Drama teacher key to short film about shoot­ing

The Columbus Dispatch - - Life&arts - By Robert Lloyd

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.”

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