London Film Festival 2016: The Tower dir. Keith Maitland
1 August 1966 is a date that will stay with you long after viewing this documentary. Tower’s release marks the 50th anniversary following one of the worst mass shootings in American history. The deed was done by ex-Marine Charles Whitman, who took control over the school clocktower at the University of Texas, armed with ammunition and guns and shot 49 people, before being shot dead by the police.
But Tower isn’t a story about Charles Whitman. It’s about the people who lived through the one and a half hours of hell.
If you’ve ever had your doubts about an animated documentary, it’s films like Tower and Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir that will convince you of the power and appropriateness of the medium. This is no sugar-coated, Disney version of real life events; it’s a gripping, edge of your seat documentary expertly crafted that even throws in multiple emotional, very human moments. Director Keith Maitland’s choice to use rotoscopic animation against a combination of digital backgrounds and real footage renders the documentary’s characters in strange, Andy Warhol-like colours, which though slightly disorienting at first, quickly grows on you over the course of the film.
The animation medium is particularly appropriate for Tower, partially because a number of the ‘interviewees’ have since passed, and characters are portrayed as they might have looked back in 1966, including being given voices by a cast of young actors, giving the film an immediacy a live shoot might not have been able to achieve. We’re introduced to people you see in your hometown – an upbeat pregnant college student and her boyfriend, a boy on his newspaper round, college students hanging out and shopkeepers. However, each introduction is quickly cut short by a sudden gunshot, breaking the peace. Not all of them are actually shot of course, but the threat of getting shot constantly hangs in the air.
Maitland’s trippy, bold aesthetic choices only add to the sense of surrealism and shock of the event itself. Claire Wilson (the pregnant student, voiced by Violett Beane) feels a ‘shockwave’ and falls to the ground, unable to pick herself back up, as if a great weight is pressing down upon her. She lies in a pool of blood, her boyfriend dead beside her, describing the floor as hot, burning her skin, and no animation is needed with the visceral nature of her words. Later on in the film, student Rita Starpattern (Josephine McAdam) bravely runs to her, lying on the blazing hot concrete beside her just to keep her going when she seems about to pass out, and Claire holds on with the memory of how she met her boyfriend, when the background explodes into a spectrum of colour, in stark contrast to the monochrome background we’re mostly presented with throughout the film.
The documentary follows several storylines from various perspectives; apart from Claire’s, we also get a view of bookstore employee Allen Crum (Chris Doubek) and the policemen who risk their lives to take down the gunman, students trapped in the school building not daring to step out for fear of risking their lives, and so on. None of the dialogue is scripted; all of it is lifted from real life interviews and transcripts, which makes the realness and sincerity of the film all the more obvious. In the last quarter of the film, Maitland even does a cutaway from the animation to the real, aged versions of the interviewees, which immediately reminds audiences that this is no fiction. By the time you reach the end of Tower’s runtime, you’ll heave a sigh of relief that it’s over, that many of these interviewees were left alive. But of course, not unscathed, many bearing the scars of trauma and loss.
Tower, above all, is a tribute and a form of memorial to the Charles Whitman shooting. Maitland always holds back from focusing on the killer himself though, instead letting the film speak through its survivors, some of whom have finally decided to forgive and forget Whitman’s acts. Tower is gripping, with some intense moments you would never expect from a documentary, including real footage of Claire’s rescue, with students running out into the open to carry her to an ambulance. When the film ends with a montage of various shootings over the years, one cannot help but wonder how US gun laws haven’t yet been clamped down on to prevent future occurrences. Tower is a great film that needed to be made, and oh how well made it was too, bringing attention once more to an incident that still remains hauntingly relevant fifty years on.