If you can handle 30 minutes of more or less nonstop weeping — your own, that is — may I recommend Amy Schatz's "Song of Parkland," a documentary short film premiering Thursday on HBO. The Parkland in question is the city in Florida, thrust into the spotlight by the 2018 high school school shooting that claimed 17 lives and kept in the spotlight by surviving students who refused to stay quiet about politicians who substitute prayers for action and whose best suggestion for our gun problem is more guns.
Coming just a year after that Valentine's Day massacre, "Song of Parkland" focuses not on the shooting but on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School drama teacher Melody Herzfeld and her 72-student theater department. Rehearsals were underway for the Marcus Stevens and Sam Willmott children's musical "Yo, Viking!" when the attack happened — "We were having like the most amazing day, we were in the middle of rehearsal in the middle of a scene" — three weeks out from opening night. Herzfeld sheltered 65 students for two hours until help arrived. Schatz (“Through a Child’s Eyes: September 11, 2001”) follows them as they return to school and the show goes on.
Being so compact, "Song of Parkland" doesn't offer a deep dive into the shooting — terrifying enough in its brief reconstruction through news clips, phone footage and first-person testimony — or play production or personal relationships. There are some scenes of the play in rehearsal, with Herzfeld chiming in ("Stop looking at everyone else, Jim"), but it's not a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Most everything that is said is said to a camera. Student Heather Hart's description of her time in theater — "I've learned so much and I've met so many people that have changed me for better … and for worse, just a little, not really, I love you, Herz" — is as specific as it gets.
The driving force of the film is inspirational rather than investigative, but this is an appropriate approach both to the material and to the subjects. You want to give these kids some space. Recovery is the point — a positive, proactive response to an awful thing: "You just want to have the opportunity to do it again and have the appreciation for it now, because you know that it doesn't happen for some people anymore," says student Emma Summers, wearing a "Make Art, Not War" T-shirt. Classmate Ally Reichard reads lyrics she's written with her friend Ashley Paseltiner: "Fill the void with flowers / It'll make a meadow." The song is called "Beautiful Things Can Grow." (Herzfeld also runs a songwriting workshop.)
Even as a shorthand recounting, the film is powerful since nearly ever minute of it is charged; among kids, even platitudes become poignant, borrowed phrases eloquent. Theater is one place in a high school where kids are encouraged to look inward, to open up, to find their "truth," questioning not just what they feel, and to bring it out into the world. It's a "safety place," as one kid says here, where no one judges you. It's not surprising to learn that some of Herzfeld's students were among those who founded the Never Again movement (hashtags #NeverAgain and #EnoughIsEnough), and Schatz offers a whirlwind tour through their public appearances and the student-led walkouts and marches throughout the country.
“These kids that are making these speeches and they're going up and being so strong,” says Herzfeld, “they can't even tie their shoes; they can't even remember to put deodorant on and eat a sandwich or call home or remember their homework. But they're trying to, like, do something."
One fears for them a little, given the conspiracy theories, bad jokes and death threats that have dogged them since, and if one is old enough to remember the last time mass walkouts and marches failed to move politicians and a movement fell apart. And one does not have to be very old to remember that.
"I promised my kids when they came back to school, I said, 'I promise you, I promise you that life is so good. Life is so good. So don't ever lose that,'” Herzfeld says. “Because if they lose that they lose everything that they're supposed to have when they're kids."
Opening night comes. (There is a lovely moment afterward as Herzfeld, standing alone onstage, hears her cast celebrating in the wings. “Thank God they’re back doing that stuff they're supposed to do,” she says.) The road from there leads, as it almost had to, to the 2018 Tonys, where Herzfeld received an Excellence in Theater Education award and a group of her students performed “Seasons of Love” from “Rent.” If you have somehow managed to hold on to your tears through the previous minutes, you will surrender them then.
“Song of Parkland”
Where: HBO, HBO Now and HBO Go
When: 7 p.m. Thursday. Additional airings throughout this week and next, plus streaming on HBO Go and HBO Now starting at 4 p.m. PT on Thursday