July 18, 1984 was San Diego’s Pearl Harbor and its 9-11. It was this region’s day which shall live in infamy.
That afternoon a deranged gunman opened fire in a San Ysidro McDonald’s restaurant, killing 21 and injuring 20 more.
Documentary director Charlie Minn is revisiting the horror in his latest film, “77 Minutes.” On July 18, the 32nd anniversary of James Huberty’s killing spree, Minn and survivor Wendy Flanagan spoke at Southwestern College about the film, which opens September 23 at Ultra Star Mission Valley. An SWC satellite campus has replaced the McDonald’s.
“The film represents and honors the victims because I’m really tired of the killers getting so much attention after mass shootings,” he said. “Society doesn’t benefit from knowing who these dirtbag criminals are.”
Minn says that Huberty’s name will not be in the movie in order to focus on the victims instead of the killer.
Minn said he is trying to correct an injustice.
“I think the victims are the heroes and their stories have been overlooked,” he said. “We have 40 people shot and most San Diegans can’t name one. We have one killer and he’s given so much attention that everyone knows who he is.”
“77 Minutes” also explores the question of why it took a San Diego Police SWAT unit an hour and 17 minutes to kill Huberty and end the nightmare. Former San Diego mayor Jerry Sanders, who was the SWAT captain at the crime scene, was interviewed for the film, as were the police sniper who finally took out Huberty, and several police officers and journalists who were there.
“Anytime there is a shooting, or any crime really, time is of the essence. 77 minutes is a joke,” said Minn. “The reasons I was given on why it took 77 minutes explains it, but the bigger question I have is, does it excuse it?”
Murder victim Jacky Reyes lost her eight-month old son and an unborn baby to Uzi machine gun fire. Their story is highlighted in the film. Minn said his goal is to inform and educate.
“Documentaries are normally sad,” he said. “I couldn’t tell you why. Maybe if it’s happy people will say, ‘life is supposed to be that way’ so you don’t cover it. But if everyone saw that baby’s eyes as the bullet went into his back, I think there would be a movement in this country.”
As the trailer for “77 Minutes” began playing on the projector behind Minn and Flanagan at the SWC football film room, Flanagan became visibly distraught by the audio. She was a teenage employee at the McDonald’s who survived by hiding in a basement closet Huberty did not find. Flanagan would not turn around and said she would not watch the documentary because she relives the massacre every day.
“People are always telling me to get over it and to move on,” she said. “But it still haunts me every day.”
Flanagan said that each time she enters a new building she has to study her surroundings and find the nearest exit. Even 32 years later she does not like having open space behind her in public places. She is still receiving counseling, she said.
At the time, the San Ysidro Massacre was the worst mass shooting in American history. As Americans recoil at the likes of Pulse Nightclub or Sandy Hook Elementary, Flanagan said she revisits her own experience with every mass shooting she hears about.
Opinions vary on where to place the blame when gunmen unleash their rage with firearms. Minn has his own belief.
“If you wake up mad at the world, we better hope we’re not in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said. “We’re so unprotected. It’s ridiculous. We don’t need more guns. We’re just unprotected, plain and simple.”
Gun violence has become more routine, Minn said, and America has made no progress to reduce the problem.
“This thing is turning for the worse. Guns are so far and wide out there that I’m not sure how much gun control measurements could help the situation.”
Minn said he does not have the answers to end gun violence, but he wants viewers to consider the lives lost in mass shootings.
“The end result in people becoming more informed and more educated is society becoming a better place. Where is a better venue to raise awareness than college students who want to be educated?”
Minn screened his critically-acclaimed documentary on the Mexican drug wars “Es El Chapo?” at SWC to a standing-room-only crowd last spring. He has been a frequent guest speaker on the Chula Vista and San Ysidro campuses.
Minn’s voice has stretched out beyond the students. Professors and adjuncts have collaborated and influenced “77 Minutes.” Minn was influenced into production by Gregorio Pantoja, a Mexican-American studies adjunct professor.
“We started to seek out a story that would hit at the heart of the South Bay community,” said Pantoja. “As the McDonald’s story came about, we discussed the value of documenting and investigating this untold narrative.”
Pantoja says Minn’s documentary is helping to reexamine this part of San Diego history.
“Selective memory is an issue here,” Pantoja said. “We see memorials and freeway signs for fallen officers slain in the line of duty, but we have 21 people assassinated and there is absolutely no recognition. We need to convey to students that this scar on our history has affected generations of a community.”
Pantoja said Minn has made a conscientious effort to speak for the surviving victims.
“Students and the community as a whole need to be exposed to this narrative that has been silenced or suppressed,” he said.
Pantoja blames this story’s erasure on the racism in the South Bay community and said that Minn speaks for voices few have heard before.
“If these massacre’s had happened in La Jolla to an Anglo-American community, it would have been different. I can imagine festivities every year and memorials on the news annually. Our community seeing this movie will help to raise the discussion of the treatment of this incident.”
Minn said he does not make his films to entertain.
“What my movies are about are guts, heroism and humanity in the face of crime and violence,” he said. “I’m not here to entertain and I’m not here to be liked. I’m here to inform people.”