The way of the gun
If ever there was a documentary that cries out for use in schools it is the latest offering from maverick filmmaker Michael Moore - Bowling for Columbine. Where was this film four years ago when I needed it - working with my Year 11 English GCSE students on a unit looking at film violence and its link to actual violent crime?
Back then I had to rely on a Panorama from 1994 prompted by the killing by teenager Nathan Martinez of his stepmother and half-sister in Utah. In one highly telling scene a policeman is shown going through Martinez's possessions at the time of his arrest. He puts the two huge cases containing his rifles to one side without comment and fastens on the boy's soundtrack tape of Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers - a film with which he was supposedly obsessed. "Look no further" is the implication - here is what prompted Martinez to carry out his double homicide. It was something my class picked up on immediately - surely, they complained, it was his access to guns that was the more disturbing, the key factor in turning his anger into murder?
Bowling for Columbine (15) will be available for school use by teachers in 2003. It is an ideal tool for any exploration of such themes as gun violence and the influence of the media. These are subjects that fascinate students and which, sadly, regularly become topical as yet one more disaffected US schoolchild or unhappy ex-Vet decides to vent his fury with bullets. It is an ideal resource with which to inform any piece of discursive English coursework at key stage 4 or sixth-form. And media students will find it a highly provocative piece of persuasive documentary for analysis.
It might be necessary first to fill students in on the particular combination of factors that makes all attempts to regulate the gun trade in America so fraught. A brief explanation of the (highly ungrammatical) second amendment to the US Constitution would be helpful: "A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." If anything is an advertisement for clarity of expression, it is this confusing statute which has anti- and pro-gun campaigners at loggerheads over inter-pretation. The role of the National Rifle Association (NRA) as one of America's foremost lobbying groups also deserves attention. It enjoys huge influence within the Bush administration and I think that as an example of a pressure group wielding pernicious political influence it deserves to feature on any citizenship course.
What Bowling For Columbine does so usefully for students is thoroughly interrogate the issue of gun violence in ways that are shocking and amusing by turns. Its title is a sly poke at those who looked for easy explanations following the April 1999 Columbine school massacre in Littleton, Colorado carried out by Dyland Klebold (18) and Eric Harris (17) which left 12 of their classmates and a teacher dead and dozens more injured. The boys committed suicide, so their motives remained a mystery allowing investigators free reign in their search for culprits - including shock rocker Marilyn Manson, whose music the boys admired. Surely bowling is as culpable, suggests Moore. They were both members of the school's bowling class and even stopped off for their lesson immediately before travelling on to cause carnage at their school.
Students will enjoy Moore's deeply ironic tone and the fact that, unlike highly polished forms of filmmaking with which they may be familiar, here is a documentary maker prepared to go to almost any lengths to talk to those he truly regards as deserving the blame.
His stage managing of a final confrontation with NRA president Charlton Heston is a brilliant study in the slow demolition through reasoned argument of pro-gun rhetoric. Equally powerful is his arrival at the HQ of K-Mart - the supermarket chain that sold Harris and Klebold their ammunition - with two of the victims there to "return" the bullets they have still embedded in their bodies. Moore is on record celebrating the role that happy chance plays in his films - for example an early sequence when he visits a bank where new account holders receive a rifle is blessed with a shot of a clerk framed by the rack of guns.
He is also a master of the sly interview - disguising his contempt and scorn behind innocent-seeming jocularity and soliciting the most absurd responses from his subjects. "No we can't arrest dogs for shooting people," says one policeman following an accident caused by two even more witless hunters who decorated their hound with hunting gear and a loaded rifle with disastrous consequences - "But the dawg sure looked cute".
If your students don't want to attempt some wild documentary-making of their own after Bowling For Columbine, nothing will prompt them.
Bowling For Columbine (certificate 15) is now on general release. It is anticipated that VHS and DVD versions will be available in 2003. Many of the interviews are good examples of the kind of fly-on-the-wall faux-naif documentary making familiar through the work of Nick Broomfield, Louis Theroux and Jon Ronson. The film also combines amusing montage sequences made up of hilarious period advertisements, promotional films and newsreels providing thumbnail sketches of the social and political landscape that underlies America's love affair with the gun. Another bonus is an irreverent cartoon history of the US made by Matt Stone and Trey Parker - the creators of South Park and both natives of Littleton
Gun Free www.gunfree.orgcontentframe_home.html
The Brady Campaign To Prevent Gun Violence www.bradycampaign.orgaboutindex.asp
Operation Trident www.met.police.uktridentcampaign.htm
The Coalition To Stop Gun Violence www.gunfree.orgcontentframe_home.html
Gun laws in America www.gunfree.orgcontentedfundframe_edfund_edu_statequiz.html
National Criminal Intelligence Service
UK Threat Assessment 2002
National Rifle Association www.nra.org