When his students express their weariness of constant lockdown drills, a sympathetic New York City math teacher offers them some cold comfort. Statistically, he says, they’re likelier to be hit by a car than they are to die in a school shooting. But traffic collisions don’t get constant media coverage, counters a teenage girl: Vigilant hyper-awareness of classroom gunfire has made her so anxious she’s reluctant to attend school at all. Thus goes the most candid and heartbreaking exchange in “Bulletproof,” an unobtrusive but keenly observational documentary on an educational system in a state of constant, numbing alert — and the growing industry of fear and defense that, depending on your view, either serves or exploits it.
Crisply editing scenes of school life, teacher training, board meetings and trade shows across the country, without accompanying commentary, Todd Chandler’s quiet, sober-minded film is ultimately chilling in how it depicts the day-to-day normalization of the unspeakable. Initially set to premiere at South By Southwest in March, “Bulletproof” has instead been a popular selection in digitally-enabled documentary and indie festivals over the course of the year — particularly on home turf, thanks to its political topicality and muted, unsensational perspective. Chandler doesn’t trade in overt rhetoric when it comes to America’s raging gun-control debate, but neither is the film an equivocatory “both sides” effort. Silent horror at the country’s culture of school shootings — indeed, at the fact that it’s evolved into a culture at all, with established institutional lines of conflict and dialogue — permeates dry footage of practise and procedure. It’s left to the viewer to get angry.
While the shadows of Columbine, Sandy Hook and the like loom long over Chandler’s study, they aren’t specifically remembered or addressed in the film: Recent in many of our memories, such atrocities are ancient history to the school-age children now living with their unhappy legacy, by which panic has morphed into dull habit. Drills prompt exasperation from students and teachers, but no idle joking. Weariness and worry exist at a tense stalemate in classrooms and school administrator offices alike. One principal browses the contents of his school’s own intimidatingly stocked gun safe, but there’s an audible shrug in his voice as he says, “If someone is committed to committing murder, no lock or camera system is going to prevent them from doing that.”
He’s one of many educators across the country who has decided that school staff should be armed, not merely alert. Elsewhere, we watch a mild-mannered first-grade teacher as she embarks on a course of military-level firearm training along with other colleagues: a spectacle of cold, near-surreal cognitive dissonance, not lightened by her questionable rationalization that “you can either plan to fail or fail to plan.” Such courses are privately run by grim-faced, Bible-quoting security professionals: “Bulletproof” distinguishes itself from many other documentaries sharing its broad subject with its pointed focus on the cynical, profitable business of protection. At one end of the spectrum, we meet a young Palo Alto entrepreneur inspired by a neighbour’s shooting to sew bulletproof hoodies, only to find her most viable customer base at gun shows; at the other, we tour hollow convention centers where chipper salesmen hawk protective door shields as if they were miracle food processors.
Is it worth it? “Bulletproof” neither finds, nor advances, clear answers: If something as horrific as a mass shooting doesn’t occur at a school, that’s not to say it’s been actively prevented. In patient, thoughtfully captured classroom scenes, pre-teen students list “being shot” among their greatest everyday concerns, while a principal admits that he’d rather invest money in the mental health of his students than on a veritable school arsenal. Still, Chandler’s wide-ranging view takes in more tranquil forms of support: In some schools, we see pupils and staff alike trained in basic meditation, the gentle art of “listening to sound and silence.” You can have that for free; the point this calm, smart doc tacitly makes is that the industry of bulletproofing schools hasn’t sold anybody peace of mind.