On August 1, 1966, a sniper took aim from the observation deck of the tower on the University of Texas campus at Austin and reigned 90 minutes of chaos and terror on the people below. TOWER, a partly animated documentary by Keith Maitland, tells that story in real time from the perspective of the eyewitnesses who lived it. Blending news clips with re-enactments that have been rotoscoped, the effect perfectly conveys the sense of unreality provoked by an act of the sort of violence to which the public at large had not yet become inured. Indeed, the most consistent emotion, after fear, was the inability of those present to adequately process what was happening to them as events played out in a time before cell phones.
One of the first victims was Claire Wilson, heavily pregnant and mystified to find herself collapsed on the concrete plaza in front of the tower. Her boyfriend was felled while walking over to her, and a passing man looked down at them with disdain and told them to gather their books and go on their way. Her story forms a framework, as people slowly realize what it happening, and look on as she bakes in the noon sun of a hot Texas day, still in the shooter’s sights. One witness recalls watching her and realizing that in her life’s defining moment that she is a coward for not doing anything to help. Elsewhere, police officers arrive armed with rifles that couldn’t reach the sniper, one assuming that is was a revolution staged by the Black Panthers, and one kid fresh out of high school makes the most momentous decision of his young life.
By playing out in real time, with no context except what the witnesses themselves knew at any given moment, the confusion and suspense are all but overwhelming, from the campus bookstore manager running into the street to see why a crowd has gathered around a boy on the ground, and then finding all telephone lines are down when he tries to contact his wife, to the tension of an elevator ride for an officer about to confront the shooter, and the realization that the man with the deer rifle who is helping him is a civilian in need of deputization. The psychic scarring is evident as the dramatized animations drawn from the narration, done by actors of the approximate age, gives way to live-action contemporary interviews in the present, as witnesses muse on the immediate aftermath in retrospect, and their reasons for wanting to relive what happened for this film. It becomes a profound meditation on a culture of violence and the nature of forgiveness, not just for the gunman whose name is not revealed until the end, but also for those who relive the inevitable second-guessing of what they did and when.
The technique is brilliant. There is an unfathomable tragedy in hearing such young voices speaking about such events, and in the more seasoned voices of the witnesses themselves, giving away so much about those moments, the emotions as fresh as the day it happened, there is a glimpse of bottomless sorrow as the touchstone of a life. Strikingly elegiac, TOWER recreates a time and place that can never be lived again on many levels, and does so with sensitivity and compassion.