“Good evening. It is a tragedy without precedence.”
These words, taken from a report of the school shooting that took place in Dunblane, Scotland in 1996, are the opening words of Netflix’s new documentary, Lessons From a School Shooting: Notes From Dunblane. The immediacy with which the tone of the film is set solidifies the importance and gravity of the subject matter- school shootings- and though all of us are familiar with this sensitive, yet inescapably relevant topic, Lessons offers a fresh and human perspective on gun violence through the parallel experiences of Monsignor Robert Weiss, a pastor in Newtown, Connecticut, where the infamous Sandy Hook shooting occurred, and Monsignor Basil O’Sullivan, a priest in Dunblane, Scotland.
Noticing similarities in the two tragedies, which took place sixteen years apart, O’Sullivan reached out to Weiss, and their correspondence, in which each describes to the other how the shootings impacted them and their communities in the long-term, is shared with the viewer, ultimately culminating in the 81-year-old O’Sullivan packing his bags and making his way to the United States to meet Weiss for the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre. Words on paper become presence and support, and the viewer gets a true sense that they are witnessing a beautiful, intimate, and authentic friendship born not simply out of a shooting, but instead out of each man’s genuine understanding of the other’s position. The men are, of course, religious, but Lessons is not really about religion, it is about human connection and the quest to be understood in unfamiliar territory.
Lessons highlights the ways in which gun violence alters the dynamics of the entire community in which such violence takes place, and a lot of the time, churches are central to the functioning of a community. The experiences of a priest or a pastor are certainly not the first to be considered when assessing the impact of a school shooting, but their experiences are incontestably unique and genuine nonetheless. Both men lost members of their congregation, both men held funerals for young children in their churches, and although that experience may not typically be explored, that’s certainly not nothing- in fact, Weiss even spent time in a psychiatric facility as a result of post-traumatic stress following the incident.
Lessons is so much more than a documentary about school shootings; it is a touching exploration of the ways in which tragedies can bring people together unexpectedly and help each other heal. The subject material is heavy, but is treated with respect, and the result is an overtly and urgently human film, closing with a striking call to action. Though O’Sullivan saw significant reform following the Dunblane shooting, very little has been done in the United States, which has only resulted in more innocent lives lost. After the careful telling of Weiss and O’Sullivan’s experiences, this fact is like a slap in the face to the viewer, allowing the film to close on a powerful note. Lasting only 23 minutes, Lessons doesn’t drag on because it doesn’t need to. It is eloquent and succinct in its brief glory, and unmistakably one of Netflix’s greatest, though underappreciated, achievements in a while.
Featured Image: The Daily Nebraskan