HBO documentary hits close to home
Accidental shooting in Huber Height focus of film
By Meredith Moss
The tragic death of Huber Heights resident Mae Worthy last spring is one of the featured stories in a documentary premiering Monday evening on HBO.
“Requiem For the Dead: American Spring 2014” draws attention to the estimated 8,000 individuals who died from gunfire last spring. The special focuses on the death of the victims who didn’t make national headlines.
More than 32,000 people die from gun violence every in America – an average of 88 people per day.
The film is especially timely locally with Dayton Children’s Hospital announcing this week that gunshot admissions at the hospital are outpacing last year. The hospital is urging parents to take extra steps to secure any guns they have and teach children gun safety.
And in national news, nine people were gunned down Wednesday night at a Charleston church in what officials are calling a hate crime.
What’s unusual about the format of the HBO documentary is the lack of narration or interviews with experts. Instead the directors bring the victims to life through their own words and images – a Facebook status update, a post on Instagram, a newspaper headline, on-the-scene video, frantic 9-1-1 calls and police investigations.
The program detail victims’ lives in the moments leading up to the shootings and shows how each death reverberates in the lives of others. The death may have been the result of homicide, accident or suicide.
The Huber Heights segment titled “In the Other Room” tells the story of Jerel Worthy and the grandmother, Mae. Jerel – drafted by the Green Bay Packers and now playing for the Kansas City Chiefs – lost his grandmother when a gun handled by his grandfather discharged in the bedroom of his grandparents’ Huber Heights, home.
The bullet passed through the wall and into the living wall where Mae was sitting, striking her in the head and killing her.
“It struck us as a very moving story and very relatable because it is not a criminal story and there was no ill intent,” said filmmaker Nick Doob, who directed the documentary along with Shari Cookson. The pair were also responsible and the Emmy winning “The Memory Loss Tapes” (part of HBO’s “The Alzheimer’s Project”) and HBO’s Emmy-nominated “Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life & Times of Katrina Gilbert.”
“It was an accidental shooting and anyone can imagine what it would be like to be in that situation,” Doob said. “If I were Mr. Worthy, how would I feel? The story really moved us, and the bottom line is that we wanted to do something we couldn’t get out of our own heads.”
Cookson said although there are images of more than 100 victims, they spent more time with those whose stories were more “indelible,” such as a bride who was shot on her wedding night. Other area victims mentioned in the film include Jeffrey Wellington of Springfield, Jasmine Leonard of Dayton and Lacey Rutherford of Hamilton.
Meet the directors
The program originated with senior producer Sheila Nevins, responsible for documentaries on HBO.
“She had been wanting to make a film about guns and gun violence, and eventually we came to this idea of doing something about the deaths that occurred last spring,” explained Doob, adding that a number of shootings in the spring had received a lot of national media attention. He and his partner chose to avoid those that got a lot of coverage, and focus on the individuals that the public doesn’t hear much about.
Cookson said their usual approach to make “present tense” kinds of movies. But, for this topic of gun violence that wasn’t possible.
“We’d have the headlines, sometimes not even a picture. But it’s easier to be numb about that, so we took it a step further to see what those people were like, what their spirit was like,” she said. When she and Doob reviewed previous films about gun violence, they were typically filled with experts or people who knew those who had died and could reminisce about them.
Employing social media
Instead, the two decided to look at social media to see what the victims were doing and thinking in their lives, often right up to the moment of their deaths.
“The one thing I discovered is that Twitter is a place where you can find a lot of reflection,” said Cookson, who admits it hadn’t previously occurred to her or Doob to use social medial us a research tool. “People will put their emotions out there, so it’s a way to understand what you go through when someone you love is suddenly gone.”
Those on social media don’t know what’s about to happen to them or their loved ones.
“It’s eerie and moving to see people post something the day of – or right before – this event. For example, it’s Father’s Day and they are posting something about Father’s Day, and they don’t know this is about to happen to them, “ Cookson said.
In this case, she’s referring to a segment titled “My Most Beautiful Memory.”
Eight days before Father’s Day, Renotta Jernigan of Chesterfield, Virginia, asked her husband, Chris, for a divorce. He was suffering from depression and had trouble holding a job. On Father’s Day, Chris shot and killed his wife and their two children ages 9 and 2 – before killing himself.
“It’s a difficult and nasty subject, but we found a way to make it present and real and human and everyday,” Doob said, “It’s an issue film about guns and gun safety and gun violence, but we approached it by finding strong characters you can identify with and feel an emotional tie to.”
Cookson said by including news reports, postings, police interviews and public records in the public domain, they were able to narrate their documentary in the present tense.
“In the end, it feels like a sort of madness,” Doob adds.
The music, 38 pieces of pre-existing music from the internet, ranging from jazz and classical to contemporary. Doob said the music is very important to the film, and informed the directors how to edit it. “We tend to use the music in a way that stands on its own,” he said. “Since we didn’t have narration, the music took on a leadership role.”
The goal of the film
Both filmmakers say their goal is to reach people emotionslly and get people talking. Both say their documentary is not an ant-gun film, but an anti-gun violence film.
“I’m opposed to people dying from guns,” Cookson said. “We could be much safer about a lot of the things that happened in the film, about the way we’re storing guns.”
One example: the segment called “Best Friends” focuses on 11-year-old best friends in Frazeyburg, Ohio, who liked to bike and play video games together. When Brady went into his dad’s bedroom one day to show Lucas a loaded pistol under the bed, it accidentally went off, shooting Lucas in the heart.
When you hear something like that, you want to get the message out that if that gun had been properly secured, it would have saved a life,” Cookson said. “You realize how easily this can happen. When I see a little boy, I think about Lucas now, and the same with all of the people in the film.”
The directors say their film is one way to pay tribute to these victims and have people understand who they are.
“In a second, that person’s life is gone,” Cookson said. “These no warning. How do you say goodbye? That’s what our film is doing most of all. Provoking conversation.”
Dictated Transcription: S Cookson