A 50-year-old mass shooting is replayed in this powerful and pertinent documentary
On August 1, 1966, a sniper at the top of the University of Texas Tower opened fire on random passersby, holding the campus hostage for a fraught 96 minutes. That horrific attack – perpetrated by Charles Whitman, a former Marine – is the subject of a suspenseful and intensely emotional documentary, which reconstructs the crime itself and collects personal testimony from survivors and eyewitnesses.
This crowdfunded project based on Pamela Colloff's 2006 Texas Monthly article uses a combination of interviews (with contributions initially imparted by younger actors), archive footage and reconstructed sequences overlaid with Rotoscope animation. Director and University of Texas alumni Keith Maitland cuts between seven different accounts, building up multiple perspectives and achieving a gripping immediacy.
The first hour feels like it unfolds in real-time, with shots ringing out on the soundtrack as the various stories are told. The most powerful of these belongs to Claire Wilson (played by Violett Beane), the shooter's first victim, who lost both her unborn baby and her husband, and lay bleeding, pinned down under the scorching Texas sun for over an hour.
Throughout the attack the people below react in understandable fear and bewilderment, with one witness, Brenda Bell (Vicky Illk) speaking frankly about her own inaction, admitting that she hid until it was over, out of sheer terror. However, their accounts also include acts of incredible heroism, such as the extraordinary story of Rita Starpattern (Josephine McAdam), who risked her life to lie down on the baking hot concrete and keep a clearly injured Wilson conscious until help arrived.
For the final half-hour, Maitland shifts to live-action interviews with the now elderly eyewitnesses. They reflect on the events of a day that shocked America and consider the intervening 50 years, during which the public have become somewhat inured to mass killings; Wilson's words, in particular, will stay with you for a very long time. This is a remarkable and profoundly moving film with a desperately important message – for those reasons and more it demands to be seen.
Limited release from Fri 3 Feb.