Mass shootings are a terrible reality of modern America. That was not yet the case on August 1, 1966 when student Charles Whitman took up a sniper’s position atop the University of Texas Tower and started firing indiscriminately. After 96 minutes of terror, the gunman was dead, 14 innocent bystanders had been killed and 32 others wounded. Local news cameras and photographers captured the scene in fragments, leaving personal stories of those involved obscured by terror.
Keith Maitland’s new experimental documentary Tower tries to fill in the gaps by powerfully depicting that fateful, hot summer day in Austin from the perspective of multiple survivors. Archival footage and animated re-enactments paint the events as pivotal for both the individuals affected and the nation at large. In a unique twist on the talking head formula, real life subjects are drawn as their former selves using a process known as rotoscoping, then portrayed by young actors reading first hand accounts.
The result is a fluid, drowsy and nightmarish vision of trauma that seems to unfold in real time. Initially, a sense of calm reflection takes hold with each interview, as if the subjects were just remembering any other day. But that tenor of normalcy quickly subsides as memories of violence and sacrifice flood to the forefront. Maitland often paces the film like a suspense thriller (sometimes problematically) with set pieces that display courage and regret of those involved. Splashes of primary color and comic book-style panel framing heighten the emotions.
Claire Wilson (voiced by Violet Beane), a pregnant student who lay wounded on the hot asphalt for nearly an hour, becomes a focal point for the film’s most engrossing segments. As shots ring out in the midday sun, she lies helpless, waiting for someone to assist until a passerby decides to put herself in harm’s way in order to keep Claire awake. Their time together is stretched out to replicate the intense waiting game where any one moment could be the last. These small but crucial acts of humanity momentarily counterbalance such massive loss of life.
Another sequence that leaves an impression involves responding Austin Police officer Houston McCoy. Upon first being fired upon by the sniper, he reenters his car and drives away, an act of retreat he later comes to regret. Similar feelings of helplessness can be found in co-eds who are caught between wanting to help wounded classmates and keep themselves out of harms way. One young woman is especially hard on herself for not having the strength to become an active participant in history.
Tower, which opens Friday, Nov. 25, at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park, is a strangely intoxicating deconstruction of the non-fiction form. It openly admits that documentary is unable to capture the whole truth even when stating “facts.” For every story Maitland follows, there are countless others that are inevitably experiencing the same event in different ways. This includes the killer himself, who’s never shown even after Austin PD Officers Ramiro Martinez and McCoy (both critical subjects in the film) shoot him dead after storming the clock tower.
In this sense, Tower utilizes off-screen space like a narrative film might, building tension from the unseen. Other vantage points always seem to be lingering around those core perspectives that are more fleshed out, calling into question how we witness history unfolding and, in turn, how we process those memories over time.
Maitland’s stirring film ends with some prophetic words on gun violence from Walter Cronkite, and then a montage of footage examining modern day atrocities committed on schools from Columbine to Virginia Tech. While never overtly political or preachy, Tower refuses to become numb to such a disturbing trend in our society. Instead, it leans on hypnotic stylistics to remind us of the humanity behind the headlines.