Sundance: Filmmakers seek truth behind headlines on 'Valentine Road'

Interview • Adults "failed these kids," says director of documentary on 2008 school shooting.
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The story was all over cable news and magazines in 2008: A gay middle-schooler named Lawrence King gave a valentine to a classmate, Brandon McInerny, who responded by bringing a gun to class and putting two bullets in Lawrence's head.

Filmmaker Marta Cunningham digs deeper than the tabloid headlines in "Valentine Road," a film competing in the U.S. Documentary competition at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

In this Q&A, Cunningham and producer Sasha Alpert talk about uncovering the story the media weren't telling after Lawrence King's death.

What was it about Lawrence King's death that made you think it required a deeper examination?

Cunningham • I think it was the fact that both boys seemed to be going through public trials. I think Lawrence was, obviously, very much looked at just as a freak. He was really isolated and tormented. I just was really shocked by that, honestly, that there was so much outward hatred toward him. … Also, on the other hand, when I was sitting through Brandon's hearings, that it was rather odd that I didn't know about this law that if they think a 14-year-old child can be tried as an adult.

Really, these two boys, the more I looked into their lives and spoke to their family and friends, they were more similar than dissimilar. I think the media coverage was so exploitive and didn't look at any of the aspects that I was interested in, like how did [the school officials] miss this? And what are they going to do to help this community?

Alpert • What we responded to is that this was the story of what you initially look at as a horrific crime. … You could look at this killer as nothing but a horrible, deranged child. And, then, as you unravel and peel off the layers of onion in the case, you realize this child also came from a very difficult background. They both did.

Why, do you think, did the media miss it?

Alpert • The day-to-day news isn't set up to follow a story for weeks and weeks, and years in this case. This is really the role of a documentary, is to delve into a story like this. We had the luxury of time.

Cunningham • Pretty much, most of the adults who are in this film — and also who were involved who maybe aren't in this film — failed these kids. I think that, unfortunately, the people who the media spoke to were the adults. I had to go to the kids to get the real truth. That's why it was so important for me to build these relationships, these intimate connections with these kids. Because these kids knew exactly what was going on, from the beginning. They knew, they saw, they heard all the rumors about Brandon and [Lawrence]. They knew what was happening the whole time.

This movie is landing in the middle of a national conversation about gun violence, particularly involving schools in the wake of last month's Sandy Hook tragedy. What part of that conversation do you hope your movie pushes further?

Alpert • In a community, if you're making the decision that it's OK to be armed, you have to provide the psychological support and education for children, because they're going to have access to firearms. … Without the gun, in either situation, there wouldn't have been this kind of violence.

Cunningham • We have to get our head out of the sand and stop being afraid of this notion that this is going to keep happening until we really decide what we're going to do as a nation. … What are we going to do to help these kids who are in these schools, and survive this and witness something like this? How are we going to help these children? We can't keep ignoring them. And we can't keep sending them back into the same schools with no counseling. That's just wrong. —

When to see 'Valentine Road'

The documentary 'Valentine Road' screens at the following times and locations during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival:

Saturday, Jan. 19, noon • Temple Theatre, Park City

Sunday, Jan. 20, 5:30 p.m. • The MARC, Park City

Wednesday, Jan. 23, 1 p.m. • Redstone Cinema 2, Park City

Friday, Jan. 25, 9 a.m. • Yarrow Hotel Theatre, Park City

Saturday, Jan. 26, 12:30 p.m. • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, Salt Lake City. —

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