One of two documentaries about mass shootings premiering at SXSW, TOWER pieces together stories from a few survivors and witnesses of the UT Tower shooting that took place in Austin in August of 1966. The film uses roto-scoped animation (think films like Waking Life, or A Scanner Darkly) on top of archive footage, to create a unique storytelling mechanism, which allows for playful recreation of the events without diminishing any impact. TOWER takes its time with the events of that day and provides an avenue for the viewer to empathize with each person’s story as the terrifying and unsettling nature of the shooting and the eventual aftermath become clear. Boxes of tissues should have been handed out to people entering this screening, particularly after we were told that some of the survivors were in attendance.
TOWER spends about 3/4 of its runtime slowly moving through the timeline of the shooting. Beginning just before noon on August 1, 1966 we are introduced to Claire a pregnant, 19-year old student and the first person to be shot from the observation deck of the 30-story clock tower at University of Texas. As the events unfold, different people start telling the story from their perspective and everything is recreated with the animation or shown with footage taken on the day. While the story moves, the audience’s ears are assaulted by the piercing crack of gunshots as bullets rain down on the public on screen, serving as an acute audible reminder of how frightening the experience must have been.
The people providing the shifting narrative for the day are quite varied: two police officers and an employee of a store across the street from campus, who eventually made their way into the tower and ended the massacre; a young boy who was riding by as part of his paper route; a reporter, who took the local radio news car out to broadcast on the events; a young man who heard that someone was firing an “air rifle” from the top of the tower and came onto campus with his friend to check it out only to find himself holed up behind a wall until he eventually helped pull people off the ground; a girl who stayed in her English Hall classroom and felt remorse for the people in harm’s way, but found herself too frozen to help, leading to a self-realization of her “cowardice;” and the previously mentioned young pregnant woman, who was rendered immobile on the ground in 100 degree weather for nearly the entire 90 minute duration of the shooting with a bullet in her abdomen while she lay next to her boyfriend, who had been hit in the head moments after she was shot.
By the end of the shooting, when four men made their way up into the observation deck and two police officers ended the life of shooter Charles Whitman by emptying a revolver and a shotgun in his direction, the man in the tower had shot 43 people, killing 11 from the top of the tower and 3 others inside the tower, as well as his wife and mother at home before the incident began. TOWER, while it doesn’t explicitly serve as a memorial for all those injured and lost, is an irreplaceable memory of what must have been one of the most horrifying experiences for the entire city of Austin. What the documentary does very effectively to combat just being a depressing look at a terrible event is to keep the focus on the people who were there and keep the story about the uplifting moments where heroes appeared from nowhere to help strangers, infusing even a little bit of comedy between all those sounds of CRACK… CRACK… CRACK.
Keith Maitland, the director of TOWER, uses actors of the approximate age that the storytellers would have been in 1966 to recreate interview dialogue from the actual people and provide voices for the animated versions of them, which keeps the majority of the film set in the “present” of that day. After the 3/4 mark, the animated characters are replaced with the people who had been interviewed (those still alive) as they, in their own voices then talk about some of the things that have happened since that one day. This has a strange effect, since it breaks from the tight tension that permeated the majority of the film up to that point and while some of the perspectives continue to provide interesting details, without the cohesive event holding everything together, there is a tendency for this last part to feel like it just meanders away.
TOWER is a very well-made film with a caring hold of its subject and a unique, modern way of telling its story. It could have been easy to think that the animation would be distracting, but it ends up being a useful tool for bringing a wonderful life to the characters and the action of the film. Even though the ending portion splits from the main format, each person is worth hearing from and following them from the shooting up to current time is appropriate to keeping with their stories being the driving force. Also, there are some great tidbits and messages about the effects of something like this having happened before SWAT teams or crisis recovery psychiatry. TOWER will stick with you, looming in your head like the clock tower hangs in the background of nearly every frame of the film. Bring tissues.
TOWER ended up winning the SXSW Audience Award in the Documentary Features Category.