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SXSW: Stepping Out Of The Screen
by Stephen Becker 13 Mar 2016

The subjects of the documentary “Tower” take the stage as heroes in the flesh.


AUSTIN – One of the pleasures of attending a SXSW film screening is the director is nearly always in attendance. And if it’s a world premiere, the cast is usually there, too.

When you’re sitting in that theater, you know intellectually that these are all real people – how else would they make the movie? But I’ve found that sometimes my brain can be kinda surprised when the lights come up and the person I’ve been watching on screen for the last 90 minutes is actually standing in front of me in the flesh.

That was the case for me here in 2012 after a screening of “Searching for Sugar Man,” the Oscar-winning documentary about the 1960s folk singer known as Rodriguez. Half the film you’re wondering if he’s even still alive, and then when it was over he just walked out there on stage. It was like we’d witnessed a resurrection.

I had a similar feeling on Sunday at a screening for “Tower,” which remembers the events of Aug. 1, 1966, on the University of Texas campus. The film was made by Plano native and current Austin resident Keith Maitland and details nearly in real-time those horrific 96 minutes that left 14 innocent people dead around the school’s iconic building.

What I expected to be a story of tragedy was in reality an inspiring meditation on the heroism of everyday people. It’s one of the most visceral experiences I’ve ever had at the festival, my head left spinning once the house lights flipped on.

Seconds later, up to the stage walks Artly Snuff, the one-time UT student who risked his life to carry Claire Wilson James to safety after she was struck by Charles Whitman’s first hit. Then James herself bounded up the stairs – a Dallas native who saw both her boyfriend and her unborn child perish on that day. Also in attendance: Ramiro Martinez, one of three police officers who ascended the tower and put an end to Whitman’s murder spree.

They were the heroes of that day 50 years ago this year, and – cliche as it may sound – it was an honor to be in their presence.

Check back to this space for a full interview with Maitland closer to the Dallas International Film Festival screening of “Tower” in April.