50 years ago a gunshot rang out across the University of Texas campus. Claire Wilson, a pregnant student, was hit in the belly, instantly killing her unborn child. Her fiancé, Thomas Eckman turned to her and asked, “what’s wrong?” A second shot ensured he would never hear the answer.
For the next hour and a half, death came to the campus. A sniper had taken up position in the central tower, firing indiscriminately at anyone he could get a bead on. By the time he was killed by police he had murdered 11 people and wounded 32.
Reaction at the time was frightened bewilderment. Why would a person take out their frustrations on random strangers in such violent fashion? Little did they know that these shootings were merely the opening act of a continuing trend, one, encompassing names that have become synonymous with tragedy: Columbine, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook and Pulse.
Keith Maitland’s documentary Tower is a shot by shot recounting of the events of August 1st 1966, telling the tale through the survivor’s experiences. Their memories are interwoven with archive footage of the event and rotoscoped animation that allows us to see what the cameras didn’t capture.
In a clever touch, Maitland uses contemporary actors to re-enact interviews with the survivors. Simply hearing an 18 year old voice talking about what’s like to lie bleeding out on hot asphalt grants immediacy and tension to what’s happening and roots Tower firmly in ‘now.’
For the most part, this isn’t documentary as retrospective – we experience the events with the same knowledge as those on the ground. In doing this, the film vividly captures the terror of those caught up in the event – leading to heart-stopping moments as characters sprint from cover dodging the sniper’s bullets or play dead as they comfort the wounded.
While the film follows the stories of roughly ten characters, the centre is the first victim, Claire Wilson, who spends the majority of the film bleeding out onto the tarmac next to the body of her boyfriend. As she gazes into the blazing sun she hears the whispers of students too scared to leave cover and help her, whispering that she’s beyond saving. Through a mixture of heat exhaustion and blood loss she hallucinates her memories, presenting them in vivid psychedelic patterns.
Documentaries generally aren’t quite so visually dazzling, but the rotoscoping technique repeatedly throws up beautiful images, and allows Maitland to forge raw archive footage into a propulsive narrative. That said, this style of animation has its limitations, particularly when it comes to full-frame motion. Tower hits that barrier early on, in a nausea inducing sequence of a car travelling down a road. Thankfully the rest of the movie plays to the technique’s strengths, presenting static, carefully composed shots that wouldn’t look out of place on a gallery wall.
As the situation proceeds the UT tower itself gains totemic significance. Partially this is because Maitland never depicts the shooter, Charles Whitman. That might seem like a wilful overlooking of a central element in the story, but it makes sense given those experiencing this from the ground has no idea who was up there. To them and us the building becomes a symbol of anonymous death – the person atop it as much Charles Whitman as he is James Holmes, Dylan Klebold or Omar Mateen. Its presence in the frame is a stark reminder of danger, multiple witnesses explaining their fear when they realized that if they could see the tower, the shooter could see them.
As the film progresses, it repeatedly hits emotional high notes. Most effective are when the rotoscoped talking heads cut to the now aged faces of the survivors. By this point we’ve gotten to know these people only via their rotoscoped surrogates, so finally ‘meeting’ them and being confronted with the reality of their survival sends shivers up the spine.
As things wrap up we’re presented with the historical architecture of mass-shootings in the USA. Here, Tower plays its hand softly – avoiding being explicitly political and letting audiences come to their own conclusions. Still, if you’re engaged with the film the only reasonable reaction is horror and a queasiness at American gun culture. It makes for a sick coincidence that 50 years to the day after Whitman began his massacre, Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s “campus carry” law came into effect, allowing students to carry handguns on the UT campus.
I left the cinema with a strange paranoia curling in my gut, imagining how I might react if a gunshot rang out and someone in front of me fell lifeless to the ground. Would I be a hero? A victim? A coward? Tower puts you in all these shoes, making for a superior example of documentary filmmaking.
Propulsive, beautiful and tense as hell, Tower is superior documentary filmmaking.