IDFA 2020 review: Bulletproof (Todd Chandler)

While not exclusive to the US, school shootings are predominantly an American issue. Living on a diet of fear and with ample access to weapons, these shootings have resulted in what to those outside the US is a counterintuitive reaction: they have given rise to an industry surrounding the protection of schools, from firearms training courses to bulletproof blackboards and from intense surveillance to kevlar-lined hoodies. Todd Chandler’s long-form documentary debut Bulletproof with much restraint portrays the people who have taken up the task to protect, as well as those they mean to protect, and shows people trying their best to solve a problem. The question is whether they understand what the problem really is, and if their approach is the right one.

Mapping the landscape from a fly-on-the-wall perspective, Bulletproof lets the way schools throughout the nation prepare for the event of a school shooting play out naturally, however unnatural the situation is. Scenes of teachers running a drill are mixed with principals following students’ name tags throughout campus. Surveillance cameras follow individuals and school staff trains on a shooting range. A man almost proudly states his school has 22 AR-15s (a semi-automatic rifle) on its premises. Bulletproof‘s show-don’t-tell approach lends itself to a certain repetitiveness, although the scenes at times are interspersed with students having class discussions about their fears or a debate at a parent meeting about whether turning school staff into a small military force is a good idea.

Rarely does the film delve into more typical ‘talking head’ territory, with one prominent exception: repeated interviews with a young entrepreneur who was witness to a shooting (albeit not in school) and since has started a small business making bulletproof hoodies. When we first meet her she is still sewing the kevlar into the garments herself, but later in the film her business has grown through the investment of companies in the weapons industry. And school safety is big business, as this documentary makes abundantly clear. The film takes a neutral stand, and shows many people genuinely believing in doing the right thing. But when a student says that going through drill after drill is just as traumatizing as experiencing a real incident, one can’t help but wonder if the solution lies in high tech hardware and firepower. Unfortunately, that is what is often dictated, as one principal explains: bonds worth millions of dollars restricted to spending on equipment, even if those closest to the children understand that the real problems run deeper and money could have been funneled to prevention through counselling and psychological help instead of bullets.

Bulletproof‘s somewhat detached registering of events allows the viewer to ruminate about their own views on the subject matter, but a bit more insight into the people behind the industry surrounding school shootings would have perhaps helped to understand the psyche behind it. Without allowing us to understand what drives these people, projection of the viewer’s viewpoint becomes an issue, which does a disservice to some of the people portrayed. Still, as a snapshot of a country driven by fear that sees the only solution through the barrel of a gun, Bulletproof is a sobering documentary about a country in crisis, showing how the safety of school children is converted into a commodity without even a second of thought on restriction of the Second Amendment, as capitalism converts this crisis into cold hard cash.