Editor's note: This article was published during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, when the film's title was Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle.
Though they’re the ones who’ve been pulling the triggers lately, police officers are currently under fire. The scrutiny began last summer when two unarmed black men were wrongfully murdered by cops: Eric Garner, 43, in Staten Island, New York, and 18-year-old Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri. In the months since the latter’s death in August, peaceful protests have been held throughout the country, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter took over Twitter, and the nationwide conversation has centered around the rampant police brutality and how to handle those in law enforcement who’ve abused their powers.
The time couldn’t be better for the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival world premiere of Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle, the provocative and timely documentary from first-time director Nick Berardini. The film investigates one specific aspect of this epidemic: the taser, those little stun-guns that have been used by officers since 1999 and caused 500 deaths between 2001 and 2012. Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle examines the police-sanctioned weapon through the story of Stanley Harlan, a 23-year-old who was killed by a cop’s taser in August 2008, in Moberly, Missouri, in front of his family’s home. Expanding the narrative’s scope, Berardini delves into the history of TASER International, the company that manufactures tasers and has inadvertently been responsible for the device’s casualties.
Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle premieres on Friday, April 17, two weeks after the horrifying death of 50-year-old Walter Scott, who died from eight bullets fired by South Carolina officer Michael Sagler; the incident was, of course, captured via camera-phone and has since become worldwide news, intensifying the hot-button issue of police brutality that Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle covers.
It’s sure to be one of the Tribeca Film Festival’s buzziest movies. Here, Nick Berardini discusses the motivations behind Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle and why it’s so necessary in our current social climate.
Where did your connection to the film's subject matter first begin?
I went to journalism school at the University of Missouri, and, as a broadcast journalism major, I worked for the local TV news affiliate, to get actual TV production experience. I happened to coincidentally be working a shift on the night that Stanley Harlan was killed. I went out there in the middle of the night to figure out what was going on, after we’d heard it on the police scanner. When I got to the scene, Stanley had already been taken away in an ambulance, but his family and several witnesses were still around. They said to us, "Here’s what happened: Stanley pulled up to his house, got out of his car, and put his hands up in the air and kept saying, after he and the officer had a verbal spat, 'Why are you going to taser me?'" Then he was tasered and he died within a couple of minutes.
That sparked my curiosity about how something like that could escalate so quickly. I really became interested in trying to understand everything from the family’s point-of-view and the witnesses’ points-of-view; their stories seemed to match up really well, and it was all counter to the police's point-of-view, which was that Stanley was aggressive and swinging on them, and they needed to use force. I wanted to figure out which of those two stories was accurate, and that led to me getting the dash-cam video footage, several months later, and once I found that, I saw that it corroborated with most of what his family and the witnesses had said.
As a senior in college, I went, "I don’t know if this is above my pay grade," but I wanted to at least try to ask the question of why this happened to this kid and how that affected the relationship with the community, because once the video came out, it was, obviously, really disturbing for the community. I wanted to explore the relationship between the community and the police in a small town. And that began a rabbit hole of uncovering various new things and talking to new sources over several years.
So the film began as something much more intimate?
Yeah, this started as a small film about that particular incident, but I started becoming more and more curious about TASER International, the company that makes this weapon. They seemed overzealous, but as a sort of well-read 24-year-old at the time, I knew that was normal—I was very familiar with corporate culture. I didn’t have any suspicions about them at that point; I just assumed they were doing the best they could to market a product. I really felt that there must have been something in the police's training that the company doesn't advertise but is discussed in the training courses, like, "If you use it in this way, or if you shoot it at a particular area, something bad can happen."
The only reason I turned my attention to the company was that the more I looked into it, I realized that there was nothing to suggest the outcome that happened to Stanley would even be possible. When I sat down to speak with them, to get their perspective on things, I assumed I would get that line where someone said to me, "Well, most of the time it’s safe, but, look, sometimes bad things happen." But they didn't give me that. We couldn't come to any baseline understanding that the weapon is capable of doing what it did. That blew me away.
That interview was such a bizarre unraveling of things that I left thinking I probably wasn’t going to be allowed back there, but also knowing that the movie had become something completely different than what it was before I sat down with them.
That really gives Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle a unique perspective, too, because the issue's corporate side isn’t typically discussed in cases of police brutality, at least not in the media.
What's good about the film, I think, is that we really try to portray all of the characters as real people. We don't label them in ways that make it easy to fit them into stereotypes. TASER exists and was started for legitimate reasons; it wasn’t that they were filling a void or helping solve a problem that didn’t exist. There was an actual problem: what can you do when a situation falls somewhere between your baton and your gun? Is there a better way of controlling people? All of those things were genuinely good ideas, and they deserve kudos for thinking that way.
It became an oversimplification of a really complicated problem, though. When we have these short-cut answers, we tend to ignore the hypothetical damages that might happen, because it’s not real yet. We just don’t believe in the boogeyman sometimes, but we need to think about that those things before they happen. We get too wrapped up in technology and easy solutions; the hypotheticals aren't treated with the same seriousness. And that's not just with the people making these weapons—it’s with the police departments buying it and the city councils reviewing it. They were making a weapon, but, instead, it was treated as a corporate tool, or a pop culture thing. Because of that, they didn’t think about the serious hypotheticals of what could go wrong.
Unless someone has used a taser before, chances are that their exposure to tasers has been limited to pop culture, in things like Jackass and The Hangover, where they’re used for comedic effect.
Exactly. We set the film up from the police's perspective, specifically looking at the way they're trained, and it is kind of funny. There’s something about the training that's disarming. They have that training room experience where they bring the tough cop in and he’s going to try to fight through being tasered, then they taser him, he starts screaming, and everyone in the room laughs. That’s how a lot of the training gets done, and that’s their first impression of how the devices work. They take with them out into the field.
While they know it might hurt a person, they don't necessarily know how different the real-world application of this weapon is compared to how they experienced it in training. That’s really important to understand; we spend a good portion of the film’s first trying to make you comfortable with the fact that it's not like a cop used it for the first time and there were these terrible consequences. For the most part, their training is disarming and funny, but obviously in the real world there are serious consequences.
Which speaks to the fact that, unless there’s clear video evidence, like in the recent murder of Walter Scott, it’s never as simple as calling the cop or whoever’s used the force as the villain
I'm really interested to see how people perceive the film's characters based on who they are as groups and as demographics, in how you perceive the police officer, how you perceive the corporate person, how you perceive the grieving mother. All of those preconceived notions that an audience has of people in a documentary as so fascinating because you have the added question of, why did they willingly participate in this documentary? It's not like a fiction film where you create a police officer—this guy is real, so why is he in this movie? Why did he decide to do it?
What we tend to do, and sometimes we're guilty of this in storytelling, is marginalize the fact that everybody in all of these positions are still people. The police officer is a person, which means they're capable of screwing up and doing really bad things. Companies are full of real people, so they're capable of forming different alliances and evolving points-of-view. We tend to forget these things even though they're really simple concepts.
It's important for audiences to remember that once they've seen the film and they take it out with them into the world, you don't want to just generalize in a way that's dangerous. You shouldn’t say, “All police officers can't be trusted.” You have to remember that police officers are part of a system that’s failed because we haven’t held the necessary people accountable. There are people in charge of these officers and these policies that are capable of being influenced and making bad decisions, just as there are street cops who are capable of being influenced by their environment. It's not quite as simple as, “Oh, that cop just decided to be a jerk today.” They made a decision in a real-life scenario, and that decision can be totally wrong, but that doesn't mean people are going to make the wrong decisions every time.
Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle is premiering at a time when police brutality is front-page news, and has been for several months now. You’ve been working on the film for seven years—how does it feel now that's premiering in such an incredibly timely fashion?
There are a couple of interesting things that are happening. One is, over the last five years, we've become accustomed to seeing things on cellphone videos, so we’re able to see these things now and not have to rely on the subjective reports from the police officers. That's obviously very powerful, and it's why I’m really excited for this film to keep fostering the discussion about how force is used. But I'm also very clearly not a use-of-force expert.
It's going to be interesting to discuss the film with people after they've seen it, and to have them ask me, “Well, what do you think we should do? Should we ban tasers?” None of that, to me, is my concern. I saw a piece of the story; I saw the company telling its own version of the events, and I wanted to fill in the gaps with the complete version of the events.
I certainly don't want to become pigeonholed into coming up with answers for what we should do about it. It's a complicated issue and question that deserves real expertise. The problem is that the people who understand the issues surrounding the use-of-force, meaning the police departments and the lawmakers, need to actually take it seriously. That was my job, and now they need to have a discussion about how we’re treating potential suspects.
We have a societal skepticism about someone who gets hurt or killed during a police incident. We sometimes have a naiveté where we ask, "What did they do to put themselves in that situation?" That kind of victim-blaming gets really dangerous and allows police reports, when there aren’t any videos, to be taken as the complete record. That's something we really need to start taking seriously.
Did it take spending so much time with Stanley Harlan's family, while making Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle, for you to fully realize that?
Absolutely. That's at the heart of what I say to people who ask me to tell them the point of this movie. Everything that happens in the film is sort of jockeying for position after the fact. The company has its own agenda, and the police department has its own agenda, and even the company’s critics and the lawyers who get painted with the "good guy" brush also have their own agendas. The film recognizes that all of those voices are important, but by the time you're really introduced to the gravity of the situation, it makes you remember that what we're ultimately talking about is a family and people who cared for and loved someone and will never be the same again.
I often say to other filmmakers that your main characters are the ones with the most to lose, so Stanley's family members don’t really represent the main characters in the film—they’ve lost everything. Now they're just in this state of sadness where they’re trying to figure out a way to make it better. I hope the film starts to give them more closure, since their voices are being heard, but it'll never be okay. We lose that; we forget these consequences last a lifetime for the people who are dealing with someone who has died or been permanently injured.
That's definitely what I hope people take away from the film. It's a reminder that all the pomp-and-circumstance that’s going on, and is interesting to watch, is secondary to the fact that people are dead.
Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle will have its world premiere on Friday, April, 17, 8:30 p.m., at the SVA Theater 2 Beatrice, followed by three other screenings. Buy tickets here.