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Tower’s Unique Visual Style Focuses on Victims, Not Violence

Kino Lorber

Documentary films, similar to narrative features, have evolved greatly over the last few decades. Just as many different genres exist to convey stories for narrative features, documentaries can employ various filming methods to convey a unique perspective on a real-world event or figure. Whether it’s having the interview subjects reenact their involvement and carrying out of genocide in The Act of Killing (2012) or completely restoring World War I footage to add in color, sound, and a modern frame rate in They Shall Not Grow Old (2018), there are no limits to presenting a non-fiction subject in a creative experience.

Keith Maitland’s Tower (2016), like the previously mentioned documentaries, is unique in its portrayal of a real-world event. The film documents the University of Texas Austin tower shooting of August 1st, 1966 by combining animation and archival footage with interviewees recalling their actions before, during, and after the shooting. With its use of animation and archival footage to tell the event, the wide array of subjects used to tell their perspectives of the shooting, and its  emotional storytelling, Tower is a sobering reminder of mass violence and its ever-present appearances within America and abroad.

From the first frames, the film’s attention-grabbing rotoscoped animations are displayed alongside archival footage of UT-Austin as the various interviewees describing the calm events of the summer day. Shortly, though, there is the chaos of a mass shooting. The animation helps fill in the gaps of missing footage, as news coverage could report only from a distance and none of the primary subjects’ actions were caught on film that day. As a result, this immersive form of visual combination allows for a deeper emotional connection to the primary subjects. They’re seen briefly living calmer moments that day before the shooting kicks in, making their stories more resonant as the film’s viewers can see what the subjects act like and do, due to the humanizing aspect of the animation.

A medium shot of Houston Mccoy (Blair Jackson) answering the handheld dispatch radio for his police patrol vehicle.
Houston McCoy (Blair Jackson) responds to a police dispatch report about a shooting at UT Austin

The film will occasionally change colors during the animated segments where the images change between being colored with a realistic color palette and shading, draining the colors to black and white imagery, or by inserting visual effects such as blurring or overlapping frames. The changing imagery prevents visual complacency that might result in a lack of attention if the film had only one visual style. The willingness to create more-eccentric changes with the imagery of the animation also ties into a tense mood that much of the film provides as the audience, just like the subjects within the film, are prevented from feeling secure due to the presence of ever-evolving optics while the subjects contend with an exponential danger of trying to avoid death and harm.

The documentary portrays a wide age range of subjects within the film, from young children to older adults, and professions from students to reporters and nearby store workers. By showing a wide-arrange of subjects, director Keith Maitland expertly reveals the danger of being a victim of a mass shooting has only risen over the past few decades as an event like the UT Austin tower shooting, which was seen as merely unthinkable back in that period, has unfortunately only been a warning of the tragedies that would come later in U.S. history with events such as the Columbine High School shooting or the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting, where a variety of victims were tragically killed in a manner as unthinkable as the events seen within the documentary. Moreover, the variety of subjects being interviewed helps a viewing audience feel connected to the emotional testimonies being portrayed, as there’s a subject that a singular audience member can relate to due to age, gender, or profession, making their stories attention-grabbing as the audience member feels connected on an emotional level.

A close-up shot of Claire Wilson James (Violet Beanne) laying down on pavement
Claire Wilson James (Violet Beanne) lays down on the pavement at UT Austin after being shot from the university tower.

Another strength of a varied amount of interviewees is the ability for the subjects to fully illustrate the details of the shooting from multiple perspectives. Bystanders recall victims being shot and killed nearby. The radioed police officers describe frantic 911 calls,. Reporters narrate the danger of trying to capture footage without being shot themselves. These intersecting perspectives  help detail the chaos of the day from as close as possible with victims that were shot, to the tertiary with outside reporters detailing the scene, making the scope of the day as wide as possible. Furthermore, if the documentary followed only a select few subjects instead of multiple, the audience would not be able to fully grasp the traumatic events described within the film as it would feel isolated with a smaller amount of participants, instead of a far-reaching catastrophe.

The film’s emotional might comes from the storytelling present as one of the main subjects,  pregnant college student Claire Wilson James (voiced by Violet Beanne) is shot near the titular tower and describes bleeding out on the hot pavement nearby her slain boyfriend and father of her unborn child. Her perspective is one of the most tear-wrenching in an already emotional documentary, creating anxiety over whether she can escape to safety or whether her child will survive. Furthermore, Beanne’s interpretation of Claire’s testimony during the animated segments is read with such quivering sadness and emotion that even the most cynical of viewers would have a hard time not being heartbroken at the situation.

Later, the animated version of Claire and her performed voiceover from Beanne are revealed as the real-life survivor describing the events in front of a camera on a film set, individually reading the names of the deceased victims from a newspaper, among them that of her own unborn child. This becomes the film’s most devastating moment, a cold emotional punch due to the realization that the real-world does not follow movie magic, and not everyone can escape a tragic event with as detailed in the documentary. This revelation also compounds the sad emotional element as her self-described dreams of Claire and her unborn child are shown in a colorful and bright animation style, making the outcome of the shooting even more harrowing, its having prevented her expected motherhood with the child she had planned to help care for alongside her boyfriend.

A black and white close-up shot of John Fox (Séamus Bolivar-Ochoa) and other students looking up
John Fox (Séamus Bolivar-Ochoa, foreground) crouches near the stairs of UT-Austin and looks at the university tower as he tries to help Claire Wilson James nearby.

Alongside the emotional testimonial from Claire is another of the same emotional power from John “Artly” Fox (voiced by Séamus Bolivar-Ochoa), a student at UT-Austin, who describes his fear to rescue the injured Claire Wilson from the pavement as “being a coward.” This statement is saddening to hear from a viewing audience as the justified fear to risk personal life to save a stranger is reasonable, but is instead unfortunately seen from the person giving their testimony as a moment of selfish fear. This moment of sympathy is further solidified when John Fox ultimately decides to help rescue Claire, turning a situation of sadness and regret into one of hope as people like John join together in the face of death and help each other, making it emotionally inspiring to an audience not to reinforce dourness, but hope to create a sense of much-needed betterment in the harsh real-world people live in.

Later, the animated version of John Fox and his voiceover shifts into the real-life version and he finally meets up with Claire after decades of not seeing each other. The two embrace, and he tearfully regrets not helping her sooner during that day. The emotional storytelling of the film is realized as these two disparate people and their paths finally reunite after decades of separation, having their meeting end on a note of happiness instead of tragic sadness. The film ending on real-world footage is also a strong emotional contrast to the animated majority of the film as these characters, who see in their youthful appearance undergo a tragic event, are now ending the film on a happier note in their aged real-life appearances.

A medium shot of Claire Wilson James holding out a hand to John Fox while they sit on an outdoor table
During the present day, Claire Wilson James holds out a hand to comfort John Fox as he states his regret for not being able to help her sooner during the UT Austin shooting.

Keith Maitland’s film takes the testimonial aspect of documentary filmmaking and infuses it with an eye-catching visual appearance. With a sad event as the UT-Austin shooting, Maitland conveys the horrific results of a mass shooting, but is still able to ultimately pull hope from a bleak situation. With a foreboding focus on mass shooters and their backgrounds and motives to carry out a shooting that pulls focus away from their victims, Tower (2016) instead argues that the story of mass murderers should never overshadow the victims that were affected by their violence.

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