Student film "Hurt" mirrors school shootings

The Santa Monica College Film Department’s upcoming film, “Hurt” written and directed by Brandon Chang is a “Paradise Lost” expedition.

Currently in the post-production phase, the film will be released to the public in fall of 2014 and shortly after, will be submitted to major film festivals. There is a fear however, that some in the SMC community may not be very accepting of the movie’s subject matter.

The story surrounds Aaron, an introverted high school student struggling with fitting in and being teased at school. He goes through bouts of depression and pours his emotions into diary entries. Slowly, the events start molding into an all too familiar story as Aaron begins to contemplate an act of violence at his school.

The screenwriter contemplated the subject matter with the utmost sensitivity, endeavoring to understand why school shootings happen. At the heart of so many school shootings is a troubled kid, and Chang managed to identify with the loneliness a troubled kid feels through his character Aaron.

“When school shootings happen they say the kid was quiet and always kept to himself. And I thought to myself, ‘I’m very quiet, I’m to myself.’ So I wanted to explore a story like this and make it personal,” says Chang.

Chris Rojas, co-producer with RJ Holloway, believes Chang’s script is an emotional purge meant to identify with anyone who had a hard time in middle school and high school.

“‘Hurt’ deals with a controversial subject that needs to be treated with extreme awareness and sensitivity by both the filmmakers and the viewers,” says Professor Salvador Carrasco, the film’s supervisor.

The result was an imaginative effort that took weeks to create. It put the film’s production team in the shoes of the shooter and in the frantically beating hearts of the students hiding in locked down rooms.

For each of the department’s short film projects, Carrasco chooses a script from those submitted in his Film 33 class, Directing The Short Film, by the students themselves.

Chang collaborated with his chosen producers, fellow classmates Holloway and Rojas, to choose the cast. Though the script was written within a month, Chang recalls that it took a month of rewrites to produce a ‘locked script’ which was approved by Carrasco.

This is the first big production for Rojas and he recalls it being an incredible learning experience. To Rojas, being a producer on this film felt like being married to everyone in the cast and production team.

“You know you’re going to be with these people for the long haul, so having a good team is essential,” says Rojas.

Filming started in the spring of 2013 and finished May 27, ten days before the fateful June 7 shooting at SMC. This was also just before the end of the school year, when the department planned a screening of unedited takes (known as dailies) as kind of sneak peek.

Carrasco recalls, “The Administration asked me not to show our dailies out of sensitivity towards the community and ourselves.” The event was ultimately postponed out of respect for the events that had just taken place. Post-production continued however, but with extreme caution.

Now the team is in the midst of sound editing, mixing, and choosing a composer to help the scenes come to life.

On Friday May 23 however, the production received reminder of the relevance of its subject. Just under a year after the SMC shooting, Elliot Rodger went on a retribution rampage that the sun-loving town of Isla Vista will never forget.

The Santa Barbara massacre took place just as Carrasco and Chang were up until early hours of the morning discussing the latest changes to the film. Carrasco had been in Chicago at the time for a special screening of his film "The Other Conquest."

"I relayed our notes to Feriba Karakoc, who is part of the SMC student editing team. She put the new ending together, and we screened it as soon as I came back from Chicago. Then I showed it to my colleague Walt Louie, who is head of post-production at SMC, and now we all seem to concur that this is what we were after all along," said Carrasco.

The entire journey emphasizes many key questions about cinema itself. For Carrasco it meant exploring the “role of moral ambivalence in cinema, knowing what you want to say and not being dogmatic."

"Now a year has passed and it's not that we've healed completely, but I do believe that cinema is here to ask relevant questions, which is why we're proceeding with 'Hurt,'" said Carrasco when referring to the passage of time since the SMC shooting.

From 2007 until the present, the number of school shootings that ended in fatalities was 17 per year. In the past three years however, the number has jumped to just over 28 per year.

Beginning in January of this year, there have been 40 school shootings, resulting in 25 fatalities thus far.

"It is a powerful, sensitive film, and it will generate discussion which as with most art, justifies its raison d'être, especially on a college campus," explained Carrasco when discussing the relevance of "Hurt" and the story it tells.

It's safe to say, school shootings and gun control are hot topics in the U.S. Chang makes it clear that this movie is not meant present the reasoning behind why school shootings have become so common.

Rojas says, “It’s a really complicated issue. I don’t have an answer.”

The SMC community hasn’t fully recovered from the shootings that took place on that Friday afternoon in June. Maybe understanding the lives of John Zawahri, Seung-Hui Cho, Adam Lanza, Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold and Elliot Rogers from a foundational level could humanize these people the media has sensationalized.

Carrasco attests that Chang’s story “It achieves a fine balance between somewhat humanizing the protagonist by exploring the motivations behind his actions (while never condoning them) and posing haunting questions instead of a facile resolution."

What is clear from everyone who worked on the project is that above all, they do not want people walking away from the film and forgetting about it. They hope “Hurt” will be something that makes people think and feel something when they leave.

"What I like about HURT is that, far from glamorizing anything, it raises significant questions as to how these tragic scenarios might be averted, while at the same time having the artistic integrity to acknowledge that anyone who contemplates a school shooting is suffering from mental pathology," said Carrasco before returning to the hard labor of editing and fine-tuning what promises to be a significant expression of emerging talents and the times we inhabit.