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'Valentine Road': Juvenile Hate Crime Spurs Activist Documentary

By Katie Murphy

From Marta Cunningham's Valentine Road. Photo: Dawn Boldren.

In February 2008, a day before Valentine's Day, a 14-year-old boy in Oxnard, California, killed his 15 year-old classmate with two gunshots at point-blank range, in a middle school classroom. Brandon McInerney murdered Larry King after King had asked him to be his valentine.

When filmmaker Marta Cunningham heard about this story, she became obsessed with it. Cunningham amassed 400 hours of footage from four years of filming to create her first documentary, Valentine Road, which premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and won the Outstanding Documentary Award at the Frameline San Francisco LGBT International Film Festival. Cunningham spoke with Documentary about her inspiration for the film and her hope for outreach and education.

How did you first hear about this story?

Marta Cunningham: I read a very short article in the Southern Poverty Law Center's magazine, and I was horrified and blown away that this had happened in California and I had heard nothing about it. It was something that I can honestly say rarely happens to me, but I read it, called the person who wrote the article immediately, and she told me I should get in touch with Casa Pacifica [a residential center for abused and neglected children], where Lawrence was living when he was killed, and from there, I went to Brandon's hearings and started filming his friends and whomever I could talk to who knew him.

I was just obsessed with this story. I wanted to know how someone so young as Brandon could develop this kind of hatred for someone who was so courageous and outspoken and free in himself. And it was mind-blowing to me that this had happened in California. I was born and raised in Northern California, and I'd always thought of California as a state that was much more forgiving and accepting of difference. I think I was idealistic to a certain degree; I had traveled the world and by this point I had two children, and I just was really angry about [this story]. It really angered me deeply that this wonderful child, who is biracial and who seemed to be exploring his gender identity, was so misunderstood and hated by his community—not everyone in the community, but most of the people who knew him at the time.

It was a snowball effect: The more I found out about Lawrence, the more I wanted to just dive in to really uncover who he was, and the more I found out about Brandon, the more I wanted to find out who he was and where he came from and what kind of mindset this child was living in, to kill a human being? What was his environment like, that put him in this mindset?

Do you think part of why this story resonated with you is because you are a parent?

I think being a parent had a huge part in the responsibility I feel toward my own children, but also just children in general. I think that if we don't speak up when we see these types of injustices, then how dare we have any kind of say in what we want in our world? Both of my parents were activists and teachers, so I was raised with a very strong sense of voice, and here I saw this child who had this incredible gift of having a voice in being different, and it was extinguished far too young. It just hit me to my core. At the time, I was thinking about going to film school and I felt, "I have to tell the story now." I first thought it might be a narrative film, but I realized, "This is a documentary and we have to start shooting right now."

Were there moments when you struggled emotionally to make this film?

Emotionally, it was a very difficult space to live in. I think the most difficult aspect of it was talking to people who had post-traumatic stress disorder and didn't know that they had it. I had to ask myself many times where my boundaries began and ended and where theirs began and ended, especially with the children. I was basically watching them unravel, and I didn't feel, on a moral or ethical basis, that it was okay for me to continue filming while they were in this state.

So I found therapists for some of the kids I interviewed, and they're still in therapy and they're doing really well. That was the toughest thing for me to do: to say, "How can I continue filming these children when they're unraveling before my eyes and I know the reasons why they are, and they don't really know?" I remember asking Mariah at one point, "Do you know what post-traumatic stress disorder is?" And she said, "No, I don't." So I said, "Will you do me a favor and ask the counselor at school?" They had group counseling at school, and so the next time I saw her, she said, "I asked her about it, but she said she didn't know a lot about it. She said that she heard something about it being through war," and I was like, "Okay. I need to get involved."

So it became part of outreach for me as well, which is why it's so important that Bunim/Murray Productions got together with the Ford Foundation. They're continuing to help us with outreach and social engagement programs and educational programs because unfortunately, school shootings and shootings in our community and our neighborhoods are happening every day. Our children are witnessing, if not being the victims of, these horrible crimes, and no one is getting proper help. It may have changed now; I think that unfortunately, with the horrible circumstances of Newtown, it sounded like that community was doing a lot of outreach with the children of the parents, but it's happening far too often, and I wanted to show that. And I didn't want to just write off communities that maybe have lower socio-economic backgrounds than other communities; I felt that there was a real class issue about this particular school shooting, and the little help that they received was absolutely stunning to me.

Is there a call to action you hope viewers take away from the film?

People have come up to me and said, "What do you want us to do? I'm so angry!" And I've said, "Well, go volunteer! Go be a part of your community and go be a part of your neighborhood and find out if you're doing what you need to be doing to be an ally to the LGBT community. Get involved." There are so many straight people who feel that LGBT people are completely equal across the board in every way, and what they don't understand sometimes is that these horrible circumstances are happening to people in the LGBT community and that they can be a presence in a positive way and they can affect change just by being a part of the movement. That was a real hope and dream that I had for this film, that it would have an afterlife. I'm very proud of the work everyone did for this film, but the real reason I made it was to affect change, for awareness and acceptance. I think we need to go way beyond tolerance. Tolerance is not enough. Acceptance is really the only word that should be attached to anyone of difference.

Valentine Road premieres October 7 on HBO.

Katie Bieze received her MA in Film & Video from American University, and her BA in Literature with Certificates in Documentary Studies and Film/Video/Digital from Duke University. She currently works for Share Our Strength, a nonprofit organization working to end childhood hunger in the United States.