Drama teacher key to short film about shooting
If you can handle 30 minutes of weeping — your own — I recommend Amy Schatz’s “Song of Parkland,” a documentary short film that premiered Thursday on HBO.
The Parkland in question is the city in Florida, thrust into the spotlight by the 2018 high-school shootings that claimed 17 lives and kept in the spotlight by surviving students who refused to stay quiet about politicians who substitute prayers for action and whose best suggestion for our gun problem is more guns.
Coming just a year after that Valentine’s Day massacre, “Song of Parkland” focuses not on the shooting but on Melody Herzfeld, the drama teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and her 72-student theater department.
Rehearsals were underway for the Marcus Stevens and Sam Willmott children’s musical “Yo, Viking!” when the attack happened three weeks before opening night.
Herzfeld sheltered 65 students for two hours until help arrived. Schatz follows them as they return to school and the show goes on.
Being so compact, “Song of Parkland” doesn’t offer a deep dive into the shooting — terrifying enough in its brief reconstruction through news clips, phone footage and first-person testimony — or play production or personal relationships.
There are some scenes of the play in rehearsal, with Herzfeld chiming in, but it’s not a fly-onthe-wall documentary. Most everything that is said is said to a camera.
The driving force of the film is inspirational rather than investigative, but this is an appropriate approach. You want to give these kids some space. Recovery is the point — a positive, proactive response to an awful thing. Student Ally Reichard reads lyrics she’s written with her friend Ashley Paseltiner: “Fill the void with flowers / It’ll make a meadow.” The song is called “Beautiful Things Can Grow.” (Herzfeld also runs a songwriting workshop.)
Even as a shorthand recounting, the film is powerful since nearly every minute of it is charged. Theater is one place in a high school where kids are encouraged to look inward, to open up, to find their “truth.” It’s not surprising to learn that some of Herzfeld’s students were among those who founded the Never Again movement, and Schatz offers a whirlwind tour through their public appearances and the student-led walkouts and marches throughout the country.
“These kids that are making these speeches and they’re going up and being so strong,” says Herzfeld, “they can’t even tie their shoes; they can’t even remember to put deodorant on and eat a sandwich or call home or remember their homework. But they’re trying to, like, do something.”
One fears for them a little, given the conspiracy theories and death threats that have dogged them since, and if one is old enough to remember the last time mass walkouts failed to move politicians.
“I promised my kids when they came back to school, I said, ‘I promise you, I promise you that life is so good. Life is so good. So don’t ever lose that,’” Herzfeld says. “Because if they lose that, they lose everything that they’re supposed to have when they’re kids.”