A survivor’s story about Columbine

Laura Farber, director/writer of We Are Columbine, tells her story

Karly Kaufman
Staff Writer

Laura Farber’s life changed forever on April 20, 1999. Shortly after gathering with friends at a table in the sprawling cafeteria of Columbine High School (Littleton, CO), gunshots rang out. What followed was confusion, a hasty escape, and a 19-year-long journey to find emotional and physical healing.

Farber, a film studies graduate of Columbia College in Chicago, found healing in writing, directing and producing a critically acclaimed documentary, “We Are Columbine,” which premiered at the 37th Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival on the 19th anniversary of the tragic high school shooting.

Farber focused her film on four survivors, all fellow freshmen classmates and a first-year teacher at the time of the shooting, to fully grasp what they went through in the ensuing years.

“We were all freshmen. Everyone I talked to asked, ‘Did you talk to anyone that was injured?’ No, I didn’t. And I think that I didn’t do that on purpose because we’ve already heard from them before, and it’s not quite about that. It didn’t really matter where you were that day in the school, it still had a strong emotional impact on a variety of levels,” Farber said by phone just 24 hours before the film’s premiere.

The soft-spoken, but confident filmmaker wanted to create the documentary to help others heal in the wake of similar tragedies.

“It was important to follow up on a really personal and tragic event. People only knew what was being presented in the media and by the media,” she said. “I just wanted to tell the story from our perspective, from the source, and I wanted it to be different and not focus on the crime as much as how it affects us.”

The documentary took seven years to be brought to the big screen after countless hours of filming, interviews, reviewing news media footage, and reliving the moments leading up to, during and after the then worst school shooting in U.S. history. Farber ultimately saw the making of the film as a way for her to cope with things she had never faced before.

“I got to work on myself during this process, which I didn’t really anticipate,” she reflects. “I just thought I was making my first film and it was something personal and a story I got to tell. It turned out that I had some emotional baggage to work through.”

One of the greatest challenges Farber faced was walking through the school to recapture moments she and her now 30-something adult classmates lived through.

The “visceral reaction during filming” was very challenging to experience and relive, she said.

“Being back in the school, the cafeteria where we were sitting, the classrooms…it was very difficult. I thought I was just going to pop in and do our thing and then be done,” she said.

However, it was not a quick in-and-out.

“Having attended Columbine for four years, and then not being back inside since graduation until that first day several years ago to film … I thought everything was going to be fine. It wasn’t,” she said.

Farber said there is no book or script for how to heal for school shooting survivors. She chose to create a documentary, and initially thought, “I could help survivors not knowing there would be that many.”

Farber began filming before the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2014. Today, sadly, student survivors of similar tragedies look to the Columbine survivors for advice on how to cope and process what has happened.

“They were asking ‘How do we handle this?’ Being able to look back now after 19 years, and what it’s like to experience that and live through it,” she said. “It’s important to give yourself permission to just let some things go. Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

Farber, like many Columbine survivors and first responders, experience a sense of dread and fear each time there’s a breaking news story of a school shooting.

“It’s got to stop,” Farber stated.

The Parkland, Florida (Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School) survivor-led movement against gun violence is different than the Columbine student response. And, it is one that Farber praises.

“These kids are super angry right now. That will go a long way. Initially you’re in shock and then eventually you get angry,” she said.

Today’s students were not born when the Columbine tragedy occurred. But they have grown up knowing and understanding that school shootings can happen at any time.

“We didn’t grow up doing lockdown drills, so it’s totally different,” Farber explained.

The platform Parkland survivors and so many other students are using to make their voices heard is through social media.

“We didn’t have social media,” she said. “I think it’s powerful. I think that they can demand change and put an end to this living in fear to go to school. I am a big supporter of them and they are using their voices. Not that we couldn’t, but maybe we weren’t ready to do that at the time.”

The Columbine shooting is still an event that we grow up talking about. Having lived through it, Farber takes audiences through a powerful story of how four freshmen students and their freshmen English teacher experienced it and how they continue to cope today.

Each anniversary date – April 20 – is a day when Columbine High School is closed. Students remember the 13 victims by going out into the community for a day of service. They carry the banner “A Time to Remember, A Time to Hope,” first established by the Columbine High School survivors 19 years ago.

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