While working at a Recovery School District after-school program five years ago, filmmaker John Ritchie noticed a disturbing connection between all of the kids.
“Every kid that we came in contact with had been directly touched by gun violence,” said Ritchie. “Either a family member or a friend had been shot.”
Just as troubling was just how normalized gun violence had become to those children. But it was that experience that planted the seed for the new documentary Shell Shocked, produced by Ritchie and his business partner Jonathan Jahnke and co-written by Brent Joseph.
The film goes inside the lives of children living amidst some of the most violent circumstances in New Orleans. We hear from family and friends of victims, along with activists, community leaders and city officials who are all looking for ways to stop the killing.
A series of local screenings have garnered strong reactions to the film, Ritchie said.
“No matter what community you show this film to, what it does is it makes people want to do something to help this problem or this situation,” he said. “I’ve changed people’s minds with this film.”
Some of the Shreveport native’s own assumptions were challenged in making Shell Shocked.
“Like many people, I assumed that most homicides, especially amongst kids, were drug related,” said Ritchie. But he soon discovered such thinking was at best too simplistic and at worst, a cop-out. “It’s a way to be able to make sense of the problem to where you’re able to kind of blame the victim… not to take away from the tragedy of it, but to say, well, you know, they were caught up in something bad.”
Most of the triggers for the violence were actually far more familiar, Ritchie said. “Oftentimes, it was over things like somebody ribbed somebody too hard, or jealousy over material possessions, or over a misunderstanding over a girl or something like that.
“And I think that that a lot of times that that is harder to swallow, because those are problems that all kids have.”
So why then are these normal teen disputes ending in gunfire? Ritchie believes the answer is simple accessibility.
“The availability of guns is absurd,” Ritchie said. While the drug trade certainly plays some role, “it’s not the end all be all — that’s not the only issue that we need to look at while looking at the issue of gun violence amongst kids.”
So while the triggers for these disputes are often more typical than we’d like to admit, the resulting loss of life is anything but.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t think that’s even a normal situation for even adults to have to learn to cope with,” said Ritchie. “I think that that’s something that still amazes me, that while we’re talking about this and while we’re sitting here debating stricter gun laws and how to deal with this problem… the thing that still blows my mind, what we forget about is that we’re talking about children.”
Shell Shocked is not simply a chronicle of tragedy, however.
“I don’t want people to think that we’re bleak and hopeless about this whole thing,” he said. “There are many, many people that are doing work with youth — as far as in youth development programs, mentors — that are really doing the work that we all need to be doing in order to address these problems.”
For Ritchie, it comes down to the need for more prevention.
“When it comes to these issues of gun violence, what you find in any communities that we’re very reactionary to the problem,” he said. “We wait for something to happen and then we try to throw harsher penalties at it. Even right now, we’re debating about whether or not we need to have a larger prison.”
It may come as a surprise to some, Ritchie said, but the city of New Orleans is also taking some positive steps.
“What the city is doing and what the mayor’s office is doing is that they’re trying to put more money and more resources into afterschool programs,” Ritchie said. “They’re trying to give kids more things to do. They’re trying to make this a priority as far as the city to get more people involved in the whole idea of youth development programs. Once again, this is not going to solve all the problems, but it is a step in the right direction, I believe.”
Down the road, Ritchie hopes to try his hand at a narrative feature film, but his work with the city’s youth isn’t likely to end anytime soon.
“I don’t think you can be a true advocate for youth and ever back away from it,” he said, “so I think that it’s something that I have inherited over the past couple years by working on this project, and I don’t think it’s going to go away.”
As for the kids featured in the film, Ritchie has been proud to watch them grow up into strong advocates against gun violence.
But what’s been more rewarding, he said, is simply watching them grow up.
To learn about future screenings of Shellshocked, check the film's Facebook page or Twitter feed, or visit shellshockeddoc.com. DVDs and a digital version for download, will be available soon.