Director: Keith Maitland
Running Time: 1:36
Release Date: 10/12/16 (limited); 11/4/16 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 12, 2016
Director Keith Maitland's Tower is a daring piece of documentary filmmaking. Everything one would expect on a formal level from a film about a single moment in history is present here: the talking heads, the archival photographs, the audio and video news reports from and about the event, and, as has become standard now, dramatic recreations to fill in the narrative gaps when necessary and to portray the interviewees' stories. Those recreations, though, are not typical, and they don't simply exist to portray what happened during the late morning and early afternoon on the campus of the University of Texas on August 1, 1966.
The place and/or date will be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of our country's unique problem of mass shootings. For over 90 minutes, a man held a position on the observation deck of the tower in the university's main building. He had an arsenal in his possession, including three rifles, and killed 14 people (including the unborn child of an 8-months-pregnant woman), wounding 32 others. It was not the first occurrence of such senseless violence, but it was the first tragedy that played out in real time on the news—broadcast from a local radio station to radios across the United States.
We know what it must have felt like to hear about people being gunned down in cold blood without reason. We know because that story has become a norm.
It is likely that everyone past a certain age can remember quite clearly the first mass shooting that they experienced through the news—hearing about some killer or killers stalking the hallways of a high school, firing upon people in a post office or diner, assaulting an elementary school. Some of us have become numb to such news now, because it is so common. The outrage is reflexive. Before they're even made, the calls for action to stem these incidents are doomed to be left unanswered. If the next generation must continue to hear these stories and live through these tragedies, let us at least hope that they do not become numb to them.
Maitland's film forces us to confront the personal toll of this violence through interviews with survivors, footage and photos of bodies both injured and dead, and a detailed recreation of the shooting from an assortment of perspectives. We hear from the survivors, witnesses, those who ran into the line of fire to aid and comfort the wounded, reporters, and the police officers who were on duty or, in one case, who volunteered to help because he heard what was happening on the radio.
Actors play these people in the recreation of the event, and in close-up, they also recite the words of the people who were there. Maitland's most obvious creative choice in presenting both is the decision to transform the players into animated figures through rotoscoping—drawing over the actors in each frame. There are scenes in which everything—from the characters to the backdrops—is animated, and there are shots in which animated characters and objects are placed over actual, contemporary footage of the campus. The effect is intentionally unnatural, even though the actual animation is superlative—giving the characters the look, in the pre-shooting scenes, of a watercolor in motion and, during the shooting, of detailed sketches in different hues of gray brought to life.
It is also distancing but never distracting. That distance is clearly intentional, and it works on a few levels. Through the animation, Maitland emphasizes the fact that we are watching something that is real but not quite reality. We are witnessing it, but we could never understand what it's like to experience this without living through it. By introducing this surreal element, Maitland challenges the notion that violence like this is seen as normal. There is never the question that the film might be exploiting the violence, because the portrayal of violence here is always twice-removed—the recreation and the way in which it is presented.
When the animated façade drops, it comes as a shock to the system. There's a moment in which Maitland cuts from an actress, reciting the testimony of a survivor, to the actual survivor in the present day. He proceeds to do that with the other interview participants. The cumulative effect of those transitions—of seeing lines and colors transform into flesh-and-blood people—is staggering. The actors' intonations are almost clinical, and the visages of those animated figures remain fairly impassive. Hearing those voice and seeing those faces—the subtle emphasis of certain words by, as well as the obvious signs of old and new pains from, the real people—become revelatory, because Maitland has accustomed us to the imitation of reality.
The narrative jumps between the accounts of survivors. The stories are both uniformly and uniquely harrowing. One woman, the first to be shot from the tower, recalls how she was trapped and immobile on the hot pavement of a sweltering Austin afternoon, as her boyfriend's body lay dead mere feet from her. A young man tells how he ran to the campus (believing an early, erroneous report that someone was using an air rifle), how he connected his own experience with the heat of the day with the sight of the young woman on the ground, and how he regrets not running to her sooner. His rescue effort was captured on film, too, and his heroism ends with the image of the body of the woman's boyfriend hanging limply in the arms of another savior.
A pair of police officers and the manager of a local bookstore detail the process of making their way to the tower and its observation deck (where they encounter friendly fire from armed vigilantes trying to shoot the killer) in order to stop the killing. In the present day, a reporter recalls how his boss listened to the names of those who were killed, only to hear the name of his grandson. The man being interviewed begins crying, because now he is a grandfather.
The film's power is not only in its clear-eyed documentation of what happened that day, removed from any political discussion, but also in its deliberate juxtaposition of cinematic form and reality. Tower creates its own version of reality and then forces us to confront the actual thing.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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