Fifty years ago Charles Joseph Whitman rode an elevator to the top of the University of Texas Tower and began sniping at people below with a high powered rifle. One of the first mass shooting in the US that wasn’t related to organized crime it shocked the nation. Now Keith Maitland brings the stories of several of the survivors to life via rotoscopic animation and voice over narration. It screened at the Fanatsia Festival accompanied by a panel discussion not on animation or documentaries but preventing mass shootings.
By using young actors and rotoscoping their actions into the animated scenes Maitland can put us in their shoes as the events unfold around them. A young boy shot off his bicycle as he delivers papers, a pregnant woman shot along with her boyfriend as the go register for classes, two policemen and a a civilian bystander who rush the tower to take down the sniper. These are among the people whose words we hear as we watch the events unfold. And by using animation he can manipulate what we see much more completely such as when he gives us the perspective of one of the wounded laying in the sun and starting to hallucinate from the pain and heat.
The inter-cutting between the various stories also helps catch the feeling of confusion those caught up in it felt. Remember this before there was any easy way for most people to keep in touch away from a land line or pay phone. And this was a uniquely terrifying event at the time, unlike now when these kinds of shootings are an all to common occurrence.
The film is followed by more recent interviews with the people featured in the story, or their family in the case of those who have since passed away, about the shootings and the effect it’s had on their lives. Possibly the most touching is one of the policeman who brought Whitman down, to this day he lives with a feeling of guilt because not knowing there was only one shooter he waited for backup rather than go in alone, blaming himself for the higher death toll.
But maybe the most telling moment in the film is when we see TV news footage and Walter Cronkite warns us that if we do not address the cause of these events, we may see many more of them. Fifty years have passed and still his words go unheeded.
Tower has deservedly won several awards in it’s festival run, including three at South by Southwest. It should do well when it’s released later this year. Both heart pounding and heart breaking I can’t recommend this film strongly enough.