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UT Austin tower documentary focuses on victims, not shooter

March 23rd, 2017 under Features

“Tower” still


Keith Maitland

Keith Maitland

MARFA – Austin-based documentary filmmaker Keith Maitland will host a special screening of his latest documentary, Tower, at 7pm tonight at The Crowley Theater, followed by a Q&A session.

The film follows the story of eight survivors of the August 1, 1966 sniper massacre at the University of Texas campus, in which Charles Whitman shot and killed 14 people while wounding 31 others in a 96-minute span while perched at the observation deck of the iconic UT Tower.

The film, Maitland explained, was created to bring the stories of the survivors to light, intentionally leaving Whitman (who is not named in the film and referred to only as “the sniper”) in the background, as most news stories and historical accounts have focused on the shooter.

“Almost everything [about the shooting] has been about the sniper,” he said. “They never left room to talk about the survivors or the ones we lost. I wanted to tell their stories and acknowledge the heroes on that day.”

The film, which marries archival footage and animation, includes interviews with the six of the shooting survivors, with the stories of the other two – who passed away before production began – being told through older interviews and police statements.

The lack of focus on the shooter and ignoring of the victims, Maitland said, is a product of the time in which the shooting occurred.

“It was an unlikely and unique event. It was during a time of chaotic and social upheaval. There was a shift in American culture, which I think led to the fascination with the sniper. The shooting earned a place in pop culture with an irreverent look at the sniper and the epic events of the day,” he said.

UT Austin’s reluctance to acknowledge the shooting has also been an issue in Maitland’s opinion, as the university failed to memorialize the victims for fifty years; finally erecting a memorial after being confronted by survivors.

“When I first started at UT in 1994, I had asked about the shooting while on a tour of campus and the tour guide simply said, ‘we don’t talk about that.’ While living in Austin, I could always feel an open wound that was never allowed to heal. While producing the film, we brought together people who were there during the shooting but have never talked to each other and they all said they wished there was a memorial on compus. There was a small plaque acknowledging a tragedy, but it didn’t specify what that tragedy was,” he said.

The survivors would go on to petition for a memorial, which was granted near the 50th anniversary of the shooting last year.

“What ended up happening was that we made a film about overcoming trauma. People were living with this trauma and were not diagnosed and never sought help. What I learned was the value of that and that it’s never too late to engage,” he said.

Maitland’s inspiration for the film, he said, came from a Texas Monthly article in which survivors recollected their experiences during the shooting at the university in which Maitland attended.

“The geographic detail in the article – the buildings that some of the survivors were in or ran into during the shooting – they were these specific places that I know very well,” he explained. “I pictured myself in those buildings with bullets flying around.”

For Maitland, using animation to tell the story helped the filmmaker recreate the university as it was at the time of the shooting.

“The animated parts helped me transcend time and space. We started the film knowing UT would never let us film on campus, so the animation helped us create scenes authentic to the geography and time period,” he said.

The film debuted at South by Southwest last year, where it won the juried prize and has screened at numerous film festivals throughout the world, including Tehran, Iran.

The screening is sponsored by Capri Marfa, Ballroom Marfa, and Carolyn Pheiffer, and is part of a new artist-in-residency program sponsored by Capri Marfa’s Virginia Leiberman.

Maitland is currently working on his fourth documentary, which tells the story of Michael Brody, a.k.a. “Hippy Angel,” who inherited $25 million in 1970 and vowed to give it all away to private citizens, becoming a national media celebrity.

The new documentary is being executive produced by Pheiffer.

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