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.
NEWTOWN is a stark film. Glossing over the particular events of the day, Snyder’s film moves quickly into the aftermath, introducing us to two families of children who were lost that day. One of them, a mother of a special needs child, is desperate to connect with parents of her son’s classmates, to learn more about him and others’ perception of him. Another family had two older children and a friendship with a family down the street with children the same age (who didn’t lose their youngest). There are interviews with teachers, with city officials, neighbors near the school, neighbors to the shooter, and as mentioned, the janitor of the school. Without desiring to sound callous, unfortunately for the film, most of the interviewees describe similar feelings, and are going through similar grieving processes. This may be part of the message of the film, but it doesn’t necessarily make for compelling filmmaking. It is also unclear why these were the people chosen to be interviewed. Undoubtedly there were many children who died, many who survived, and the same with teachers. It is unclear why these subjects were the ones the documentarian chose to focus on.
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.
Keith Maitland’s TOWER does a much better job of telling the story of the event, and, as is its intent, the story of the survivors. The first two-thirds of the film feel like the event is playing out for us in real time, the pressure is intense and the interviews are harrowing. Especially strong is the story of the pregnant Claire Wilson, shot and left stranded on the hot pavement until a woman risks her life to keep her company and awake, and then another man runs out later to pull her off. It is true heroism, and that’s not even getting to the assault on the tower by three police officers and a store manager that ended the shooting. The film recreates that day using rotoscope animation, casting actors as the men and women who lived (and died) through the events of that day, bringing them to screen in breath-taking imagery. Much of the film is drawn directly from interviews with participants and footage and recordings of that day.
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.
The other criticism I had of TOWER was that it really loses steam in the final third of the film. Once the events of the day have been tied up, the move to outside that setting does not really have the same power. Although I appreciated knowing how everyone who survived had moved on with their life, and what they were doing, as well as the effort to take the knowledge learned form this day and apply it to similar occurrences (this was all very well done) it just feels anticlimactic and like an afterthought after having ‘survived’ the first two-thirds of the film. It might have been more effective to have this material edited within the rest of the film, so that the climax of the assault on the tower plays as the climax of the film. Finally there is a rather long tangent about Claire Wilson and her adopted Ethiopian son – it was great to see that she had done that, but it felt like three times as long as it needed to be to make the point. We don’t need a lesson on Ethiopian dining practices.
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.