'Tower' Documentary Revisits First Mass Shooting in Modern U.S. History

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A still from "Tower" shows the animated version of Claire Wilson, left, who survived the University of Texas shooting but lost her unborn child. Tower/Keith Maitland

It wasn't long after Keith Maitland began work on Tower, a documentary about the 1966 shooting at the University of Texas at Austin, that a gunman massacred 26 people, including 20 6- and 7-year-olds, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012.

Although the Austin incident was widely acknowledged as the first mass shooting in U.S. history, the director found a surprising lack of support for his film. Stonewalling came from both Texans, many of whom didn't want to revisit a violent, uncomfortable part of their state's history, and producers in New York and Los Angeles, who assumed that because they hadn't heard about the shooting, no one else would care.

"When the Newtown shooting happened, the conversation opened up a little bit. People were so frustrated and impacted by [the shooting] that it really softened our ability to move forward with this film," Maitland tells Newsweek. By coincidence, Tower and Newtown, a documentary about the Connecticut shooting, are both now in theaters.

"We always thought that this was the beginning of a phenomenon. With each and every shooting, from Columbine through Orlando and the smaller shootings that have happened week in, week out since Orlando, this original story becomes that much more relevant," he adds. "To me, there's no difference between the story of the tower shooting and the story of Columbine or Orlando. The only difference is that we have the benefit of 50 years' examination."

Released for the 50th anniversary year of the shooting, Tower is a deeply engrossing and tense documentary that recounts the confusion and fear surrounding the events of August 1, 1966, when a gunman picked off strangers from the top of the university's clock tower. At the time, the term "mass shooting" wasn't yet part of the national vocabulary. The film doesn't stick only to sparse grainy footage and static talking heads. Instead, most of it is animated, lending it an immediacy that is "disarming," Maitland says, "and it offers an opportunity for real intimacy."

To shoot the animated scenes, real people were dressed in clothes and held props from the time, and they acted out the memories of survivors and the stories of victims, which were then digitally drawn. Tower mainly focuses on the story of Claire Wilson, who survived being shot but lost her unborn child. Later in the film, black and white footage from the day shows Wilson being carried to safety by John "Artly" Fox, who expresses his guilt in the film for not having rescued her sooner.

"People expect animation to keep you at arm's length, or to be a filter or a wall. But it has a dreamlike quality that aligns very nicely with exploring 50-year-old memories," says Maitland.

The director also wanted to use animation to appeal to a younger audience, who "live under the threat of this violence every day when they throw their backpack over their shoulder and they head to school.

"They drill for it now. Active-shooter scenarios have become part of the education lexicon," says Maitland. "I had fire drills. My parents had duck and cover—nuclear and atomic bomb drills. Kids today grow up with this idea that this could happen at any point in time."

Journalist Meredith Vieira, the executive producer of Tower, says the film is not a political one but is instead "a springboard to a conversation we should be having." Vieira says covering the aftermath of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting—the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history until the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, earlier this year—also influenced her decision to become involved in the film.

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A memorial service is held on August 1 in front of a monument bearing the names of those killed in the August 1, 1966, clock tower shooting at the University of Texas at Austin. Jon Herskovitz/Reuters

"If people don't talk about it, nothing will ever get done," says Vieira. "We just want to keep the dialogue going."

The name of the shooter who killed 16 people that day, including Wilson's unborn child, isn't mentioned until the end of Tower. Charles Whitman, a 25-year-old engineering student at the university and a former Marine, was eventually shot and killed by police. (The 17th victim died 35 years later because of kidney problems caused by a gunshot wound. The coroner ruled it a homicide.)

Maitland, who is based in Austin, moved to Texas when he was 12 and later attended the university. An inscription on the tower, which still stands at the center of the campus, reads: "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." Earlier this week, Tower was nominated for three Critics' Choice Documentary Awards, for best documentary feature, best direction of a documentary film and most innovative documentary.

"When I look at the tower, even after working on this project for four years and thinking about it for 10, I still see the tower as a symbol of enlightenment, of growth, of higher education and possibility," says Maitland. "That inscription has always stuck out to me.

"The truth of that day wasn't being told. We took on that task, and it's been our privilege."

Tower is now showing at select theaters around the U.S.