On the 20th of April 1999 a school shooting occurred in Colombine, Colorado State in the USA. On the 7th of November 2007 a school shooting occurred in Jokela, Finland. On the 23rd of November 2014 the documentary film Pekka. Inside the Mind of a School Shooter, made by Alexander Oey, premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. The film tries to discuss the spree shooting in Jokela in which the 18-year-old Pekka shot eight people at his high school and finally himself. By looking at Pekka’s situation from different perspectives of the people involved, the film attempts to give an insight into the story behind the shooter. Despite the fact that this film concerns a spree shooting in Finland, it was made by a Dutch director and has already been seen by a Dutch audience. Why did Alexander Oey want to make this film, and does it help to get an outsiders perspective on this terrifying event?
Ever since the school shooting in Columbine, Oey has been concerned with the phenomenon of spree shootings. Even though this event first seemed incomprehensible and very far away from the Netherlands, spree shootings started to occur in Europe as well. For example in Erfurt, Germany, there was a school shooting in 2002. Since these events were suddenly happening very near Oey’s own country, he decided to start researching the cases in Europe to see if he could make a film out of the subject. He noticed that in several cases in Germany, the shooters where dealing with pressures to succeed for example in their school environment. This was not what Oey was looking for. He wanted to show that there isn’t always a psychological disorder that is noticeable by the people close to the shooter, and that it might be hard to foresee that such thing could happen. In Pekka’s case Oey saw a seemingly ordinary boy who’s parents where aware of the pressures to succeed in the society. They were a loving family, who seemed to live a normal life. Although Pekka suffered from panic disorder and obsessive-compulsive neuroses, these disorders were mild and not unmanageable for a boy in his puberty. The starting point for Oey was that the audience should be able to sympathize both with Pekka and his parents, and that the viewer could somehow identify with the things they were dealing with.
The fact that this spree shooting took place in Finland was not a defining aspect for Oey when he set out to make this film. In general this is a subject that is hard to get out into the open. As Oey himself says: “Initially it seemed impossible to make a film about a ‘school shooter’. No one wanted to talk about it when I asked. Doors stayed shut until someone from within the community decided to work with me.” The Finnish community in particular might not be the easiest one to approach, and it is not easy to make them talk about such an upsetting event. The film shows that it was more preferably forgotten. One of the students tells that quite soon after the shooting the school organized a day out, the purpose of which was to do ‘fun’ activities while she would have rather mourned together with the people who were dealing with the same grief.
An outsider’s point of view can give new insights into a situation that is very intense for the community. This might even be the reason why I was asked to write this text, as I am a Dutch film scholar and part of the staff at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam 2014. As this shooting had such an impact on Finland, the film can help to discuss these issues and maybe prevent this from happening again. Once Oey got access to the community, people where willing to talk openly about the shooting because, as he says: “Most of them realized that concealing the shooting at a school would not help to prevent these events in the future.” It is clear that this issue is difficult to talk about, but free discussion and outsider’s perspective might help in starting the dialogue.
The question remains if we can get an insight into the mind of a school shooter. Can we indeed identify in some way with Pekka and his family by watching this film? The documentary is constructed out of several elements, namely the interviews with the ones involved, such as teachers and students, shots of the neighbourhood where the shooting took place, archive material such as pictures from the crime scene and the nationally broadcasted interview with Pekka’s parents, and YouTube videos made by Pekka himself. Especially the YouTube-videos can have a strong effect on the audience. While the interviewees tell their side of the story, it comes to light that everyone sees the situation on different ways. As Pekka’s online friend says in the film: “Even if you are close friends with someone, you only get bits and pieces of their life. You don’t get the bigger picture of what they are actually dealing with.” The intimidating and violent videos made by Pekka give a glimpse of what was really going on in the boy’s mind. The stories of the ones involved and the shots of the neighborhood, in which the shooting took place, take us back to the moment and make us re-live it in slow motion.
Pekka. Inside the Mind of a School Shooter reminds us about the fact that people always have their own perspectives on situations, and quick condemnation isn’t always fair. To reconstruct an event like this, and in order to make clear that there is more than one side to a story, one has to hear different opinions. Oey has shown that it is important to talk about the shooting in order to gain perspective and prevent this from happening in the future. Therefore the film isn’t only about a school shooting in Finland but also about school shootings in general. It shows us different ways of experiencing the event, but also reminds us of the fact that we can never know for sure what is actually going on in the school shooter’s mind.
The film Pekka. Inside the Mind of a School Shooter was a production of the Netherlandic production company Submarine in co-production with the Budist Broadcasting Foundation in association with YLE and Vaski Filmi as part of a series named ‘De drie vergiften’.
Text: Roos Hekkens, Film Scholar
Pekka. Inside the Mind of a School Shooter is screened in DocPoint on Wednesday 28.1. at 19:00 and on Sunday 1.2. at 21:15.