Bulletproof: A New Documentary Exploring School Security Industries and Rituals
In 2015, filmmaker and educator Todd Chandler was talking with his students about a recent mass school shooting when an international student called it “a distinctly American conversation.” This led him to examine the expanding industries geared toward keeping schools safe. He received a Creative Capital Award in 2019 to make Bulletproof, a documentary exploring how the drive to prevent gun violence is shaping the culture of American schools. The film premieres at Metrograph in New York, October 29 – November 4, 2021, and will travel the country.
We spoke to Todd about the making of the film, the security industry and its rituals, and the conversations the film has sparked.
Alex Teplitzky—So, tell me about Bulletproof.
Todd Chandler—The film observes the everyday rituals that take place in and around schools—homecoming parades, basketball practice, and morning announcements, as well as a newer set of rituals, including lockdown drills, firearms trainings, and school safety trade shows. Broadly, it’s a film about fear and violence in the United States, as it plays out through security culture.
Alex—Can you talk a little about the origins of the project?
Todd—The project was sparked by two conversations. The first was with some of my students at Brooklyn College the day after a mass shooting on the west coast. Half of them hadn’t heard about it. None of them were surprised. Some were afraid of that kind of thing happening on our campus. It opened up into a broader discussion of whiteness and mass shootings, police in schools, and masculinity. One student who was from the UK with us that year, said “This is such an American conversation.”
Around the same time, I was talking with a good friend of mine whose brother is a former Navy Seal. He mentioned that his brother was leading workshops on how to survive school shootings. Something about these two interactions sparked something, and I began to look more deeply into the school security industry, which has expanded massively over the last two decades. I started doing research, going to trade shows, spending time in different schools, visiting manufacturing plants. It was clear that there was a film there, but I needed time to find its form.
Alex—The style of your documentary is unique in that there aren’t any specific characters the film follows and there is no narrative. What led you to this style of film?
Todd—The film is mostly observational and carefully framed. There are about a dozen different scenes in locations around the country. There are contextual clues, and we can always tell if we’re in a suburb, a city, or a rural area, but in general we avoided geographic specificity. There are no numbers or statistics or references to particular incidents of violence. We shot mostly on a tripod, using very long lenses to allow us to capture things from a distance, and also to have a kind of flattening effect.
At first I was primarily focused on the industry, but as the project progressed Bulletproof became more meditative and less investigative. I came up with a set of terms that I would repeat to myself every time we were going to roll camera: ritual, performance, choreography, as well as “strange” or “to make strange.”
I wanted everything we filmed, and the way we filmed it, to connect to these terms—the scenes directly related to security as well as the moments of everyday life in schools. Settling into that approach freed me up to think about contrast and juxtaposition rather than exposition or characters.
Alex—What in your research and filming of the documentary that surprised you as an educator?
Todd—I was surprised to learn (though perhaps I shouldn’t have been) how much mass shooting-related security mandates drive school budgeting. I didn’t collect hard numbers, but I spoke with several architects, superintendents, and school board members while researching.
One architect told me that every school expansion project he’d worked on in the last decade has been paid for with security money. Want to build a new athletics facility? According to him, the only way to do that is to bundle it with security enhancements, because that’s where the money is.
None of that is in the film directly, but there are some moments that hint at how states tend to throw money at quantifiable security measures much more than “soft” programs that address social and emotional health that can have a significant long-term impact on the school environment and agency of the student population.
Alex—The film has this kind of fly-on-the-wall feeling. You give the viewers access to situations that are not often accessible. What was it like to film the scenes? How did you find your subjects?
Todd—Producer Danielle Varga I shared the work of research and building relationships. I had a visual map of all the things I wanted in the film: a trade show, a startup, a school that was implementing alternative practices related to safety, teachers being trained with firearms, a lockdown drill, as well as the more “normal” rituals that take place at schools like lunch in the cafeteria and marching band practice. So we started mapping this constellation and seeking each of these things out.
Danielle is a great producer and was able to get a lot of people to say yes to us filming with them—like getting access to schools in Chicago for example. I’m a lot less experienced at that sort of thing, but eventually I figured out an approach that worked without feeling disingenuous. I would say “Hey, I’ve been a teacher for almost twenty years. I’m curious about what’s being done around the country to keep schools safe.”
We were always clear that we were not making propaganda or a take-down piece. Of course I have my own set of values and politics, and there were many times while filming that I found myself opposed to the views or practices of the film’s participants, but I tried to maintain a certain amount of distance, and to just let things play out.
There’s much material that didn’t make it into the film because it felt like a caricature, and in the end, would have been too reductive to use.
Alex—What did the kids and students in the film think of the security culture?
Todd—Almost every school does lockdown drills. In the New York City private school where we filmed, they discussed and critiqued the drill after the fact. In Texas City, it was quite different. It’s a town next to Santa Fe, Texas, where there was a big mass shooting in 2018. In response to that, the school invested heavily in security systems, firearms, personnel, and surveillance.
I talked with young people about it, and some of them said that they felt safer at school—several of them had family in Santa Fe, and were afraid in the wake of that incident. I also know that there were students who felt criminalized and dehumanized by the surveillance and were terrified that school security had access to assault rifles. Unpacking all of that would have been another whole film.
Alex—For someone like me who graduated from high school before mass shootings were as common as they are today, the phenomenon feels abstract, but I’m sure there is an audience that will see this film and relate to it because they have connections to someone who was in a school, like you’re saying, or went to one.
Todd—I hope mass shootings continue to be an abstraction to most people. But policing, surveillance, and criminalization of students of color in schools, the pervasive culture of masculine violence are not so abstract. There are a lot of smart people doing excellent work to create safer school environments in holistic and student-centered ways. But more often security measures are funded, designed, deployed, and wielded in the name of fear, to protect white suburban kids and to police young people of color.
It doesn’t always fall so cleanly along those lines, but I think I was naïve at first in not making broader systemic connections, at being shocked at the high tech, military grade products and “solutions” that are being marketed rather than understanding this expansion of security as a logical node on a very long, very American trajectory rooted in capitalism, white supremacy, policing, and the military and prison industrial complexes.
Alex—You mentioned you didn’t want this to be a propaganda film, but did you have an intention in making it? As you’ve been showing it, what has the reaction been to the audience? It’s the kind of film that could prompt some difficult but necessary conversations.
Todd—My intention in making Bulletproof was to look at these notions of fear and violence through a measured lens that’s set slightly askew, in the hope that this kind of framing or reframing could provoke some complicated reflections and conversations.
We showed it at South by Southwest EDU to a room full of people who are involved in some way in education. That conversation was quite topical. People had suggestions about where to show the film, or who to talk to. They shared stories about what they were doing at their own schools. At film festivals the discussion centers around formal elements of the film, if and how the approach opens up broader ideas about American fear and violence. I like that both of those things get to happen. Seeing and listening to how people respond to a film is a very special part of the process, and one that’s unfortunately pretty rare these days.
Alex—You finished the film in 2020 but couldn’t release it because of the pandemic. Now you’re showing it at Metrograph, and other venues where people can see it live. What has that experience been like?
Todd—Bulletproof was set to premiere at SXSW in March of 2020. Obviously that didn’t happen. During the pandemic, Bulletproof traveled around the world to dozens of festivals. Even though I wasn’t able to actually attend any of these (and very few of them happened in-person), the film is getting seen, and for that I feel very fortunate. That said, I’ve yet to sit in a theater and experience people experiencing the film. So, I’m thrilled that we get to have a theatrical release.
Alex—How was Creative Capital helpful?
Todd—I received the Creative Capital Award in 2019. I think that was my fourth or fifth time applying! The financial reward is incredible, of course. I think that coupled with the supportive community of Creative Capital is what makes it so special.
The retreat in 2019 was a magical experience, out of which many relationships have grown. Creative Capital sets us up with awardee-advisors, and the person who I was paired up with is Christopher Harris, who is a brilliant filmmaker based out of Iowa City. We had a number of conversations during the retreat, and later he watched a rough cut of the film and gave some instrumental feedback. He encouraged me to embrace the formalist elements of the footage, to think about bodies moving in space, about choreographies—which really helped me to look at the material anew.
After the premiere happens and once the money is gone, the relationships stay. That and how Creative Capital provides resources to support an artist’s career beyond a just single project really stand out to me as unique.