Dir.: Keith Maitland | Cast: Violette Bean, Josephine McAdam, Louie Arnett, Chris Doubeck, Blair Jackson; USA | 96 min.
Using archive material and interviews with survivors, a dramatic reconstruction that is presented as a black-and-white rotoscoped animation, director Keith Maitland (The Eyes of Me) creates a haunting portrait of the first mass killing in US history: 25 year old ex-Marine Charles Whitman, shooting from the tower of the University of Texas Austin’ building, killed 15 people on August 1st 1966 and severely injured 34.
Maitland stays – almost literally – very much on the ground: this is the story of individuals who were victims, survivors or police officers, who finally killed Whitman. The documentary is not focused on focused on Whitman, or his troubled upbringing and or medical issues, nor does Maitland mention that Whitman killed his mother and wife before turning his gun on strangers. TOWER is about the individual terror, the bravery and the sheer randomness of the incident.
The surreal, chaotic and absurd atmosphere is enhanced by actors much younger than the survivors, telling the story in the words of the actual individuals themselves. Brief flashbacks are in Day-Glo; and whenever somebody is hit by Whitman’s bullets, the background turns red. Two women are in the centre of this reconstruction: Claire Wilson (Bean) who was eight months pregnant and Rita Starpattern (McAdam). Claire was hit by a bullet, which killed her baby, and her boyfriend, when her tried to help her. Claire lay in 100+ degrees on the cement, knowing that her baby and boyfriend were dead. But Rita Starpattern, a student, crawled to her in full view of the tower from which Whitman was shooting. Rita comforted Claire and kept her awake, trying to speak to her as casually as possible. Finally, when Claire was giving up, a man cowering nearby risked his life and helped to carry Claire to safety into one of the ambulances. Particularly moving is a scene from the aftermath, when Rita (who passed away in1996) presented Claire with one of her pictures, visiting her in hospital. Claire, who adopted an Ethiopian boy, the two are seen sitting beaming together on a sofa, has forgiven Whitman “because I have been forgiven myself so much”.
The senseless mayhem was all the more tragic when it emerges that many ordinary Austiners came with their rifles to the campus, attempting to shoot Whiteman without success. But as officer Martinez (Arnett) rightly pointed out, their efforts were not in vain. Although he and his fellow policeman Houston McCoy (Jackson) and civilian Allen Crum (Doubek), finally managed to kill the shooter. “these men shooting, saved lives, since Whitman had to take cover all the time, and could not move as freely as he wanted”.
So TOWER is an abstract reconstruction of the first mass shooting, a true horror story, which has been repeated all over again in places like Columbine High School and the Primary School in Newton/Conn. Maitland is not interested in guilt or explanations, he shows the raw reactions of people suddenly confronted with death, their exceptional bravery and courage in saving others, whilst the majority stayed in safe places. But TOWER also points out that the free availability of weapons – and here the focus is guns – is the main facilitator of these massacres. The fact that the president-elect is sponsored by the NRA gives little hope that this will change. AS
REVIEWED AT LFF WHERE IT COMPETED FOR THE GRIERSON DOC AWARD | TOWER IS ON RELEASE FROM MARCH 2017