders at the Paragon Ridge 8 theater in Davie. The film will screen for the public during one-week runs beginning on Friday, Oct. 26, at Paragon Ridge 8 and the Paragon Coral Square 8 in Coral Springs, with all ticket proceeds going to Parkland Cares.

Montalto has not seen the film, and is unsure if he and his wife will attend the private screening.

“It’s a difficult subject matter, let’s put it that way,” he says.

The film premiered Sept. 24 at a theater near the Long Island, N.Y., home of the parents of teacher and cross-country coach Scott Beigel, who died while guiding students to safety during the MSD shooting. Beigel’s parents, who appear in the documentary, joined Minn at the screening, which raised money for the Scott J. Beigel Memorial Fund.

The film originally was scheduled to be included in the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, which begins Nov. 2, but Minn says he pulled the film from the festival to offer an exclusive to Paragon Theaters and its fundraising effort.

The 11-minute documentary “Parkland: Marching Forward,” director Daniel Gallegos’ look at the March for Our Lives movement, is scheduled to screen Nov. 15 at the festival.

The movies of Charlie Minn

Any movie about the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School would come freighted with concern, but that is especially so with a film by Minn.

“Parkland: Inside Building 12” is the 27th film on Minn’s résumé, a parade of sensational titles unified by themes of blood, violence and mass casualties. Along with “49 Pulses,” other titles include “The Long Island Railroad Massacre: 20 Years Later” and “77 minutes,” a collection of memories from survivors of a 1984 shooting that left 21 people dead at a McDonald's in San Ysidro, Calif.

Minn first recognized the potential of a Parkland film when he heard about the heroism of Scott Beigel. Also a Long Island native, Minn reached out to Beigel’s parents, and his mother, Linda Beigel Schulman, put Minn in touch with a group of Parkland friends, including Stoneman Douglas assistant principal Denise Reed.

Reed helped Minn find teachers Ronit Reoven and Ivy Schamis, both of whom describe the carnage and the bravery they witnessed in Rooms 1213 and 1214, respectively.

“Really, they were my creative consultants. I would talk with them consistently,” Minn says. “I had tons of questions. I wasn’t there, so I need to lean on people that were there, that understand Parkland and that school, and how it all transpired.”

The miracle of Maddy Wilford

The Parkland documentary is the first to provide Minn with so much eyewitness video.

“Every time I interviewed a student I said, ‘Do you have access to any video?’ ” Minn says. “I think you deliver more impact if you show a situation like this rather than tell. I think that’s what’s going to bring action and change, rather than thoughts and prayers.”

Parkland parent David Wilford agrees. It is his daughter, Maddy, who appears prone on the floor in the trailer, so close to death that officers who enter the room to remove survivors initially assume she is beyond help.

Wilford says he was among the parents who raised concerns with Minn about the graphic material he had access to. While admitting it was a decision made easier by his daughter’s eventual recovery, Wilford says he decided it was important that the scene of his critically wounded daughter be included in the film.

Maddy Wilford’s miraculous survival is a centerpiece of the film, and Minn lingers over this section of video multiple times in “Parkland: Inside Building 12.”

“People won’t be able to understand what those kids went through unless they see it,” Wilford says. “I cannot speak for parents whose child died at that school. I would never argue with anybody about their preference for that kind of thing. But as far as my limited perspective, I think it’s hard to relate to those kids unless you see what happened.”

While Minn still believes in the power of graphic crime-scene video, he admits that the challenge of telling a story with more sensitivity was not a bad thing.

“That’s part of my growth. Seeing the other side of the equation more. Seeing people’s feelings, hearing them, feeling their vibe,” Minn says.

About 10 minutes before Minn sat down to interview David and Maddy Wilford, he got word that his elderly mother had fallen from her wheelchair and suffered a traumatic brain injury. He went forward with the Wilford interview in a daze.

“It kind of brought everything home for me,” says Minn, whose mother has recovered. “Thank God I didn’t lose anybody, but the feeling of possibly losing someone is … The fear of death is almost as bad as the death. That feeling is just horrendous, and in some ways I almost felt like I was feeling what they were feeling.”

Parkland: Inside Building 12” will make its public debut in South Florida with one-week runs beginning on Friday, Oct. 26, at Paragon Ridge 8 theater, 9200 W. State Road 84 in Davie, and the Paragon Coral Square theater, 770 Riverside Drive in Coral Springs. All ticket sales will be donated to Parkland Cares (ParklandCares.org). For more information about the film, visit InsideBuilding12.com.

bcrandell@sun-sentinel.com

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