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  • Writer's pictureMaurice Rubio-McMillon

Best Documentary – Surviving Pulse: Life After A Mass Shooting

A Human Interest Story We Need To Talk About

Produced by Nancy McBride, directed by Alexa Sheehan, and edited by Julie Chalhoub, the film follows survivors, families of victims, and advocates for human rights in the wake of the mass shooting on June 12th, 2016 at Pulse Nightclub. The film was shot over 5 years and allowed those who were deeply affected to tell their personal, authentic stories.

As a volunteer for the TCI Film Society, I was fortunate to be able to screen the film prior to the festival. Immediately upon seeing it, I was moved to tears and gripped by grief and anger. The stories of love and dedication shared in this film are as incredible as the act that created them was monstrous.

The massacre at Pulse took 49 lives and shocked the world.

A Hot Spot For LGBTQIA+ Night Life

Pulse Nightclub in Orlando was a popular club that many LGBTQ Floridians and visitors flocked to on the weekends. It was a complex that featured different music styles in each of the three rooms. Like many nightclubs, some weekend nights were tailored to specific cultural/ethnic groups through musical selections and entertainers. It was the hot spot for a good time, and during Pride month, June, it was certain to be packed.

Something I hear all the time that resonates with me is that "we were going to be there that night".

I think, for many of us who used to frequent Pulse but weren't there that night, a sense of survivor's guilt runs across our hearts at the mention of it. Speaking for myself and those I know, we feel overcome with grief about what happened, and a sense of self-disgust for feeling that survivor's guilt since we weren't there, yet I'm not sure what else to call it. While we were enjoying ourselves that night, other members of our community were being gunned down and fighting for their lives.

When It's Quiet

A rainbow backdrops the faces of individuals featured in the Surviving Pulse documentary film.

In the months that followed the massacre, the media coverage made it seem like communities were coming together and establishing new connections with the survivors. Tragedy can have that effect, to bring people together to heal. So, over time, I think we all sort of just assumed everyone was getting the help they needed and the world was changing.

And it was... but not in the way we thought it would. Victims who survived that night lost the quintessential financial, mental/physical health, and community support that we all assumed they were getting. Essentially, they fell through the cracks; while memorials were being planned and money collected for the future museum, they were and are still fighting for healing and peace.

Worse yet, politicians, like Governor DeSantis, began supporting anti-LGBTQ policies and eradicating diversity, equity, and inclusion from every public institution, like those where the gunman attended. Hate crimes began to have an uptick in American society, and mass shootings continued to rise. Since Pulse, there have been nearly 4,000 mass shootings in the United States, with a major increase being in the last three years, coinciding with political rhetoric designed to ostracize LGBTQ+, specifically transgender individuals, from society.

In 2023, this year alone, there have already been more mass shootings in the United States than there have been days in the calendar year; 476. A total of 25,198 people have died as of August 1, 2023, due to gun violence.

This documentary underscores many of those issues.

To Be Human

The stories of the victims and survivors cover relationships, religion, politics, substance abuse, physical impairment, racism, misinformation, and so much more. The director really didn't want to tell a political story, but she knew that the survivors' stories would clarify the issues that exist within our society because they are living the truth of it.

During the TCI Film Society's 2023 Summer Film Series, the director and producer were present and shared details about filming the documentary after the screening. One quote they shared from a viewer at another screening was that a woman said, "you humanized them".

We all paused, stunned in disbelief. "Humanized"?

They are humans.

We have mothers and fathers that are both proud and disappointed. We have romantic relationships, some of which are successful, some of which fail. We have friendships with people we love and admire. We have fears of abandonment and exclusion. We have places we hold as sacred, with rituals and beliefs. We bleed, we cry, we feel pain and joy.

We are human, and... we can coexist.

The Night That Almost Was

Nolli looks into the camera for a selfie as Manny reads from his phone behind him.
Nolli and Manny, Key West Pride 2016

The night of the massacre, my partner and I were at Key West Pride. It was the first time I felt accepted in our community. Gay males aren't always super welcoming to each other. They get very cliquey and I think they project rejection to steer clear of it themselves, but at the 2016 Key West Pride it was a whole different vibe: we splashed in pools at resorts with people of all ages, played volleyball and beach ball with men of all shapes and sizes, enjoyed good wine and spirits with hilarious lesbians, and shared stories of love, heartbreak, and redemption with drunken firefighters from Boston.

It was amazing.

Waking From The Dream

Then, on Sunday morning as we ate breakfast in a Key West restaurant while reflecting on the experience we caught a glimpse of a news broadcast on TV. The news headline read "Mass Shooting at Pulse Nightclub", the other place we would have gone that weekend. It took place a few hours before we got up in the early morning. Our mouths gaped open and tears streamed from our eyes as we stared in disbelief at the TV. Our newfound sense of community and acceptance vacated our minds to be replaced by fear and the feeling of persecution.

At the time, I worked at Indian River State College. Returning to work that Monday was bizarre, as I was approached by many employees from the parking lot to my building who wanted to check up on me. When I finally reached my office, I was greeted with an email that was sent to all employees from the marketing department telling us not to speak to the media about the Pulse shooting.

I was confused, and initially thought it was an attack on us. Not long after reading it though, I was called by someone in the marketing department. He, too, wanted to check in on me, and reassert that I do not speak to the media as I was someone who often found his way into things.

As the day unfolded I learned that the gunman was a student at our College. Someone we all most likely interacted with, assisted, and helped along his course of studies.

Someone who would have shot and killed us had we been there that night.

There are no words I have to describe the feeling I had when I found out, but I went home and I cried.

All anyone wants to do is love and be loved, whole.

View The Film

Surviving Pulse: Life After A Mass Shooting is not currently available on any streaming platform or out in theatres, but you can see it at special screenings. To learn more, follow their Facebook page.


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