In focus

Locally made documentary examines America’s issues with guns

Local screening:
Chico State’s Political Science Honor Society will host a free screening of American Totem Monday (March 26) at 6:30 p.m. in the Bell Memorial Union Ballroom. A panel discussion, including filmmaker Sue Hilderbrand and university President Gayle Hutchinson, will follow. Visit for more on the film.

When Alan Gibson walked into the Pageant Theatre to see an early cut of American Totem, a locally made documentary on guns, he thought he knew what was coming.

Co-director Sue Hilderbrand is a faculty colleague in Chico State’s Political Science Department, known for her progressive views. She’s a former director of the Chico Peace and Justice Center and hosts a public-affairs talk show on KZFR radio, The Real Issue.

So, at the November screening, Gibson anticipated a film with “a progressive message about guns.”

However, as he told the CN&R by phone this week, that’s not what unspooled.

“I defy you to find that kind of message in there,” he said.

American Totem turned out to be—and remains in the near-final edit—vignettes and interviews giving weight to a broad spectrum of perspectives. It examines different values that people associate with this same object, and how we reached our current national flashpoint.

Hilderbrand and co-director Dan Carter, a communications design instructor at Chico State, may have their opinions on guns, but their documentary eschews a stance.

“The message is conveyed in the title,” Gibson said. “It’s the subtle message that, whether we like it or not, Americans take guns as a symbol of identity, and it’s part of the extremely divisive tribalism that has emerged in America today.

“It seems like a perfect film to me to start a conversation about gun ownership in America, and also the opportunities.”

Hilderbrand has begun entering American Totem into film festivals. Meanwhile, with the final version delivered by editor Jim Miller for the filmmakers’ review this week, Gibson has arranged a screening and panel discussion on campus Monday (see infobox).

After three years in production, Hilderbrand is eager to reach audiences.

“I would really like for people to be able to humanize the other people, the other side, and start thinking about the deeper cultural and social changes that are happening, that are resulting in this rise of more guns and more mass shootings,” she said. “It’s one of the themes of the film: Politically, socially, economically, we’re going through a big transition in this country—globally—and people are afraid of these changes. We’re seeing shifts in the power structure, and the people that are feeling the most threatened are buying firearms.”

Hilderbrand’s interest in guns first piqued with the Columbine shooting, which she learned about via Time magazine while serving with the Peace Corps in Morocco. She was home 13 years later when the 2012 Aurora, Colo., shooting shocked Americans similarly; the Sandy Hook shooting that December “overwhelmed” her prompting her to cry during her radio show the next day.

In 2015, finding herself “between projects,” she approached Carter about a documentary on guns. They watched Oscar winner Bowling for Columbine and a counterpoint (Assaulted: Civil Rights Under Fire) before opting to take a neutral approach. They convened a panel of experts from across the U.S. and Canada at a Sacramento hotel, then set out to make their film.

“I was so naive that I thought, ‘We’re just going to get some interviews, pull it together and figure out the problem—and we’ll finish it in eight months,’” Hilderbrand said. “Within the first couple of months, I realized the issue of the gun is about stories [and] the gun debate is much deeper than talking points and statistics.”

The documentary distilled to one easel-size Post-it note, affixed to the spice rack in her house. A thesis, an intro, three points—that’s the full outline of American Totem. The vision: “Have a smart film, not catering to emotion, [with] nobody in the film shown disrespectfully or made to look stupid.”

To safeguard against bias, Hilderbrand consulted friends and colleagues. Those who’ve reviewed the film include Richard Slotkin, Wesleyan professor and noted cultural critic, who in an email to her called it “terrific!”

Slotkin continued: “The multiplicity of voices provides a formal base for the thesis … that the ‘gun problem’ symbolizes and also obscures the bases of social and personal fear/insecurity that produce violence and fear in our society.”

In addition, he wrote, American Totem “handle[s] the ‘gun cultures’ fairly—giving the different communities a fair shot at the viewer—and making clear that these are communities, with traditions that deserve respectful hearing.”