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Doc Star of the Month: Victoria Gonzalez, 'After Parkland'

By Lauren Wissot

Victoria Gonzalez, from Emily Taguchi and Jake Lefferman's 'After Parkland.' Courtesy of Kino Lorber

In a relatively sane world—or at least nation—Victoria Gonzalez would never have been one of the guiding lights of Emily Taguchi and Jake Lefferman's documentary After Parkland. A student at the time Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida became shorthand for the latest mass murder by a young man with an assault rifle, Gonzalez lost both her innocence and her boyfriend, Joaquin Oliver, on that Valentine's Day in 2018. And even as there was no bringing back either, Gonzalez herself was forced to carry on—searching, struggling, and finding not answers, but her own voice. 

Fortunately, veteran journalists Taguchi and Lefferman were able to capture this intimate journey—and those of the devastated parents and siblings and friends left behind—from the immediate aftermath of the tragedy right through to the school’s bittersweet graduation ceremony. And fortunately for Documentary, this naturally media-shy young woman agreed to be our February "Doc Star of the Month."

After Parkland opens with "Day of Conversation" screenings in select cities nationwide through Kino Lorber on February 12, and will be available for streaming on Hulu beginning February 19.

DOCUMENTARY: How did you first meet the filmmakers—and why did you decide to go on camera during such a difficult time in your life?

VICTORIA GONZALEZ: I know that I met [producer] Stephanie [Wash] first. She was solo; she was on her own. I was actually on live TV answering some questions; they were just asking me about Joaquin. I think this was the day after, or maybe a couple days after. The time is really fuzzy for me then, so I don’t really remember the first time I met Emily or Jake. I was in so much shock at the time that I just spoke to whoever my gut told me I should. 

There were a lotta people that I did shut down, and a lotta people that I said, "I don't want a camera in my face." But for some reason with them, maybe my subconscious telling me, "You can trust these people." I opened up.  

Watching the documentary for the first time, I had no idea what to expect. That's how much shock I was in. I had no idea what I was even gonna be saying in this whole film, but I'm glad that my subconscious made that choice.

D: You do strike me as a private person, so I'm curious to know how you negotiated boundaries with the film crew. What was off-limits to the camera?

VG: They saw a lot of very vulnerable times. There's probably only one time, actually, that I did say no, where I was already having a bad day and they asked to see me. Usually, even when I didn't feel up to even getting out of bed, I felt compelled to share my story. Which is crazy, now that I think about it. It was just my body following motions, and doing what I knew I needed to do in the end.

D: Your father, a firefighter, also appears in the film. How did he and others close to you feel about your participation? Were they worried about your interactions with the media? What reassured them?

VG: I feel like my parents wouldn't push me past my limits. But they would say that this is important and you can do this if you feel up to it. I did always sense that people were walking around on eggshells around me. It was a hesitant question, like, "Do you want them to come over?" It was a push, but it was also a soft push. There was a lot of respect for my boundaries. I didn't really even have to set them. People just knew how far to go.  

And I was really happy that my dad got involved with this documentary because he was there that day, at the same time I was. We were on opposite sides of the school. He has his own struggles and I have my own struggles. I think that we knew that by talking to Jake and Emily, we would somehow heal ourselves. We didn’t see that, and I still don't see that, but I do see myself 20 years from now watching this documentary and saying, Wow, what a crazy time. But my dad was really big on talking about it, so I was really glad that he got his voice out there as well.

D: The filmmakers connected with you first, though, right?

VG: They definitely started with me. And then as they would come to the house over and over, I guess we would know more about my dad. His stories were coming out, and they said this would be perfect to share such different angles in the same family—that shared trauma in such different ways.

I think that the whole situation brought my parents and me closer, but definitely also just being in the film. We'll do the Q&As after the festivals and I'll be able to put my arm around my dad while he's talking to a crowd of people, or he can hold my hand if I need it. We both know where we're coming from at the end of the day.

D: Have the Q&As been a positive experience for you?

VG: Usually I'll do a few press interviews before the actual screening and Q&A. Those are way harder than the Q&As. The Q&As feel so natural. I'm just having a real conversation with people. They actually want to know my thoughts and my opinions.

It is healing to know that from such sadness I can bring hope and healing to other people, just by sharing that and letting people know that they're not alone. Then people will reach out and let me know that I’m not alone. It's just a beautiful community of survivors that show up to these events, and just spread love.

D: Do you have any advice to the media about how to go about "getting the story" without further traumatizing those who've experienced a tragedy?

VG: It's hard to say. Definitely some specific "do nots." For my situation, I would say, Do not ask me about the shooter. But there are people who ask about that day. For some people it’s okay, and for some people it's not. It is really difficult, and I've since learned how hard it is to be a journalist and to be criticized while trying to convey the story.  

I guess my advice would be to think of it as if you’re talking to a friend of yours or a loved one. You don’t wanna push their buttons, but you wanna get important feedback. It's really hard.

I would also say that if you're asking someone questions, ask questions that make them feel like they're sharing their personal story. And make them feel that their feelings are valid and important. I think a lot of journalists sometimes fail to do that. They ask so much about the event itself, and not about what that person is feeling. I think that you've got to come at it from a more empathetic point of view.

D: So did you feel that Emily and Jake were building a relationship over time with you, as opposed to just trying to get a story out of you?

VG: Yeah, one hundred percent. That was definitely the difference. My dad would invite them over and order pizza for everyone. It was like a get-together, and then we would talk. It was really casual and I really enjoyed that.

D: Maybe you were collaborating with them rather than just being filmed by them?

VG: Yeah, actually. I like the way you worded that. That's more what it feels like. I'm sharing my story, but they're making sure it's coming across in a way that will affect everyone who sees it.

D: You only saw the film after it was completed, though, right?

VG: Yes. There was a private screening for the participants and their families. I took my dad and my grandpa. Lauren Hogg was there with her mom, and Brooke [Harrison] was there. There were a few of us down here who went to see it.

D: Was that nerve-racking, or were you excited to see it?

VG: I definitely was nervous. I was at a point where I was finally not thinking about it every single moment of every day. I was slowly getting out of that, but I still had so many areas of shock. I went into that theater not knowing. Like I said before, I had no idea what I was gonna be saying on that screen. So yes, it was nerve-racking, it was triggering. It brought me all the way back to February, but I think that it was also necessary for me to see it at that time. It showed those raw emotions that will be felt by everyone watching. Every other time I've seen it, though, I’ll notice something different.

And that totally ties into the process of grief. Each time I watch it, it’s a couple months or weeks apart. Every day is different. There are some days where I feel out of my shell and I feel confident. I'll go watch the film, and I’m ready for the Q&A afterwards, and I'm gonna speak my mind. Then there are other days where I cry right before, and I cry during, and I cry after, and I cry while answering the questions.

D: Are there any screenings that come to mind that you found particularly enlightening?  

VG: There was one screening in New York. There were so many kids in the audience that night, about 10 to 13 years old. They were asking me questions afterward. I sat with them separately, after everyone had left, and talked to them for 30 minutes. That to me was so amazing. They were asking me questions about my grieving process, and going back to school, and basically how I live my life. They seemed very inspired by me and the things that I was saying. That to me was the most that I can get from this. That’s all I could ask for.

I also definitely appreciate when there are questions about Joaquin, or my relationship with Joaquin, or how he has inspired me. He's in all of my answers, but I do love when people ask me about that.

D: Do you find that the kids are more respectful than the adults in terms of questions?

VG: Yes and no. There was one kid who asked me about the shooter specifically. I answered, and I said that I understand that's what people are curious about, but that's not what’s important.

D: I appreciate that the shooter is never really even acknowledged in the film.

VG: Everything is off to the side. It's all about our feelings and our process, and that's so important. Yeah, I really love the way it's done.

D: How do you feel about the upcoming nationwide release of the film?

VG: I feel really hopeful, I think, because of all the film festivals. If I hadn't been part of those, I would be really nervous. But after seeing the reactions of just a couple theaters of people, I know that this documentary is really going to stir up conversation. And that's what we need.

D: So what are you up to now? I don't even know how old you are. Have you graduated yet?

VG: Yes, I'm 19. I graduated last year. I've been on a gap year, selling some art that I’ve been making—jewelry and paintings and cloth. I'm working on getting different internships with different artists. I definitely want to go into art or art therapy, so right now I'm just exploring.

D: Do you have any closing thoughts before we wrap up?

VG: At the screenings I always say that when you watch this documentary just understand that it's us on the screen, but it could be you any day. You need to watch this film with your whole heart, and come with your empathy, ready to make a political decision when you leave. The bottom line is, anyone can lose their Joaquin any day. I'm obviously so heartbroken for it to be me, but I can't express enough how important it is for you to get involved so that it doesn’t have to be you.

D: It sounds like you’re going to be an activist for the rest of your life.

VG: Oh, yeah. But I also think it's important for people to be more aware of the effect that they have as a single human being every single day. If you make an effort to smile at strangers, or hold the door open—any random act of kindness can make the biggest difference in someone's day and in the world. It’s so simple.

Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She's served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, and has written for Salon, Bitch, The Rumpus and Hammer to Nail.