Filmmaker Jon Siskel did not want to make a documentary about the mass shooting that forever changed his hometown of Highland Park on July 4, 2022.
The violence was too horrendous. Seven people died. Nearly 50 were injured. So many in his community were “damaged, broken by the experience,” Siskel said.
But then Siskel heard about a memorial that sprung up organically near the site of the shooting. Under an arched passageway, people came to tie orange yarn and fabric around pillars, draft thousands of notes and talk with others still reeling. It was a place to connect and remember.
That gave Siskel his way in – his opportunity to share Highland Park’s story while also tying it to mass shootings that plague communities across the United States.
“Many people called it a love letter to Highland Park,” Siskel said of the film he and his team produced. “It’s certainly that, but if it’s that, it’s also a love letter to the country. For me, it is a wake up call to the country that this is happening everywhere.”
The 20-minute documentary, simply titled “Memorial,” features voices of 13 people in the community and at the parade that day. This includes three adult children of Nicolas Toledo-Zaragoza, one of the seven people killed.
The film shares their voices, following a powerful arc that culminates in a final section describing what the memorial meant to them and others. Siskel screened the film last month for people in Highland Park. He plans to make it available to a broader audience.
The film ends with a reminder that the Highland Park mass shooting is part of the larger story of gun violence in the United States: In 2022, there were 647 mass shootings in the United States.
Below is a sampling of the voices that make the film so moving.
On what comes to mind when you think of Highland Park
Jill Hoffman: I think of home. I think of community. I think of close friends.
Ricardo Toledo: It’s a very sad thing because Highland Park is a very quiet community where we have lived all our lives, and never had something happen like this. It’s something we never expected. These things happen in life and there’s not much we can do now. [Translated from Spanish]
Memories of July 4, 2022, early morning
Richard Isenberg: I got there about 6:30 a.m. Got our spot out and sat there until Nettie came. … And it was just a regular, normal 4th of July parade.
Josefina Toledo: I got up around 7 a.m. and my father was already up. So I got up, made some oatmeal for breakfast and gave my dad some oatmeal with fruit and then I helped him change. We got ready to leave for the parade. [Translated from Spanish]
Memories as the parade began
Josefina Toledo: Immediately the horses went by. He [my dad] was very happy because he loves horses. He was clapping with his hands when the horses went by.
Rachel Lander: It felt perfect. As a mom I’m like, ‘Okay kids, I have to get your picture … That was at 10:13 a.m. And I think less than a minute later, uh …
Nettie Isenberg: I knew immediately it was gunshots and I remember standing up and freezing. Absolutely I was frozen.
Cathy LaMonte: My first approach was a young man standing in the middle of the street and I said to him, ‘You know … you’ve got to get out of the street.’ And he said he couldn’t move. His grandfather was down. His words were, ‘I can’t leave. My grandfather’s dead.’
Gerry Keen: I will never be the same. I don’t know what to say.
On the how the memorial began
Jacqueline Von Edelberg: I took a ball of yarn and I tied it to the base of each one of the pillars in the pavilion and everybody was coming up and they were crying and I just said to them, ‘Do you want to wrap this.’ And people were just like ‘Yes, yes, I do.’ I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.
Karen Abrams: It happened so organically. It started with one spool of yarn and a bunch of streamers of fabric and it evolved into hundreds of people coming and joining in.
On what the memorial meant to the community
Nettie Isenberg: I walk with a group of women and we call ourselves the Polka Dot Grannies. … And I couldn’t wait to get there with them. And so the five of us go there, and it was for me tremendous solace because it was a place that I could physically do something.
Gerry Keen: It was such a fabulous feeling of community. … I never thought about who had started it or how this came to be. I was just grateful it was there.
On what the memorial meant for victim’s families
Josefina Toledo: I was surprised to see my dad’s picture and I felt something very beautiful inside me and I cried. It is like a token of love given to all of us who have lost a loved one. And when people also came to look at the photos, put a flower, wrote something in a certain way they also showed their condolences.
Ricardo Toledo: It was something we did not expect. A lot of people. And you would read what people were writing, giving condolences to the family members, giving you courage.
Josephina Toledo: On Sept. 10, which was my dad’s birthday, I went to bring him some flowers, and I also wrote him something. I wrote him something and I told him that we missed him very much, you know? And that he was now in heaven.
On the memorial’s lasting impact
Karen Abrams: It was a beautiful place to go and grieve and smile and share and hear stories of the people who had passed away. And so all of it was monumental.
Michael Schwab: I hope and I believe that that’s part of what you want to do in your documentary is continue to help us find a way to remember, but in a sacred way that helps us grieve, that helps us understand, that highlights the power of communal remembrance, which is what a memorial does.
Araceli Gómez-Aldana is a reporter and host at WBEZ. Follow her @Araceli1010.