VIFF Review: Keith Maitland’s Devastating New Documentary ‘Tower’

Tower Review

Director Keith Maitland’s Tower is a devastating documentary that reconstructs the darkest moment in the history of the University of Texas at Austin. The title refers to the 30-story tower at the center of campus from which more than a dozen people were murdered and more than 30 wounded by a former Marine armed with a small arsenal in 1966. Tower opens with the announcement of Charles Whitman’s shooting by KTBC reporter Neal Spelce. The film traces the paths of multiple witnesses, with voice overs and on-camera interviews. These “interviews” start out as actors peering and chatting into the camera, then the historical events are re-enacted, and later some of them to become the actual witnesses sharing their emotions.

The story is told primarily through rotoscope animation (see the trailer here), the same style used by Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater for Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. The film also resembles Oliver Stone’s JFK in the way it weaves archival with amateur videos and photos and recreations. The colourful, almost hallucinatory animation does not cheapen the tragedy and probably allowed for the only possible way to recreate these moments. It is impossible to say the University would’ve wanted to grant permission to film this purely as live action, though rotoscoped scenes appear to have used the exact locations.

The film gives off a horrifying feeling, as if you’re experiencing the real moments happening in real-time. The editing employed several effective techniques. When someone is hit by a shot, their body is silhouetted in a distinct red-on-white background. We often “snap back” to moments via pounding gunshots. Scenes will repeat themselves after going down a tangent or filling us with some context. The tales from the on-the-ground survivors are chilling. These include the heartbreaking 18-year-old anthropology student Claire Wilson who was eight months pregnant, the first student shot, and who also lost her boyfriend. Austin Officers Houston McCoy and Ramiro Martinez, who both ended Whitman’s terror, are shown as confused and scared as everyone, but finally determining that action must happen to put a stop to this. Spelce, the first journalist on the scene, reported and transmitted testimonies from witnesses live from his car radio.

The film reminded me of Paul Greengrass’ excellent and haunting United 93, when it recalled the brave tales of survivors Allen Crum and John Fox. Crum was working in a co-op when he crossed the road to help one of the victims. Unable to make his way back, he would risk his life assisting McCoy and Martinez and was the one who signaled the end of the shooting to the public by waving a white flag from the tower. Fox was one of the UT students who ran into the scene and carried Wilson to safety after she had been lying on her back on concrete in hundred degree weather.

The perpetrator himself, holed up at the top on the observation deck, is noticeably unseen from nearly all of the proceedings, and save for the words of one of the survivors, has no voice. The filmmakers offer little in the way of his motivation. Why he did this is briefly touched upon at the end but the film focuses instead on the survivors. After it was over, hundreds of students, faculty and friends poured into the plaza, dulled with disbelief. Five decades later, some have moved on while others are still dealing with its effect.

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