When I saw the screening of the ten Academy Award nominated short films (five animated and five live action) in early 2017, I thought it was a solid set of films. I liked all or almost all ten films to a significant degree, and I didn’t have a clear preference for the animated nominees over the live action nominees or vice versa. When I saw the ten Academy Award nominated short films (again five animated and five live action) in early 2018, I thought the animated nominees were a clear step down on average from the previous year. On the other hand, I thought the live action nominees were even better on average than the previous year. There were some really excellent live action short films this time around.
And the best of a very good group is DeKalb Elementary. I thought this film was mesmerizing from start to finish. It’s 20 minutes long, but the time passes so quickly watching it that it feels like it’s over in half or less that time. This is absolutely edge-of-your-seat material.
DeKalb Elementary is the story of a school shooting incident. It obviously was made well before the Parkland, Florida school shooting that became a huge story—even bigger and much more sustained than any previous school shooting story—in 2018, but that certainly gave it an eerie relevance when I saw it.
From what I read later, the film is based on an incident that occurred in 2013 at a school in Atlanta. And evidently it sticks more closely to the actual events than movies based on fact typically do. Much of that incident was preserved on tape in the form of the 911 call made from the school office. I read that the film script only deviates from the transcript of that call minimally, and adds a modest amount of material that would have happened before or after the call.
I thought it was powerful as hell even before reading that. Now that I know it’s real, or nearly real, it feels even more powerful.
Pretty much the entire film takes place in the school office. For the first few moments, it looks like an ordinary school day. Then a peculiar young man (Steven) enters the office. The woman at the desk (Cassandra) politely seeks to help him, but it’s unclear what he wants.
Then he pulls out a rifle. Everyone else is able to slip away or avoid the office, but Cassandra is stuck with him.
For the next several extraordinarily intense minutes, the obviously mentally disturbed Steven is indecisive. Clearly more nuts than malevolent, he’s like a five year old who is acting almost entirely on impulse with little reason or intent behind what he’s doing. Why did he bring the gun into a school? Whom, if anyone, did he intend to kill? What, if anything had upset him; what was he responding to? There’s likely little in the way of answers to these questions, because he probably had no such discernible reasons at all, or whatever reasons he had were superficial and fleeting and have already left his mind.
He has some sense that he’s gotten himself into something where he’s going to be in terrible trouble, but he only vaguely at most understands how he did so or what he can now do about it.
In effect, Cassandra is faced with a bomb with a hair trigger. She converses with him—insofar as he’s able to converse coherently—and tries to keep him calm. She picks up on the fact that as much as anything he wants out of this situation he finds himself in, but that he’s also so unstable that his panic could easily result in his shooting her or himself, or bursting out of the office into the school and shooting anyone else he comes across.
She tells him she’s summoning help for him as she simultaneously speaks with him and a 911 operator, acting as the middleman passing messages between them. He is half paying attention to her and half preoccupied and off in his own world. Anytime he feels especially confused or threatened by how things are developing he waves his loaded gun around to remind himself and the world that he still has options.
Purely as suspense the film is as compelling as you can imagine, but what additionally spoke to me is the psychological dynamics, especially how Cassandra responds to the situation and why.
In Kantian moral philosophy there is a concept of treating another person as an end-in-himself (good) versus treating him as a means to an end (bad). Treating someone as a means basically means objectifying them, or treating them as a thing rather than a person and using whatever input on them will result in the output that fits your ends in a way that ignores or denies the fact that they have ends of their own that are equally as valuable.
It strikes me that Cassandra is in a situation where, one, it’s almost impossible to avoid giving in to the temptation to treat Steven as a means in this sense, and, two, all but the most extreme Kantian moral theories would allow that this is an exception where it’s morally permissible to do so.
That is, presumably the situation is so extreme and the stakes are so high, that a person would do or say anything to keep Steven from shooting anyone, and this would be considered justified by just about everyone. Truth would be out the window as a moral requirement; this would be a hundred percent pragmatism.
If talking to him would keep him from firing that gun and increase the probability that he will give himself up, then you talk to him. If addressing him like you’re his friend would do so, then you do that. If taking an authoritative tone and assertively telling him what to do would do so, then you do that. If begging him would do so, then you do that. If lying and telling him that the police have promised he’ll be left alone and not arrested if he gives up now would do so, then you do that. And so on.
You’d see him as basically a lethal machine that you have to find the buttons to turn off (i.e, the aforementioned bomb with a hair trigger), not as a human being that for moral reasons you must limit yourself from manipulating.
But what blew me away is that ironically it felt like the very intensity of this situation, the very high stakes nature of the interaction, put Cassandra in a place where she is hyper aware of Steven’s humanity—his status as a Kantian end-in-himself—and maximally empathetic toward him.
When she speaks to him in a compassionate manner, and assures him that she wants him to get all the help he needs, it feels like even if at first that’s a purely pragmatic thing—that she’s doing it because she’s guessing that that’s what will be most likely to result in his not shooting anyone—over time her feigning caring about him and his fate gradually is replaced by her genuinely caring about him and his fate.
Maybe not. Maybe she’s just an extraordinary actress in effect (I don’t mean that maybe the actress playing the part is an extraordinary actress but that maybe the character is) and she’s feigning everything in their interaction from start to finish. But the empathy feels stunningly real, to the point where when she tells him late in the film, “I want you to know that I love you,” I totally believed her and was choked up by the depth of the human connection she had allowed to happen between herself and someone she came to recognize not just as a threat but as a suffering fellow human being.
It’s the kind of thing where I can actually picture her wanting to remain a part of his life, to ultimately befriend him and visit him in prison or in whatever asylum he ends up in, to try to assist him to get the help he needs. Maybe she’d refrain from doing that because the experience was so traumatic, but I’ll bet a part of her feels compelled in that direction.
Maybe it’s not that unusual psychologically to be able to see past the danger to feel genuine empathy for someone in a situation like that. I suppose it could be akin to the so-called “Stockholm Syndrome” where hostages sometimes come to sympathize with their captors. But I think of that as something that needs to develop over a long time period. What’s going on with Cassandra doesn’t feel like she’s being worn down and in effect brainwashed into being more sympathetic toward Steven than she would be if she were able to remain objective. It feels more like the situation has clarified her moral vision than that it has clouded it.
Most viewers will see her as a hero for remaining cool enough under pressure to manipulate him into not shooting anyone. I see her as a hero for having the moral depth to see and appreciate the humanity even of someone who is an imminent threat to her life.
An amazing, inspiring story, and an amazing, inspiring film.