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‘Tower’ revisits tragic 1966 mass shooting at UT Austin

Mass shootings have become so commonplace recently that most reports come with a weary resignation of “here we go again.”

It’s enough to make any piece of media even tangentially related to a shooting feel timely or eerily relevant. So there’s a natural feeling of wariness whenever one hears about a documentary or a film about a shooting. Will it be too exploitative? Wallow too much in sadness? Be totally unnecessary? You get the idea.

But don’t worry. Keith Maitland’s “Tower” doesn’t fall victim to any of these concerns. It is a documentary about the 1966 University of Texas at Austin shooting, widely regarded as the first mass school shooting and it hews close to the action, providing an on-the-ground style recounting of the events. Where it stops being so generic is its presentation.

“Tower” is composed primarily of black-and-white rotoscoped animation, providing color only in small flashbacks and in startling bursts of red whenever someone is shot. The result is a gripping, electrifying film that manages to recount the story of a horrible day in American history while providing a fascinating visual style that also combines archival footage and audio clips to form a fascinating picture of a surreal event.

The bulk of “Tower” is talking head style interviews, taken from dozens of survivors and witnesses scene. These interviews are performed by actors portraying people there the day the shooting happened. These actors are then animated and inserted into flashback-like scenes.

The wisest choice Maitland makes is to ignore any details about the shooter, Charles Whitman. We never learn his name, his motives, not even what he looks like. We only know as much as the people at whom he was shooting did at the time.

Hence, the focus is on the ordinary people like Claire Wilson, an 18-year-old pregnant student, unable to move from the scorching hot ground after being shot. She tells the story of how a random woman named Rita Starpattern willingly laid next to her out in the open to help keep her conscious before help could arrive. Maitland contrasts this with Brenda Bell, a woman who talks honestly about her fear that day, relaying the (not entirely fair) observation that “[she] was a coward.”

Maitland said he was inspired to make the film after reading a story about how the University of Texas had refused to acknowledge the event — they did not even put up a memorial for the victims.

Many of them are still alive and can be seen at the end of the film as they look today. “Tower” is a vital reminder that even in the darkest of times, there are still people willing to do all they can to help total strangers and a fitting memorial to the people lost that day. It’s a uniquely experimental documentary. One that should not be missed.