Day 6

'It lives with you forever': Parkland shooting survivor Victoria Gonzalez on a year of grief

High school senior Victoria Gonzalez's boyfriend Joaquin Oliver was killed in the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. She opens up about her community's lasting grief in the new documentary After Parkland.

New documentary After Parkland follows survivors, friends and family in the aftermath of a mass shooting

Victoria Gonzalez is a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. She's featured in the new documentary After Parkland. (ABC Documentaries)
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Each day Victoria Gonzalez walks her high school's hallways, she can picture Joaquin Oliver dancing with headphones on.

The pair had known each other before they started dating as students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

She dragged him to art museums and they took in a movie — always with root beer and popcorn — two, sometimes three times a week.

Oliver was among the 17 students and staff killed in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas last February.

"Every day is a struggle just knowing where you are, looking around, seeing memories flash before your eyes and then looking at a building knowing that's where your best friend died," Gonzales, 18, told Day 6 guest host Saroja Coelho.

On Feb. 14, 2018, a lone gunman killed 17 people, including 14 students and three staff, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. (ABC Documentaries)

Gonzalez is one of several students and parents profiled in the ABC Documentaries film After Parkland, which made its international debut Thursday at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto.

The film follows surviving students, and their parents, from the days immediately following the massacre through to graduation. Each shares a story of heartbreak — and resilience — as they work to effect change in the aftermath.

"The things you're hearing are extremely emotional — something that people shouldn't have to deal with, that people shouldn't have to live through," said Jake Lefferman, the film's co-director.

"For us, as journalists, it's really important to go in and do our jobs because there is a higher purpose to the impact that these stories can have."

A delicate touch

Lefferman, along with co-director Emily Taguchi, arrived in Parkland the week after the shooting.

They wanted After Parkland to highlight the stories of the people behind the headlines, and what happens when a community is left to recover after the cameras leave.

In the film, the shooter's name is never mentioned.

"You knock on doors very delicately. You try to maintain the respect that people deserve," said Lefferman.

"We just spent time with people. There were a lot of times where we didn't bring our cameras out … It was about creating relationships, forming friendships and hopefully lifelong relationships with these people."

I hope that it gives insight to people who don't know what this grief is, and what this trauma is, and how it lives with you forever.- Victoria Gonzalez

What struck Taguchi was how well-composed Gonzalez and her peers were.

"They were able to take the long view, step back from it and talk to us about the significance of it," she told Day 6.

Lefferman and Taguchi say they were careful to focus on the families and their work.

Two fathers — Joaquin's dad Manuel Oliver and Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow was killed — play a prominent role in the film.

Oliver started an organization promoting gun law reform, and uses art in protest. In the film, he paints a mural of his son wearing a cap and gown, holding his death certificate, as a crowd watches.

Joaquin Oliver's father, Manuel, paints a mural in Chicago, Ill. Manuel Oliver started Change The Ref, an gun reform advocacy group, after the mass shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. (ABC Documentaries)

He then hammers 17 holes into the mural — one for each person lost — and places a sunflower in each.

"It floored the large group who was watching," Lefferman said.

Pollack became a school safety activist, advocating for the "hardening" of schools by increasing security. His efforts are credited with helping to enact a school safety law named in honour of the school.

Moving forward

An artist herself, Gonzalez has become close with Manuel Oliver and his wife Patricia.

"They are my second family. Their home is my home and they tell me that all the time," Gonzalez said.

Recently, she invited them to attend her graduation.

Last year, they attended what would have been Joaquin's graduation ceremony. Patricia took her son's spot on the stage wearing a t-shirt with the words "This should be my son" emblazoned in bold letters on the front.

Patricia Padauy, the mother of Parkland shooting victim Joaquin Oliver, holds up her son's diploma during his graduation ceremony on June 3, 2018. (Carlos Garcia/Reuters)

"I said I understand if you don't want to come to my graduation ... and Patricia looked at me and she said, 'You know what I told you: you're my second daughter and we want to be there to support you,'" Gonzalez said.

When asked what she hopes people will take away from the film, she's unequivocal.

"I hope that it gives insight to people who don't know what this grief is, and what this trauma is, and how it lives with you forever," she said.

"People need to understand that when making decisions to prevent stuff like this from happening."


To hear more from Victoria Gonzalez, Emily Taguchi and Jake Lefferman, download our podcast or click 'Listen' at the top of this page.