After writing about gun violence, Heidi Yewman has switched to film for her latest examination of the topic.
Yewman, who raised her two kids in the Salmon Creek area and recently moved to Portland, wrote “Beyond the Bullet.” The 2009 book is a collection of personal stories chronicling the effects of gun violence. Yewman, a 1986 Columbine High School graduate, was moved to tell stories about gun violence after the Colorado school experienced a mass shooting in 1999.
At Columbine, she was taught by Dave Sanders, the lone teacher murdered in the shooting.
“I was sitting at his funeral and something snapped and I thought, ‘This is ridiculous,’ ” Yewman said. “I started getting involved in working toward preventing these kinds of massacres. What I became really attracted to was the stories.”
Yewman’s latest exploration of the toll of gun violence is a documentary she directed called “Behind the Bullet.” It features four subjects who shot and killed someone in self-defense, an accidental shooting or an unintentional shooting.
Yewman is screening the documentary at film festivals. She spoke with The Columbian about her film and what she’s learned about gun violence through her book and documentary.
On the reaction to her film:
“The reaction is surprise. There have been a lot of films about gun violence, and the epidemic. There have been a lot of films and articles and movies written about victims of gun violence. I think people are surprised — they go into watching my film anticipating a film that is going to tell them what they should think, and that I would have taken a particular viewpoint. They are surprised that’s not happened. They’re telling me how they appreciate it’s about the stories and that I don’t lead them to think one thing or the other. They can take from it what they want.”
On the feelings one of her subjects encounters after shooting a home intruder:
“There’s a guy, Kevin, who shoots an intruder in his home. It was justified in the state of Washington, because it was an intruder. In his voice, he knows he’s justified, but you can tell that it doesn’t sit right with him, and he’s really struggling with it. There’s this moral injury that happens to people after they shoot somebody, and I wanted to show that. I wanted to show the complexity of what happens.”
On how she handles the heaviness of her work:
“Whether I interview someone for the book or the movie, I take on a lot of their energy and I find that they’re unburdening themselves when they are telling their story. So I take some of that on, and I found out very quickly that I need to have a process, where I can get rid of some of that energy so it doesn’t crush me, so that I can continue doing the work. I’ll find a place to let myself just cry and let the feelings that I’ve been experiencing out. If someone is telling you about the very worst day of your life, and then the days after, it takes a toll on you to hear that. I’m happy to be a conduit for their story, and to help them tell their story, but it can take a toll on me. I have to protect myself by finding ways to deal with that sadness.”
On screening the film with the main subjects:
“I sat down with each of them separately on their couch and watched the whole entire film with them, and I felt like it was a really respectful thing I needed to do. I had asked them to trust me, and I had asked them to respect what I was doing and I felt like I needed to give that back to them. I sat down with them, and they each had their own response to it. I also had to explain to them how film editing works. For each person, I had about 35 hours of footage, and I had to squish each of their stories into 20 minutes… I felt like I owed that explanation to them to give them some context. They all seemed to appreciate me coming and showing them the film before the public saw it. All of them had reactions that were really positive to the story, and it was emotional for them to watch it. I think anytime anybody shows their perspective of how we’re living our lives, it must feel really strange.”
On what goals she has for her work:
“I can only do my part, and my part is to tell these stories. I really wanted to talk about gun violence from a different perspective. From the side of the shooter. I hadn’t heard any stories about that. I hadn’t read any articles. That’s why I tackled that. With the four people in this film, they all bought guns for self-defense and now they’re all evolving through a situation, and have been morally injured by using that gun.”
On how she felt when she heard about the Columbine shooting:
“It was so surreal and overwhelming. The overwhelming feeling was shock. That has been this amazing school. For me, it was a really safe place to go, and walk through those halls. I had primarily really good memories. I was on the basketball team. I was on the volleyball team, and the tennis team. I had been a peer counselor, in the choir and plays. It was such a good place that we had specifically moved to Salmon Creek because Skyview (High School) reminded me so much of that school. It’s the same size. Same kind of kids. The same sports focus. It was very weird to see my school and see such trauma around it. … And then going back for the memorial … experiencing all these kids who were traumatized by it, knowing their life was forever going to be changed by this. It was just horrible. Every school shooting that I see since I go back to that and think about that. I feel a sense of failure, every time I see a mass shooting, that I’m not doing enough and I’m not doing enough fast enough. I know I can’t personally stop it all, but there’s that saying that ‘one person can indeed change things,’ or whatever it is. I feel a real pull toward working to solutions so that we can stop these things from happening.”