One of the joys of attending film festivals is seeing independent films that often do not get a wide distribution if they are distributed at all. Unfortunately, documentaries are among the most overlooked film genres when it comes to theatrical distribution. One of the other joys of film festivals is the access to filmmakers through Q&A’s that often follow the screening. Among the many jewels that were a part of the Dallas International Film Festival, as well as SXSW festival in Austin, was the film Tower, by Keith Maitland. Tower is a documentary about the 1966 mass shooting from the Tower on the University of Texas campus, in which 14 people were killed on the campus and 2 others off campus. This shooting was at the time, and for many years following, the worst mass murder in the history of the United States.
Tower focuses on the stories of people who were involved either as victims, witnesses, police or other civilians who intervened in stopping the shooter, Charles Whitman. What makes this film stand out from ordinary documentaries is, in addition to actual footage and still photography, the very creative use of rotoscope animation and voiceovers by actors to tell the stories of the individuals involved in the shooting. When asked at the Q&A following the showing at the DIFF, director Keith Maitland said his decision to tell so much through the use of animation was an effort to engage younger audiences who would relate better to the animated images of young people brought against their will into the nightmare that was the shooting spree. Also, it allowed him to depict the campus and people as they were back in 1966. The animation also enabled him much more creative flexibility in telling the back stories of the individuals, as well as incorporating symbolic images that kept the attention of the viewer throughout the film. Remarkably, the animation allows the film to communicate the drama and magnitude of the killing spree without being graphic. Gradually, in the last third of the film, the images and voices of the surviving witnesses concluded the stories.
In addition to the decision on how to present the stories of this tragic event, Maitland made the decision not to speculate on the reasons, motives, or even the story of the shooter Charles Whitman. He wanted to focus on the many untold or long forgotten accounts of the people whose lives were forever changed that day. Through these stories, the viewer encounters individuals who were victimized through the action of one person, those who decided to act heroically, and others who chose not to act. With so many stories of the horrific event, the most harrowing perhaps was the story of the first victim, Claire Wilson, a UT student who was in the last trimester of her pregnancy. After she and her boyfriend had been shot, Claire laid on the hot concrete for over 90 minutes, fairly certain her boyfriend, who was shot after her, was dead. Her memory of what she thought during the eternity of that time is riveting.
What was as equally compelling was the story of Rita Starpattern, a student known for her striking, fire red hair who, when all others stayed safely out of the line of fire, ran into the open to help Claire. Rather than leaving Claire when Claire pleaded with her to go away, to avoid being shot again, Rita laid on the hot concrete and, posing as an another victim, talked with Claire until at last bystanders raced out and retrieved Claire and carried her to safety. The accounts of Austin Police officers Houston McCoy, Ramiro Martinez, and civilian Allen Crum who made their way to the tower, went up, forced their way onto the observation deck, and confronted the shooter, were also powerfully presented through the animation.
In addition to the dramatic visual elements of the climactic scene on the top of the tower was the accompanying music. While the music throughout the film wonderfully blended music of the time with the themes of the individual stories, the music that accompanied the confrontation with the Whitman, Debussy’s Clair de Lune seemed oddly out of place. When asked about it, Keith Maitland shared that its use was the one acknowledgment of Charles Whitman. In researching the film Maitland had visited with one of Whitman’s professors who told the story of an agitated Whitman coming to his house late one evening about a month before the shooting. After a brief discussion in the home of the professor in which Whitman’s anger continued to escalate, he saw a piano and asked if he could play it. Whitman then played Claire de Lune, his anger dissipated and he excused himself from the professor’s home.
One aspect of the aftermath of the shooting that stands out in today’s social networking world is the lack of contact between many of the participants. Claire never saw the person who carried her to safety until they met in the midst of shooting the film, and she saw Rita only once, several weeks following the shooting. While there was little to no contact between persons thrown together in the midst of the tragedy, there was and remains a connection between the victims and heroes.
One last take away from Tower is the power of choice. As indicated earlier, the film shows how different people made different choices regarding whether and how to act in the midst of the crisis and danger. Another choice that the film touches on is how to live life going forward. How does one regain control one’s life after a traumatic event and tremendous loss? Where and how does forgiveness come in the intervening years? While the lives of the victims, and everyone on the campus, were changed forever, what place does this event, the loss of lives, innocence, and for some the guilt of their actions occupy in living after? How does one survive the survival of such a trauma? As is seen in the film, one way is those involved coming together, recognizing the event, the loss, and the pain. Sharing the stories, even as reliving brings back pain, allows victims to gain power over the memories, fear, and for some, guilt. Keeping quiet and repressing such thoughts and feelings only surrenders power back to the source of the trauma, in this case, Charles Whitman. Now, at long last, the final victim is realizing the need to break a long silence.
On August 1, 2016, the University of Texas will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the shooting by dedicating a memorial to the victims. This will replace a small memorial and plaque dedicated in 1999 which is the only recognition of the event by the University. Most connected with the shooting have thought the current memorial as inadequate and look forward to the University honoring better those whose lives were lost or changed that day. The day will also mark the first day that the new state law allowing persons with concealed gun permits to carry guns on Texas Public Universities.
Tower won the Jury Grand Prize for best Texas feature documentary at the DIFF and will continue to play at film festivals and is scheduled for theatrical release as well as broadcast on PBS in the fall of 2016. Keith Maitland had a second film in the DIFF, A Song For You: The Austin City Limits Story which was made concurrently with Tower.