Depictions of Violence in Documentaries: How Much is Too Much?

The question faced by the director of 'Valentine Road,' an HBO doc about a 2008 classroom shooting

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They are questions that weigh heavily on the minds of photojournalists: To what degree are images of violence necessary to tell a story? And to what degree should they be hidden for the sake of decency or privacy or avoiding trauma? On TIME’s photo blog LightBox, for example, photographs of war and death — often shocking and brutal — are presented to shed light on the horrors of conflict.

You might not expect a documentarian working in California to be faced with that same issues—but, during the filming and editing of Valentine Road (premiering on HBO on Oct. 7), it was one with which director Marta Cunningham grappled. The film takes a deep look at the February 2008 shooting of 15-year-old Lawrence King by his 14-year-old classmate Brandon McInerney. The director, who had never made a feature film before, originally intended to make a short film or short story about the event, but she ended up filming in Oxnard, Calif., for years. “It’s a very complicated story and the more you peel back the layers, the more complicated it gets,” explains producer Sasha Alpert.

One of those complications: graphic crime-scene images.

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In the course of the trial, the courtroom was presented with the police photographs of the school computer lab in which the shooting took place (the bloodiest of which is not seen in the clip shown above). Cunningham knew that she could get access to those documents, but she had to decide how much it would be right to show.

In the end, she decided to answer “yes” to the question of whether to show gore, as long as it was done “specifically” rather than as a random display of blood. It’s a grisly scene, despite the fact that the victim has been removed, but the filmmaker felt that it wouldn’t be enough to just describe what had happened without showing it.

“We didn’t want to be grotesque about it but we did want to be sure that people understood that a child was murdered, in a classroom, and we wanted to take you through the experience that these children had in that room and what they saw,” she says. “We wanted to make sure that you felt what they felt.”

The news that someone has been shot in a school is not shocking enough anymore, Cunningham believes, and she wanted to make it impossible to see what had happened and not feel anything. Photographs of the blood on the ground where a child was shot get that message across. “We wanted you to understand that a life was taken and there was horror in that room,” she says. “It has to stop. This is a call to action.”