Approximately 88 people in America die every day from gun violence. These deaths are the result of accidents, murders, and tragic cases of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Requiem for the Dead tells the stories of the lives lost between March and June 2014, when 8,000 people in America died from gunshot wounds. The documentary is composed solely from found footage, social media posts, police files, and, most chillingly, recorded 911 calls.
There is no narrator in the documentary, distancing its producers from the necessity of any kind of message. In this regard the documentary is effective: It is powerful without being preachy. The only messages are words across the screen offering the viewer background information and statistics. Between each story there is a ticking death toll, starting from zero and ending at 8,000.
The first story, “Military Wife,” describes the murder of Kyla Ryng, a mother of three whose husband shoots her and then himself in their house, which is next door to Kyla’s mother’s home. The majority of this story is told through the voice of Kyla’s mother who calls 911 after two of her grandchildren run to her front door saying that their father shot their mother. The call is so sad, desperate, and futile, that even the 911 responder has trouble thinking of how to respond. What do you say to someone who realizes her daughter is dead next door?
Requiem for the Dead floods the screen with headline after headline, each detailing a crime more tragic (and preventable) than the last: “14-year-old boy shot to death in boys locker room” (Oregon), “New dad killed by stray bullet while celebrating baby’s homecoming” (Florida), “14-year-old girl gunned down by teen she had been feuding with on Facebook over a boy” (Illinois), “Wellington clerk fatally shot during robbery was new to the job” (Florida). You get the idea. This film is relentless in its approach. Picture after picture floats into view, revealing the smiling faces of people of all ages and races. There are a lot of images of kids.
Perhaps the stories were chosen strategically based not on the amount of information available, but on the kind of deaths the producers found most compelling. Did someone decide to feature the story of the 12-year-old brother who sexually assaults, shoots, and kills his 16-year-old sister because it seemed more gratuitous than, say, an accidental shooting? I don’t think so, because the film also shows those accidental shootings. They are perhaps the most prevalent kind of gun violence.
An 11-year-old, Lucas, bikes over to his friend’s house. They play video games and then play with the friend’s dad’s gun. The 911 call begins with ear-piercing screams. “Oh my God, oh my God!” yells the friend. He tells the operator that he sat Lucas up, trying to put the blood back into his body. Lucas is dead.
Talking about gun control in America is like talking about religion, abortion, and politics: you don’t. There is so much violence in the world, and so, so, many guns, that the prospect of “control” is a pipe dream with no light at the end of the tunnel. It makes you wonder what the point of this kind of film may be — we know bad things happen, so why inundate the world with more information about the tragedies? Wouldn’t we be better off thinking about more pleasant realities? And, really, no gun owner is going to get rid of his gun.
When I was in high school I watched Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, a film that follows two high school kids as they prepare to gun down their classmates. It is the most powerful and disturbing movie I have ever seen. For years I shuddered at its memory, cursing my mother for making me watch it. Still, it was a movie.
It wasn’t a police interview with a mother whose kids just watched their father shoot their stepfather and then himself. A movie can never evoke the stark, empty reality of a social media post. There is always the potential for disconnect between a Facebook post and reality — who has the wherewithal and tact to write a few words of mourning about a deceased loved one? And yet that’s the world we live in. There are a lot of guns, death, and public displays of sadness. Requiem for The Dead captures this sense of loss, revealing the simple ways in which people try to grapple with death. One post reads “why is she gone,” begging for a response to make sense of that question.
Requeim for the Dead: Spring 2014 is a memorial for the dead, but it is also, inherently, a call to action. The ticking numbers do not stop. Maybe, though, that’s what we all need to see.