Trying to encapsulate the experience of surviving a mass shooting can be like trying to catch the night sky in a jar. The moment can never be understood and to even talk about it seems to trivialize the lives of those lost. And yet in this unfortunate modern age, when mass shootings, and even mass shootings at schools, have become commonplace, any attempt to open the conversation about how to prevent them in the future is a worthy one.
This year SXSW featured two unforgettable documentaries about two school shootings, near 50 years apart. NEWTOWN, directed by Kim A. Snyder, focuses on the survivors of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting of 2012, not just some of the kids, but parents, teachers, the school nurse, the janitor. TOWER, directed by Keith Maitland and winner of the Doc Jury Award, gives a comprehensive study of the events of August 1st 1966, when Charles Whitman went to the top of the University of Texas tower and shot at people with a sniper rifle, becoming the first ever mass shooter. This film also centers on survivors, and the individual acts of heroism that lead to stopping Whitman.
Both films are unquestionably powerful, and I think important. I was actually hesitant to write about this, because this will not be a popular opinion, but just because a film is important, doesn’t mean it actually works as a film. I really tried to separate myself from my emotional reactions to the films and look at them critically, as story-telling devices or at least informational experiences.
The biggest difficulty I had with NEWTOWN is the lack of structure. Without really talking about the tragedy, there is nothing to ground the documentary. We move from interview to interview with no real sense of order or intent. All the interviews are devastatingly powerful and I cried several times, but I never had any sense of why they were being presented in this particular order, and where we were heading. And then it just ended. Instead of gaining insight into this particular event, I met several people, and watched their pain. It almost felt invasive, but if it had all been leading to something I would have felt like we were in it together. Instead it was just being presented to me, almost like a news special. So NEWTOWN, as heart-wrenching as it was, didn’t really work for me as a piece of cinema.
The actors deliver much of the dialogue for the first half, and this is where the film encounters a bit of an issue. I spent most of the first 40 minutes of the film trying to understand what was being delivered – there were young voices, and rotoscoped interviews showing young faces, talking about events 50 years in the past with the distance and gravity that can only be achieved years later looking back. And of course all speaking in the past tense. I understand wanting the interviewee to look like who we are seeing in the re-creation, but it was confusing and kept taking me out of the moment. That being said, there is a beautiful moment when the interviews flip from the rotoscoped interviewees to actual video of the actual people who originally gave the interviews. This happens several times and it never looses its effectiveness. With this in mind, I might suggest the easy fix of a title card at the front of the film that says something like “the interviews you will hear are actual interviews conducted with the participants of the events of August 1, 1966, portrayed by the actors of the re-creation. No change has been made to what they said for the sake of the film” or something.
That being said, TOWER is a true triumph, a film that is almost perfect (making me want to fix it). It really opens history up to both understanding the events and the people who lived through it. I felt like I genuinely knew these men and women who risked their lives to help others, and I was exhausted after watching the film – emotionally spent. The film aims to be something much more than a document or a news piece, it tells the story of the day and the story of those who survived. Film is story, and TOWER is a potent film.
TOWER world premiered at SXSW this last week and plays the Victoria TX Indie Film Fest on Saturday March 19th. NEWTOWN world premiered at Sundance and next screens at the Cleveland International Film Festival on March 31st.