Guest Post by Ed Scruggs
From its earliest moments, TOWER, the new documentary by Austin director Keith Maitland and winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the SXSW Film Festival last week, holds the viewer in its grip.
As a local news wagon races past, our hazy view of what’s ahead comes sharply into focus. It’s a tower: The University of Texas tower. The voice of Neil Spelce, then a young reporter for KTBC radio, urgently sounds the alarm: “This is a warning to the citizens of Austin. Stay away from the university area. There is a sniper on the university tower, firing at will.”
For the next hour, this propulsive and dynamic look at America’s first mass school shooting takes us on an agonizing slide into violent chaos. Much more than a simple retelling of the events of Aug. 1, 1966, when 16 people were killed and more than 40 injured, TOWER blends archival news footage and vintage witness interviews with dramatic re-enactments, filmed using overlay animation. The effect is stunning, giving the film the colorful urgency of a graphic novel.
The choice to cast mainly young, local re-enactors was an excellent one. Not only are the performances uniformly good, the ability to relate to these survivors as the young people they were at the time pulls us personally close to the story. They aren’t just grainy images on a newsreel. Young people will connect with these survivors as their peers. Parents will connect with them as children. It’s at the foundation of what makes TOWER such an immediate and unique experience.
After the shooting begins with a sudden, thunderous BOOM from above, the horror of the tragedy slowly unfolds on an unsuspecting campus. Students, tourists and even children begin to fall. Witnesses stand motionless, confused – some even lackadaisical. Unwitting police arrive, only to place themselves in the direct line of fire. Without an established perimeter, the unaware and the oddly curious simply wander into the trap.
An extended sequence plays out, seemingly in real time, as repetitive gunfire builds, fades, builds again, coming closer. The ominous chime of the tower clock bursts through the clutter with the passing of each quarter hour. A sense of hopelessness and desperation takes hold.
Amidst the terror scenes of incredible humanity and grace rise to the surface. The film is at its best in relaying these details. At the core is a brief relationship of fate between Clair Wilson James, among the shooter’s first victims, 8 months pregnant and struck down on the south mall, and Rita Starpattern, a 20 year old art student.
Claire lays helpless on the scorching concrete, next to the body of her boyfriend (who was killed instantly), losing blood, feeling the life she is carrying slip away. Incredibly, a young woman braves the constant barrage to come to Claire’s aid, to discover she can do little but lay flat, reach out and talk. For more than an hour Rita fights to keep Claire awake, engaged and alive.
It is this image of two young women – one clinging to life and one risking hers to save the other – that empowers the audience and pulls us back from the darkness. As a seemingly unstoppable madman rains death on the city from above, a young woman commits the most selfless act of kindness imaginable. That such pure goodness emerges from such overwhelming darkness – and does so countless times on that endless afternoon – is astonishing.
Some of TOWER’s most compelling archival footage involves the immediate aftermath of the shooter being taken down. Students, thousands of them, emerge from classrooms, hallways and dorms to flood the south mall, where they mill about in almost total silence as the injured and dead are removed. It’s an eerie sight, almost divorced from the emotion of what has just taken place.
Eventually, TOWER pivots to the impact of the tragedy on the American psyche, reminding us that half a century ago it was impossible for the average person to imagine a mass shooting of innocent civilians taking place anywhere, much less on a college campus. The resulting demand to “understand” the shooter and his motives dominated the media coverage. Thankfully, the film does not go far down this road. The killer’s name is barely mentioned and he is never depicted in the act. A reporter/survivor who investigated the case for years explains she gave up trying to uncover an explanation for the massacre because there just isn’t one.
Parallels to future mass shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech and of course, Sandy Hook are unavoidable and briefly explored. Obviously, this country has chosen not to tackle issues of gun violence and the influence of violent media head on – and we keep finding ourselves in the same place, offering our “thoughts and prayers” – instead of declaring “never again.” The filmmakers, while alluding to this fact, wisely do not attempt to provide a solution.
Instead, Tower delivers a touching coda, focusing on the survivors and where they are today. Students and first responders, some wracked with the guilt that they could have acted sooner, tell their stories for the first time. Others, like James, have pushed forward with their lives, raised children and worked to prevent gun violence. These are among the most healing moments from an incredibly healing film.
However, TOWER closes on an ominous note. As the 50th anniversary approaches in August, the university appears to be coming to terms with the tragedy. A new memorial is scheduled to be unveiled in an official ceremony on August 1st. As the film points out, the same day the new state law allowing handguns to be carried in classrooms and other university buildings goes into effect.
Ed Scruggs is a leading gun regulation advocate in Austin and writes frequently about gun legislation, regulation and politics.