Coming to theatres today, Wednesday, October 12: TOWER
Keith Maitland’s chronicle of America’s first mass school shooting debuted at SXSW this year, where it won both the documentary jury and audience awards. Its fest circuit also included Hot Docs, Seattle, Karlovy Vary, Jerusalem, Melbourne, Fantasia, the Hamptons, BFI London, Sitges, and Mill Valley, among other events.
Fifty years ago, on August 1, 1966, at the University of Texas at Austin, a man ascended to the top of the school’s clock tower and began shooting at those below, ultimately killing 14 and wounding 32 others before he was himself shot by police. Using rotoscopic animation to reconstruct the scene, Maitland immediately plunges the audience into the harrowing event, offering the perspectives of a number of eyewitnesses, including the first victim, who was pregnant and with her boyfriend when she was shot; a boy shot while on his newspaper delivery route; a civilian who helped police enter the tower; and two of the officers who took the sniper down. While re-enactments in documentary can often sink a project, here they are surprisingly effective, the unusual look of the rotoscope animation putting a slightly off-kilter lens on what might fall flat if the footage was simply unfiltered scenes of actors recreating the tragedy. The effect is so successful in its immersive ability, in fact, that when the film breaks from the animation for its final third to instead employ a more traditional talking heads approach with the actual survivors, it feels like an unfortunate disruption.