An interview with Valentine Road filmmaker Marta Cunningham and producer Sasha Alpert
Like the towns of Columbine, Colorado, or Newtown, Connecticut, “hardly anyone knows where Oxnard, California is unless they’ve heard about the story,” as one resident puts it. The site of the classroom shooting of an openly gender non-conforming eighth grade student Larry King by classmate Brandon McInerney, Oxnard has been immortalized, but not in a good way. The documentary Valentine Road (HBO Documentary Films/BMP) explores the events of the day, what occurred leading up to the brutal act of violence, and what transpired afterwards.
Gregg Shapiro: Marta, do you remember where you were when you first heard about the shooting death of Larry King?
Marta Cunningham: I came to it later. I read an article, about five months after, in the Southern Poverty Law Center magazine. I was horrified that this event happened, that I had not heard about it and that it wasn’t still being talked about on the news. The school shooting or some aspect of it – GLBT rights. But there was nothing at that time about this child being killed in the classroom. I immediately started doing as much research as I could and found that a lot of the media coverage was victim-blaming, inaccurate. I was really upset by that. I also wanted to do a film on the incident and realized during my research that what I really needed to do was a documentary. Because this is much bigger than just the incident.
As a filmmaker, that was what drew you to the tragedy, finding a way to tell this story?
MC: Really what I wanted to do was show the complexities and not just focus on the incident. That was just too black and white of a story for me. It didn’t interest me at all. What really interested me the most was the complexities about both of the boys. What was similar, not just what was different. I wanted to go through that experience and bring in other voices who knew these boys.
I’m glad that you mentioned the voices, because Valentine Road contains a large number of interviews, including friends, family members, teachers, legal professionals, and even jurors. Did you find that people were willing to discuss the murder and trial or did you have to convince some of the interview subjects to participate?
MC: I think that when the defense attorneys found out that I had been talking to the prosecution for three years they realized that they needed to let me continue talking to the family. They had started talking to the family at one point and then they were really concentrating on the trial, so they didn’t want their focus to be anywhere else. They realized that if I had been talking to the prosecution and everyone else, they needed to get behind this film if they wanted Brandon portrayed in the correct light.
Valentine Road shines a light on a number of issues, beginning with homophobia compounded by the commonplace school violence. In fact, a very telling moment in the film occurs when a couple of the students being interviewed seemed unsurprised that a shooting occurred, much less that it involved Larry. What do you think that says about the way these kinds of occurrences have affected students and the way they view life?
Sasha Alpert: I think they live without a lot of adult supervision. There was no one intervening in this tense situation at the school. Neither of these kids had stable home situations, so they both lacked parents to guide them through a very difficult adolescence. Oxnard is a divided, mostly agricultural migrant labor community, and there is violence there. There is certainly gang activity and white supremacist activity there.
MC: But I think it’s fair to say that kids grow up in a different world than we did. School shootings are reported all the time. This is something that, unfortunately, our society has accepted as a part of the fabric of childhood, regardless of whether it’s Oxnard or Newtown, a “nice,” suburban middle-class town. The problem is that we’ve accepted it. I don’t think it matters what neighborhood you’re in. They were so quick to be comfortable with the shooting because this is just part of our culture now. I think it’s horrific.
You mentioned the white supremacist aspect and Valentine Road is full of surprises, including
the revelation that Brandon was a “budding white supremacist,” and, as you said, the way that jurors made murder victim Larry the cause of his own murder. Some of the jurors even wore
“Free Brandon” bracelets when they were being interviewed on ABC at the time of the retrial.
Were these things surprising to you, as well, and were there other things that shocked you
while you made the film?
MC: I think by that time nothing really surprised me. I was pretty jaded by that point in the journey. I was making the film and I was really hungry to tell a story, so I had shut down a lot of the emotional roller coaster that I had been going through in the very beginning. Now it was just a case of getting the footage. No, I wasn’t shocked because I had witnessed, by this time, so much homophobia. No, it wasn’t shocking to me at all. What was shocking to me was that they got to wear them [the bracelets] in the courtroom. That was shocking.
Marta, you make use of animation when it comes to the depiction of Larry’s trans alter-ego.
MC: I wanted to create a lightness of touch. That’s what Larry seemed to have. I wanted to keep that childhood notion alive, that fantasy aspect alive. I talked to a lot of trans men and women who talked about depictions that they had when they were younger. Sometimes they had to create alter egos to survive the amount of bullying and harassment that they went through.
Valentine Road also has a Valentine’s theme throughout – beginning with Larry and Brandon’s Valentine’s Day interaction, Valentine Road is the street where the entrance to the cemetery where Larry is buried and Larry’s heart was donated to a little girl on Valentine’s Day. Has this had any effect on the way you feel about Valentine’s Day?
MC: I never thought about it. [Laughs] I really try to keep my private life separate from anything that I do work-wise. I haven’t really gone there. I’m very good at compartmentalizing. I always think about Larry on February 12, the day he was shot, and I think about them on the 14th, but I don’t pour it into the personal Valentine’s Day category.
Have you started working on or thinking about your next film?
MC: I’m working on some narrative, writing two different narrative pieces.
SA: I’m developing a couple of new documentaries.