When they asked Sheldon Renan to watch The Killing of America at a recent film festival, it was the first time the director had seen the film he had worked on since it was released thirty-five years ago. Afterwards, Renan remarked how amazed he was at how well the film played more than three decades later and how relevant its message still was in 21st century America.
Originally produced in 1981, Renan, along with co-producers Leonard Schrader and Matachiro Yamamoto set out to document America’s seemingly unending love affair with violence. From iconic newsreel footage to chilling interviews with convicted killers, Renan and his team sought to depict a terrifying aspect of Reagan-era America through a brutally honest lens. Despite some limited theatrical showings, the documentary has never received an official American release, until now.
The Killing of America is told in narrative style. Describing horrifically tragic events of the last half-century with pinpoint accuracy and chilling realism. But perhaps more than anything else, the film is an ominous reminder that social, economic and racial injustice as well as the proliferation of personal firearms has not abated in the thirty-five years since the documentary’s creation.
I recently spoke with Renan about The Killing of America and more in this exclusive interview.
How did you become involved in The Killing of America project?
I had done a lot of heavy research in the world of homicide and gun culture in preparation for a script I was working on when I met Leonard Schrader and Matachiro Yamamoto. They wanted to use the film Faces of Death as a springboard for this new project they were working on about homicide and violence. They were looking to put together a team of young filmmakers that were very ambitions and loved films, but they were having trouble finding clips. I had come out of the film archivist world and put together some clips for them. It was exactly what they were looking for and they asked me if I could help them.
What was the initial reaction like to the film when it premiered and why has it never received a proper U.S. release until now?
The film was initially made to be released in the fall in Japan. It was the seventh highest grosser there that year as well as a hit in a number of other countries. The company that bought the rights to distribute the film in America did a preview for coming attractions, but a high ranking official thought it was taboo and would terrify people. I even remember at the cast and crew screening about a third of the people walked out.
Aside from the fashion and vintage cars, the documentary looks like something you’d see on the news today.
Although it looks like a documentary, nothing is fake or has been rigged. The only change is that the sound has been enhanced in some places. Len’s writing is incredible and Chuck Riley’s voice in the narration could cut through metal. He was telling a complete story. A narrative arc about the subject. By the end, you’re inside the mind of killers, which isn’t very comfortable.
What are some of the parallels you see today as compared to when the film was made?
It’s the same pattern. The main thing is that the person pulling the trigger is usually someone who has a very bad sense of self-esteem. I remember the L.A. coroner telling us that it comes down to the person deciding whether to kill themselves or someone else. When you’re unhappy about something in yourself, you tend to project that flaw onto other people.
What have you learned about us as a society by making this film and seeing it again thirty-five years later?
You observe that if you don’t treat people well or if they’re not raised well and given structure and self-esteem, you’re going to pay for it later in a very bad way. You also can’t let emotion rule you because the long-term effects can be enormously devastating. The third thing is that people have to have the right to have access to and have guns as it says in the Constitution–but not one that can punch a hole in a tank and not without background checks.
Is there a message you think viewers should take away from watching The Killing of America?
If you’ve had a lot of violence in your life this is a film you shouldn’t see or show to your kids, as you’ll find it very upsetting. Early on, the coroner’s office allowed us to film and the day we were there L.A. was in the middle of a crime wave and they were running six autopsy tables at one time. This is a complex phenomenon and something you can’t run away from. This film is one step in thinking about and understanding violence and how epidemic it is in American culture and recognizing that you cannot escape the connection between it and the easy availability of guns. People also need to be careful about this loose talk about destroying our infrastructure because you don’t like one party, candidate or president. Because what lies on the other side is nothing we want to go back to.