Ten minutes before noon on 1 August 1966, shots rang out from the University Of Texas clock tower in Austin. Between then and around 1.20 pm, over 700 rounds of ammunition were fired at random at anybody in range down below. Sixteen people, including an unborn baby, died and another 33 were injured. At the time, it was the deadliest killing at any educational establishment in America.
Tragically, we’re all too familiar with more recent shootings, such Columbine and Virginia Tech, but Keith Maitland’s ambitious Tower traces them back to those devastating 96 minutes and tells the story with simplicity and immediacy. And he uses the technique you’d least expect for a documentary, especially one with such a harrowing subject matter. Animation.
In truth, it’s more like animation plus, blending rotoscopic animation, archive footage and personal testimony to re-create the emotions and experiences of eyewitnesses and survivors. And to bring the events of that day into even sharper focus, Maitland has used a team of young actors to re-enact both what happened and the interviews he conducted with the survivors. They’d all lived through a day that shattered the city and traumatised the nation, a day that’s referred to in the film as the one when America lost its innocence. But, as we see, it didn’t lose its humanity or courage: one man’s destructive actions brought out the best in so many others.
We never see the face of the sniper on the roof: we only learn his name in newsreel footage and he remains an enigma. For most of the film, it looks like the tower itself is firing the bullets, a strange and sinister image. And that’s the way Maitland wants it, because his interest is on the people down below, those caught up in the horror of the day, telling the story from their perspective and documenting their reactions. Student Brenda Bell is brave enough to admit that, once the shooting started, she wouldn’t go outside, even to help somebody else. To paraphrase her own words, it was a day which separated the brave from the scared and she realised at that moment that she was a coward.
The first person to be shot was student Claire Wilson and her story is the main thread running through the film. Heavily pregnant and next to her dead boyfriend on scorching concrete (the temperature was 100 degrees that day), she’s lying on an exposed area at the foot of the clock tower. We return to her regularly, watch her condition deteriorate as nobody dares to risk helping her, hear her thoughts as she believes she’s approaching death and then witness the bravery of several other students: one girl, who apparently comes out of nowhere and lies on the ground comforting her, then two young men who manage to carry her away, without a second thought for their own safety. It’s one of the abiding images of the day.
They weren’t the only heroes: there were the police officers and the deputised supermarket manager who made their way to the top of the tower to stop the carnage. They were the most public ones, but the film makes it clear that there were many more, some who have a name here and others who don’t. One reason that some of them remain anonymous is the prevailing attitudes of the day. Once the killing was over and the gunman’s body removed, the university authorities cleaned up the campus, closed it for just one day and then everything appeared to go back to normal. Hardly anybody ever spoke about it again, many of the survivors lost touch with each other and there is no memorial at the university. Although the clock tower itself dominates the campus and the entire city to such an extent that it probably doesn’t need one.
This is a documentary like no other, not just from a technical point of view, but because of its immediacy in witnessing events from over 50 years ago, its compassion and its courageous approach to a tragic subject. It’s spellbinding viewing. It belongs among the nominations for this year’s Best Documentary Oscar but it didn’t make it onto the list. A lower profile snub from the Academy and, given the film’s boldly experimental approach, a short-sighted one.