For more than 50 years, journalists, authors and everyday people have been struggling with how to tell the story of the 1966 University of Texas at Austin tower shooting. It was the first public mass shooting on a college campus, resulting in the deaths of 16 people.
Texas Standard told the story earlier this year with a radio documentary and oral history featuring the voices of close to 100 people who experienced – in some way – the shooting. And an Austin-based filmmaker has found another way to tell the story – through an animated documentary.
A cartoon of a shooting massacre sounds garish and macabre. But the film “TOWER” is not that at all. The animation is lifelike and understated, and the stories are real.
Keith Maitland is the film’s director.
“Deciding to make the film animated was literally the very first decision I made after deciding to make the film,” Maitland says. “It’s because the visceral nature of these first-hand stories that we’re trying to tell in ‘TOWER’ are so personal, and they’re so rooted in time and space and with a point of view, that I just wanted to make sure we could capture that in a way that audiences could really put themselves there.”
He says animation also allowed for an intimacy in telling parts of the story that he wouldn’t have been able to otherwise achieve. That intimacy is also part of the reason he chose to tell the story through just a handful of voices.
“There are literally thousands of eyewitnesses to this traumatic event, and all of those people have a story to share,” Maitland says. “There are so many different facets to the tower shooting, but we knew we couldn’t cover all of them, so we decided to focus on eight specific voices of people who were right in the heart of the shooting.”
The film is opening this week in Austin, and will also screen in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio – but Maitland has found it has much broader appeal.
“When people all around the country heard about the shooting live, as it was unfolding on their local news, it really captured America’s interest and curiosity,” Maitland says. “There’s an entire generation or two of people who grew up knowing just a little bit about the shooting.”
But what may explain the interest, even more, is what’s happened since the Aug. 1, 1966, shooting: hundreds more school shootings.
“Every week we turn on the news and this shooting has played out in one form or another in cities across America and across the world,” Maitland says. “But what the tower shooting offers that Newtown or Columbine – or whatever the shooting that happens next week – can’t offer is 50 years of perspective.”
And we’ve learned we can’t push these events, as ugly as they are, under the rug.
“One of the biggest themes that always comes out in the film is how people just didn’t talk about the shooting in the years afterward,” Maitland says. “Austin didn’t have much of a relationship to it, the university hasn’t had much of a relationship to it. And people and audiences all over the country just really can’t relate to that and they ask me why I think that is. Now we know you need to talk about things like this and that’s what the film’s about.”
“TOWER” will be in select theaters this month. It’s also slated to be featured on PBS stations across the country later this year.
Texas Standard is partnering with the Tower documentary, the Briscoe Center for American History, the Austin History Center and others to continue the conversation about the shooting. You can learn about the two upcoming events here.