Texans are tough folk. Outsiders, including the London crowd in this particular cinema, see pro-Gun, Republican-voters dominating the state. Tower, an innovative, engaging documentary, directed by Keith Maitland, tells another story. On a sweltering sunny Monday in Austin, a sniper barricades himself on the top of the University Tower. Indiscriminately, he shoots, and hits the people below. It is the 1960’s with The Mamas & the Papas on the radio. A woman, six-months pregnant, is the first to hit the ground. Too many more follow.
Inevitably, it reminds us of Virginia Tech. Columbine. Orlando. A man, through a diseased mind, takes up arms against the innocent people that surround him. Police officers, tasked with protecting the community, are murdered. Two young boys on a paper round are shot down. A shopkeeper taken out. The list goes on. The difference is how this happened in 1966, fifty years ago, and yet it’s barely known. Over an hour and a half, this man picked off people in broad daylight. Austin locals had guns themselves and many shot towards the tower, vainly hoping to take him down. This tense tale reconstructs the events in detail, and from multiple perspectives, using a combination of archival footage, interviews and rotoscoped re-enactments. It is fresh, immediate and couldn’t be more relevant.Maitland, as a teenager, heard of the shooting in passing. His school teacher was witness to the events that day. She saw the shooter and, realising that it means he can see her, ducked for cover. As he grew up, he too attended the famous University and while taking the tour, he asked about that fateful day. The tours were not to discuss the events but, as if he were selling stolen watches, the guide offered to show him the bullet holes afterwards. Tower pulls that secretive veil off and, through intricate research, reveals the truth that so many refuse to discuss or acknowledge. His interviews sometimes portray burly Texan men breaking down when thinking back to that day. A woman explains how everyone felt powerless when Clare, the pregnant woman, was laid out in the open space bleeding. If you were to go out to her, you would be putting your life at risk. Clare herself heard the conversations at the side: “We should go help her!” one would say, “we need to think of those who have a chance” another responded.
While exploiting the hypocrisy of gun-control in the US, Tower also tackles memory. Similar to Austin-native Richard Linklater (a rotascoping pro in A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life), Tower toys with our own perception of the events. Actual accounts are taken on by younger actors, as if the victims of the day were speaking directly to us. Their youth and optimism is vivid in their plans for the day and in the dreams we see, displayed in art nouveau patterns and sixties, floral colours. Scenes are repeated, shots are recycled and this can often feel as if the documentary is stretching out its footage to tip over the 90-minute mark, but the film still resonates.
Relevant, upsetting and fresh, Tower is a documentary that will stick with you. It’ll linger in your mind and change your perspective. Guns may be a long-told tale of glory in the southern states, but we can’t ignore the stories that are wilfully hidden or obscured. Tower puts it up on the notice board, loud and clear, forcing people to wake up to the truth.