Documentary Reviews

Love Thy Neighbor – The Story of Christian Riley Garcia (2020) – Unrated

Director: Brandon Smith

Running time: 1hr 28mins

On May 18th of 2018, a gunman opened fired into a classroom at Santa Fe High School. Eight students and two substitute teachers were killed during the May 18, 2018 mass shooting. Another 13 were injured. Sadly, it was only a taste of the horrors inflicted upon innocent bystanders by active shooters in the United States that year.

The attack on Santa Fe High School was the 21st mass shooting in the United States that month, and by the end of the year, a total of 323 mass shootings – including a deadlier incident at Thousand Oaks, California, which killed 13 people – occurred across the country. The violence saw 1,661 people shot, 387 of who were killed.

Just as bone-chilling as the violence itself, it could be argued, however, is the indifference with which so many people seem to approach the senseless loss of life with. The higher the horrific toll of America’s infatuation with rises, it seems, the easier it gets for those offering “thoughts and prayers” to disconnect from the carnage the statistics represent. People either in the corridors of power, or the electorate who are responsible for placing them in office, continue to shrug off any sense that they are responsible for the lack of action to prevent future slaughter, offering cheap platitudes and gestures in place of tangible actions.

With that in mind, I approach Love Thy Neighbour – The Story of Christian Riley Garcia – a film which bills itself as a documentary focusing on the dreadful events of Santa Fe, that fateful May morning. For at least the first half of its run-time at least, Director Brendon Smith’s film does indeed make good on that promise; faithfully recounting the early years of Christian Riley Garcia – known commonly as Riley – with his loved ones warmly recalling a sweet, well-behaved boy who was fast growing into a caring, thoughtful young man before their world was turned upside down.

As the film creeps toward the inevitable addressing of the school shooting, there gradual crumbling of the defence constructed by the family Riley left behind is deeply moving, and we are left hanging on their every word – knowing to expect the worst, but somehow still hoping for a miracle that never comes. To that end, the film manages to place us in the shoes of a family suddenly shunted into uncertainty regarding its future, and the security of one of its members – and it is a truly ghastly feeling. It is impossible not to be moved to the brink of tears by that process, while being left feeling physically sick as Riley’s friends and parents tearfully bring us to the point where we are informed Riley was killed trying to help other children escape the shooting.

One particularly harrowing account of the day’s events comes from a first responder, who has clearly been left deeply traumatised by the shooting. His voice wavers noticeably as he recalls being told there was an active shooter in the local school – and for all his training, it was something he could never completely have prepared for. That was before he was to witness hallways which appeared to “have been mopped” with blood, or the piled bodies of children in one classroom. The testimony not only shows how unimaginably scared the victims must have been, then, but the inhuman levels of stress that these occurrences place on the psyche of even the ‘strongest’ adults – human beings simply  aren’t designed to cope with the mass murder made common by the age of automatic weaponry.

It’s at this point, however, half way into the film, that things somehow take a twist leaving me feeling sick for very different reasons. Following the confirmation of Riley’s death during the shooting, Smith’s movie hastily lurches into a garbled mid-section, which sloppily attempts to provide a life-affirming pro-gun message. Community leaders do their best to make people see “the good” in the shooting – it has brought people closer together we are told. Meanwhile, one after the other, members of Riley’s family claim that the shooting was “why God put him on this Earth,” unflinchingly reciting the doctrine of a grand death-cult.

Riley’s death is either lionised as a selfless act of heroism, or sacrifice which ultimately helps hold the community’s crumbling civil society together. Perhaps this is because treating it this way ultimately helps the adult population feel less culpable for yet another mass shooting on their watch. People who it seems have been active defenders of the second amendment their entire lives can subsequently react to the death of young people in their community with a blank-stare, and a bland determination to go back to normal afterwards, without having to address how their own opinions on the matter might be impacting the lives of their loved ones.

This frankly terrifying ability to divorce their beliefs from lived experience is most unnerving embodied by Riley’s father, who takes issue with the fact the school had not armed teachers at the time of the attack, or that it has been reluctant to do so since. Wearing a t-shirt sporting the infamous coiled snake of ‘Don’t Tread On Me’ fame, Garcia Senior hits up the local rifle range, and makes idle chat with other gun owners who profess to be “sorry for your loss.” If only there were something they could have done over the course of their lives as citizens eligible to vote in elections.

As it is, Riley’s father can only think to roll out the NRA staple that “we can’t fix this by taking away guns. We have to fix people.” He is not exactly forthcoming with ways which society could ‘fix people’ who shoot up schools, but typically people pushing that sentiment reflexively recoil from public spending on social services, outreach work, education programmes, or socially provided mental health care – either because they see them as affronts to the tax payer, or some kind of communist aberration.

The second half of this film is arguably more distressing than the first then. These affable, relatable human beings, who we forged a relationship with through film, who we have hoped, and feared and mourned with, approach the topic with such a horrific indifference – a disconnected, disjointed way of regarding the material consequences that political choices have. From my description, it might sound as though this project were being constructed to damn the subjects by their own words; but the acoustic flourishes of emotive music accompanying many of the key speeches, and the fact the film returns to tugging at your heart strings with more family footage after – as if cynically trying to us forget its rather clumsy intervention in the gun control debate –suggest otherwise.

On top of this, while it might be argued that Smith could only work with what he’s given from his sources, and if Riley’s family have decided him being shot dead is cause to arm teachers, that’s what he has to put on record, there is not even a vague pretence at journalism on display here. The filmmaker does not challenge his subjects on their views, he does not push them to provide examples of what might be done to prevent further shootings, aside from militarising the education system, and he does not seek out any semblance of an alternative viewpoint. There are plenty of survivors from school shootings who have campaigned for gun-control – former Santa Fe High School student Bree Butler was part of the same attack featured in the film, and became a gun control activist after, even addressing demonstrations in Washington, D.C. – but these opinions simply do not factor here.

In the end, all this leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, and a distinct feeling of having been used. The inclusion of wholesome home-movie images of Riley’s carefree childhood, and the shaky-voiced musings of what the adulthood that was wrenched from him might have held all seem to have been included to get our guard down, before being hit with a direct message from America’s gun-lobby. The constant returns to Grandma’s house to reminisce on the last time she saw him alive are transparently manipulative efforts to disguise a harmful defence of failed public policy.

Lauding the bravery far beyond Riley’s years is all very well, and the fact he took it upon himself to try and save lives in a school shooting should be praised, but ultimately no young person should ever be put in that position where they must “be a hero.” Here, it is the sign of the abject failure of adult society to protect its children on the most basic level. Nobody should be able to wash their hands of responsibility by simply lionising the actions of a boy laying down his life, papering over the cracks they have ignored.

Film critics often lapse into self-referential rhythms; we define and categorise viewing experiences in the way we think we be most useful, and enjoyable to our readers, as potential consumers of cinema. Fun as it may be to write that way, and entertaining as it may be to read, however, there are some where our trivial sniping, or arbitrary scoring systems need to take a back-seat to address bigger issues at play. Just as we have a responsibility to help discover and promote new and exciting artists, we also have a responsibility to navigate the ideologies and political motifs at play in the production of culture.

For this reason, I would no sooner assign Brandon Smith’s film with any number of stars due to its mechanical traits, than I would wax lyrical about the aesthetic accomplishments of Leni Riefenstahl’s filmography, or praise the technical innovations featured in D. W. Griffith’s most infamous works. Such a course of action would be to flippantly legitimise the negligent and dangerous views the film uncritically endorses. It would frankly be unethical to ‘rate’ this film; and morally wrong either to attribute honours upon it for whatever merits it has as a production, or to treat it as a source of illicit giggles by carelessly throwing it a ‘low score.’ Both courses of action would only serve to trivialise what is essentially a work of deeply harmful propaganda, to treat it as ‘normal.’ This film will subsequently remain unrated; as will any other films Indy Film Library receives which stray into this territory.

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