Frank Farley, PhD
Stephanie Miodus, MA
A Review of We Are Columbine, Director: Laura Farber
This profound film was screened by the first author. at the Newtown Theatre, Newtown, PA, apparently the oldest continuously operating movie house in America which showed its first film in 1906. It is fitting that this important film about such an historic event in American life be shown in this historic venue.
We Are Columbine is a documentary primarily about the aftermath of the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. The Columbine Massacre is ground zero in the American debate on school shootings, and mass murders more generally. It is the watershed event in contemporary school safety and is the equivalent for school safety that the 9/11 World Trade Center attack was for national safety. School shootings in America generally fall into the categories of pre-Columbine vs post-Columbine. In Columbine two male students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, spent the final 49 minutes of their lives killing 12 of their classmates and one teacher, and then committing suicide. There has been much speculation over motives and reasons for this tragedy, and off-the-rack psychiatric diagnoses have been trotted out, such as psychopath and psychotic. Of course, the source-book on such diagnoses, the DSM-5, is a scientifically flawed document (see Farley, 2013; Francis, 2013), and the question arises, how many mass murderers were included in the so-important field trials leading up to this famous diagnostic document. The view of the first author is that this singularly horrific behavior, this massacre, is so extreme to not be easily fitted into the current diagnostic boxes, basically escaping our nosological nets, and cries out for more rigorous diagnostic research that actually involves direct extensive study of living mass murderers. Harris and Klebold themselves indicated what they believed to be some of their motives, for example, revenge, and what one of us (Frank Farley) has labelled King of the Kill, that is, surpassing the body count and horror of previous mass murders. Much of the media coverage of the Columbine massacre has focused on motives, red flags, police strategies, ideas about prevention and school safety, social sickness, mental health, family culpability (there were apparently several successful lawsuits directed at the perpetrators’ families), etc. These issues still permeate the news today via some of the more recent mass school shootings that garnered much media attention, such as the Parkland and Sandy Hook shootings. The devastating fact that shootings at schools are an all too common occurrence in America means that at times it can seem to many Americans that they are part of the everyday news cycle. For example, the Santa Fe High School shooting just three months after the shooting at Parkland brought significantly less continued media attention. Because these tragic, heart-breaking school shootings are still a pressing problem in America today, a movie such as We Are Columbine is critical to understanding the lasting psychological impact of the trauma from the perspective of survivors.
This documentary, as noted, appears at the 20-year point since the massacre, re-creating some of the original moments through the words of primarily six survivors (four students, a teacher, the school principal). This is a stunning revisiting by survivors of their psychology at the massacre, their psychology at present, and their psychology over the 20-year interval. The survivors/interviewees are all very personable, warm, concerned, expressive, and clearly decent people, the students now in their 30’s. Their trauma at the massacre and its effects over 20 years are on display.
There are tears, of course, but also remarkable moments of insight into initial emotions, healing, recovery. Grieving is there. Some survivor guilt appears. The students return to Columbine for some absolutely gripping moments as they re-visit the scene apparently right down to their location at the time in the school! They hide under a table or crouch in a corner illustrating their experience. This is reality movie making at its most raw! Of course, one wonders if this is a good thing for these former students and might re-traumatize them. Given the temporal features of PTSD it is possible and might not be known for months or years ahead. The film to its credit opens with each student speaking of their willingness to be interviewed and to participate, sometimes revealing doubts and concerns. It is probably helpful that the film’s Director, Laura Farber, was herself a student present in the school during the massacre.
Of interest to media psychologists is the point made about the extreme intrusiveness and insensitivity of some media toward the survivors, possibly exacerbating the trauma, suggesting the possible need for special training, especially regarding PTSD, of first and later-responding media.
This sincere and deeply affecting movie will become a classic in the filmic coverage of school shootings and their aftermath.
Farley, F. In Emily Underwood (2013). Live chat: Does ‘Psychiatry’s Bible’ need to be rewritten? American Association for the Advancement of Science Video, May 22.
Frances, A. (2013). Saving normal: An insider’s revolt against out-of-control diagnosis, DSM-5, Big Pharma, and the medicalization of ordinary life. New York, NY: HarperCollins