HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Mark Barden and David Wheeler share intimate details of their families' struggles following the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in "Newtown," a documentary that gets its first public showing in Connecticut this weekend.
The men, whose first-grade children were among the 26 people gunned down inside the school in December 2012, told The Associated Press they wanted people to understand the grief in Newtown and to open up some lines of communication among those affected by the tragedy.
Wheeler said that already has begun to happen. He said he's had conversations with fellow residents after private screenings in Newtown that wouldn't have taken place without the film.
"It is perfectly natural to be uncomfortable in the wake of this tragic, horrific experience. It is perfectly natural not to know what to say or do for any number of reasons," said Wheeler, whose son Ben died at Sandy Hook. "We humans make mistakes; we can be short-sighted and we can miss things, but in the end, connection and conversation can help ease that. I hope this film can help facilitate those conversations."
The film debuted this year at the Sundance Film Festival and is showing this weekend at the Greenwich International Film Festival. It focuses on the aftermath of the shooting in the Newtown community by following victims' families, first responders, teachers, neighbors and clergy.
"It moves past the failed political discourse into a real human level where we can see, think and feel through the lens of an authentic experience," said Maria Cuomo Cole, the producer of the documentary, which took three years to make.
Among other things, the film shows the struggle of an emergency medical technician who transported Ben Wheeler to the hospital and wrote a letter to his family. It explores the emotions of a priest who had to preside over numerous funerals and of teachers feeling guilty about not wanting to go back to work.
"Still, all these years later, nobody knows what to do," said Abbey Clements, who was a second-grade teacher at Sandy Hook and huddled with her class during the shooting. "It's like when someone is sick and you don't want to bring it up because you don't want them to be sad; you don't know what to say. I think that's the experience here. I hope a message of this film is about having those hard conversations and connecting."
Barden said he chose to allow the filmmakers into his home, to talk to his now-teenage daughter, Natalie, and to use home videos of his son because he wanted to give people a "first-hand window" into the devastation of gun violence.
He said he knows the film will be difficult for some to watch, but it's important.
"You see Daniel animated as he was in his little life and how he still should be," said Barden, who has become an advocate for mental health and gun policy reform. "I hope that translates to the audience and gives them a deeper, more personal sense of loss and for what's at stake here."
The filmmakers said they wanted to show how different communities in Newtown have been affected as grief has rippled out from the center of the tragedy. But Laurie Veillette, the EMT who transported Ben, said the film barely scratches the surface of the shooting's effects in Newtown.
"The documentary shows a small number of people, close to the events of that day, many of whom have been able to respond to the tragedy through activism," she said. "I believe the film successfully represents these individuals, but it doesn't reveal the full scope of the tragedy."
But director Kim Snyder said she hopes the documentary shows a sense of purpose and community resilience in Newtown.
She highlights a scene in which Nicole Hockley, who lost her son Dylan in the shooting, sits down to talk with a parent from the same classroom, whose son survived.
"It's in some ways about how do you have those conversations, which I think in some ways is a beginning of healing for the community," Snyder said.
After screenings on Saturday and Sunday, many of those who appear in the film will participate in panel discussions with the audience.
"Newtown" is scheduled for a wider theatrical release in September and will later be broadcast on PBS.