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Weekly Alibi Cloak of Lies

By Devin D. O'Leary

MARCH 2, 1998: 

Waco: The Rules of Engagement

Remember when you were a little kid and some wise-ass at school took it upon himself to reveal to you the truth about Santa Claus? Didn't you feel awful afterwards? Didn't you wish you could go back in time to recover your blind but comforting innocence? You may feel the same way after viewing the contaminating truth behind one of this year's Oscar-nominated documentaries, Waco: The Rules of Engagement.

Long gone are the days of Nanook of the North (1922), America's first feature-length documentary to achieve commercial success. No longer content to act as simple educational filmstrips, documentaries are evolving into harsh, probing examinations of the world around us. Last year spawned two of the most powerful documentaries in the last half decade--Paradise Lost: The Killings in Robin Hood Park and Licensed to Kill. Paradise Lost examined the brutal murder of three young children in Arkansas and the subsequent parody of justice which convicted three misfit teenagers of the killings. Licensed to Kill, meanwhile, delved into the frightening minds of murderers convicted of attacking and killing homosexuals. If these films represent the trend in modern documentary filmmaking, then this year's successor is surely Waco--a searing examination of the 1993 FBI attack on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, which resulted in the deaths of 76 men, women and children.

Filmmakers Dan Gifford, William Gazecki and Michael McNutly aren't a bunch of militant propagandists out to paint a smear campaign against the U.S. Government. Dan Gifford, who acts as Waco's executive producer as well as one of its writers, served as a news reporter for ABC News, "The McNeil/Leher News Hour" and CNN. As a result, Waco: The Rules of Engagement unfolds as a frighteningly sober, almost scientific examination of what went wrong five years ago in that small Texas town. Like Paradise Lost and Licensed to Kill, Waco is on an unrelenting scrabble for that elusive reality behind the headlines.

First off, the filmmakers begin by examining so-called "cult leader" David Koresh. Perhaps the most frightening revelation in Waco is that Koresh doesn't come across at all as the raving lunatic whom the FBI demonized on a daily basis. Koresh wasn't an unstable egotist who sought solace and validation in any oddball religion that came down the pike. Koresh was born and raised a Davidian--a religion whose origins stretch back to 1934. Far from a Jim Jones figure with a fly-by-night theology, Koresh was a seemingly devout man with a lifelong understanding of the Biblical scriptures. Although the American public viewed him as a sexual maniac with dozens of dazed followers in his hypnotic thrall, the truth seems to stray far from that officially endorsed conception. Certainly Koresh and his followers held beliefs far different than those of the general populace. But, as Waco posits, isn't the Constitution intended to protect such individuals?

Waco deals largely with the congressional hearing that resulted from the botched FBI/ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound of Mount Carmel but intersperses those hearings with home video shot by the Davidians during the siege. The FBI provided the Davidians with a video camera and asked them to document themselves. The resulting tape provides a portrait of a frightened but quite lucid group of humans--not one of whom seems overwhelmed by, or even entirely convinced of, David Koresh's reputed divinity. They come across, more than anything, as a bunch of scared students bewildered as to why an armed government agency would suddenly assault them. It's no wonder the FBI declined to release the tape to the media for fear it would create public sympathy for the besieged Davidians.

The Branch Davidian home movies are not the only new evidence uncovered by the makers of Waco. The harrowing 51-day siege is recreated step-by-step, and what originally looked like a monumental screw-up on the part of the government emerges as a colossal and asinine series of intentional cover-ups. Janet Reno and the other government wags would have us believe that the Davidians, of their own volition, shot each other and immolated themselves--an assertion that becomes patently ludicrous as Waco unspools its evidence in an elegantly edited ballet of compare and contrast. While the director of the FBI continues to assert that "not a single shot was fired by the FBI during the entire siege," we are treated to infrared images (taken by the FBI's own surveillance planes) which clearly show countless rounds being pumped into the Davidian compound.

At one point, a psychiatrist called to the scene admits that, at first, his biggest worry was how to comprehend the psychology of those inside the compound. As soon as he arrived, however, he realized the real concern was the psychology of those surrounding the compound. As a Sherman tank plows into Mount Carmel, knocking down walls and collapsing inhabited buildings, an FBI loudspeaker blares out: "We are not attacking you! This is not an attack!" The entire thing would be a farce worthy of the Marx Brothers if the results had not been so damnably tragic.

This is a bold and incendiary piece of filmmaking. The frightening realization is not that the government is capable of such a cover-up but that such a blatant and sloppy whitewashing of the truth could be read as gospel for the past five years. If only a major television network had the intestinal fortitude to broadcast this film during prime time so that millions could see the other side of the coin. Some say truth is beauty. It is not. Truth is a heavy, crushing burden that is rarely, if ever, pretty. Welcome to the other side.

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