In August 2014, Shari Cookson and Nick Doob, two documentary filmmakers, set out on a project to chronicle the personal cost of gun violence in America. That spring had seen two horrible mass shootings: first in Santa Barbara, California, and then in Las Vegas. But Cookson and Doob, who have made award-winning films about Alzheimer’s disease and the working poor, realized that the season’s more sensational shootings obscured a distressing reality: In the spring of 2014, some 8,000 Americans were shot and killed — a typical figure, it turns out, as about 32,000 Americans die from gun violence every year.
Except to those who knew them well, most of these men, women, and children vanished as if they’d never existed. Cookson and Doob felt that these forgotten stories should be told. They knew that, to truly capture how the victims’ lives were cut short, they needed to tell those stories in a way not seen in a typical documentary.
The result is Requiem for the Dead: American Spring 2014, which debuts Monday, June 22, on HBO. The film doesn’t include a single interview. Rather, it relies on news accounts, police reports, and social-media posts culled from the accounts of both the victims and the killers. “We didn’t want to do a third-person testimonial about a person’s life,” Cookson tells The Trace. “We were very interested in what remained of their actual living lives. We wanted to preserve the voice.”
The filmmakers came across thousands of headlines, but homed in on eight incidents that they felt were the most disturbing. The stories play out as vignettes, all the more difficult to watch because the deaths are foretold. They begin with characters blithely narrating their own lives, and then catapult toward a point of chaos. “You’re looking at their Facebook page and seeing that they’re posting something before their life is going to end,” Cookson says. “But they don’t know that. They’re just loving life, taking things for granted. In that context, those everyday moments became so powerful.”
For instance, there’s the story of two teenage brothers. The older sibling, a senior in high school, likes to build robots and describes going to the prom with his new girlfriend as the “best night” of his life. Meanwhile, his younger brother is a skateboarder, and likes to post funny stunt videos. There are numerous photos of the two boys mugging for the camera together. Then, one night, they get into an argument, and the younger brother shoots the older one in the head.
“You get the feeling that if there wasn’t a gun [in the house], none of this would have ever happened,” Doob says. “It’s an impulsive moment.” You could say that impulsive moments form the core of the film. “What really troubled me is how often these shootings were done by a person in someone’s life,” Cookson says. “They never imagined it could happen.”
Toward the end of the film, you meet the Jernigans, a family of four. Happy photos, home videos, and Facebook posts suggest years of domestic bliss. But by early last June, the marriage was no longer working, and Renotta Jernigan asked her husband, Chris, for a divorce. Even so, a week later she posted on his Facebook wall on Father’s Day: “You are the best daddy our kids could ever ask for. Thank you for loving these kids more than yourself.” Twelve hours later, Chris shot and killed Renotta and his children and then himself.
Between set pieces, a newsreel flashes an endless ream of headlines on the screen, and a running tally of gun deaths increases with alarming speed, reminding viewers that they’re seeing the problem of gun violence only through a keyhole. “When somebody’s shot, it’s final,” Cookson says. “Eight thousand. The number is staggering, and we’re just trying to get a sense of that.”
[Photo: AP/Chris Carls]