Filmmakers, activists, politicians gather at Sundance to discuss gun violence in film

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Guns are often depicted in American media. Panelists came together Jan. 21, 2024 to discuss how films can be used to change the culture around gun violence. (Pixabay)

Prominent filmmakers, activists, and politicians gathered on Sunday, Jan. 21, to discuss how filmmakers can use their influence and storytelling to promote gun safety.

While the annual Sundance film festival held in Park City is best known for its role in supporting independent filmmakers from all over the globe, that isn’t all the festival does; the mission of Sundance is much larger.

In addition to never-before-seen screenings of short films, movies and documentaries, they also rally together a passionate community to discuss major issues facing society today.

At the Sundance “Cinema Cafe,” a conversation ignited surrounding gun violence, titled “Storytelling and Gun Safety: Changing the Narrative to Save Lives.” 

The Sundance Institute hosted a “Cinema Cafe” event regarding gun violence in the media. This panel met to discuss solutions on Jan. 21. (Photo courtesy of Sundance)

The panel for this event featured gun violence survivor Representative Maxwell Frost; Kris Brown, President of Brady, a national gun violence prevention group; actor and filmmaker Clark Gregg; Leaders Forum CEO Lorna Randlett; and filmmakers Jelani Johnson and Laura Lewis. 

“We have a problem here in America. We lose more than 40,000 Americans a year to gun violence … it’s the number one killer of our kids,” the panel facilitator said.

Although important, policy change on its own is not enough to shift the culture surrounding this “public health epidemic,” the facilitator explained. The average American watches three hours of television per day, and what they see in movies, ads and TV shows influences them the most. Therefore, effective change begins by reframing gun violence within popular media content, he said. 

The panelists were then introduced one by one, and began sharing their passion on the subject.

Producer Jelani Johnson, whose film “Freaky Tales” starring Pedro Pascal is featured at Sundance this year, shared how the issue of gun violence deeply resonated with him. A close friend of his and fellow filmmaker, Michael Latt, was murdered on his doorstep in Los Angeles last November. He recalled attending Sundance with Latt over the years.

“I’m tired of feeling helpless and crippled … And I think leaning into each other, conversationally, will lead to action and tangible results,” Johnson said. 

Rep. Maxwell Frost is a U.S. representative for Florida’s 10th congressional district. Frost was involved in the Cinema Cafe hosted by The Sundance institute. (U.S. House of Representatives)

Representative Maxwell Frost shared a vivid memory he had in middle school when he received the news that 20 children and six teachers were shot in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Frost recalled playing at his band concert that night and missing all of his notes due to anxiety, wondering if the same fate would come to his own middle school. 

“I ended up going to the vigil in Washington, D.C. for the victims of gun violence from that shooting … getting to meet children and people my age, who lost their loved ones simply because they went to school that morning … that was my call to action,” Frost said. 

Clark Gregg, an actor and filmmaker, said he first got involved in the issue when three of his classmates from high school were murdered. While other countries have just as much violent media content, America is uniquely affected by gun violence, Gregg said.

Moderator Richard Rushfield pointed out how Hollywood has influenced cultural attitudes in the past, such as those surrounding cigarettes or seatbelt use. He then asked the panelists how they could use their creative outlet to influence gun violence. 

When it comes to guns in films, Frost said it’s important to show the real consequences of gun violence, without glorifying the use of guns. Filmmakers should evaluate if a gun is needed in the narrative, and if it’s being portrayed accurately, he said.

Gun violence in films often fails to depict the real emotional and physical consequences of gun use, filmmaker Laura Lewis added. She encouraged filmmakers to find more creative, innovative ways to fight on screen.

Johnson reflected on the films that influenced his own attitudes towards gun violence, such as the 2022 release “All Quiet on the Western Front.” He applauded the way the film makes you never want to go to war and communicates the tragedy of violence effectively. 

Lewis said she plans to show guns safely stored and locked away within the television shows she’s producing. She feels scenes like this help train adults to lock their weapons safely out of reach of their children. 

After the discussion, the audience had the chance to ask the panel more questions about how films can shape the narrative of gun violence. 

The Sundance film festival concludes on Sunday, Jan. 28, with events and screenings occurring every day.

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