SXSW Film Review: Tower

Keith Maitland's film focuses on the survivors of the UT massacre

Society is obsessed with killers. Serial, spree, mass; their names are common currency, like listing them off will give an insight into their crimes. Tower, the revolutionary documentary on the 1966 UT Tower shootings, puts the murderer out of frame, instead focusing on the survivors and victims.

Keith Maitland's stirring and heartrending film melds the rotoscoping techniques dear to Austin's filmmaking heart post-A Scanner Darkly with the freeform blending of archive and contemporary footage similar to SXSW 2010 title American: The Bill Hicks Story. It could have been visual overstimulation, or distanced the audience from the horror. Yet by drawing over actors re-creating the actions and reciting the words and testimony of people there on the day, he creates a subtle intimacy. When the real people are revealed in the third act, the audience knows them as they were before those deadly 90 minutes, and sees the lines that time and those terrible crimes have left on them.

The day is re-created as a Rashomon-esque collage of narratives. But rather than conflicting truths, they are threads in the tapestry. It's a day told in the kind of details that never come out in true-crime documentaries, the moments that feel like asides but speak to the personal experience. It's the survivor's guilt of a cop thinking “shoulda, coulda.” It's the rescuer describing his glasses falling down his sweat-drenched nose as bullets smash into concrete. It's the shopworker who finds himself in an armed siege. It's the shooting victim describing what it really feels like to bleed out.

What Maitland achieves is to rip the events from under the shadow of Charles Whitman. He reclaims it for the survivors, and not just of this terrible crime that has left its scars on the Austin community to this day. As the original mass shooting, he ties it subtly to every Aurora, every Columbine, every Virginia Tech.

That never-ending roll call of horror makes it universal. That it comes on the eve of Texas legalizing concealed handguns on campuses makes it timely. That it reminds us that victims are people, not statistics, not set dressing for the biographies of murderers, makes it essential.


Documentary Feature Competition, World Premiere
Monday, March 14, 7:15pm, Rollins Theatre
Thursday, March 17, 11:30am, Paramount
Saturday, March 19, 2pm, Marchesa

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SXSW 2016, SXSW Film 2016, Tower, Keith Maitland

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