1996's haunting 'Waco' gives another side to story


In 1996 I saw a movie at the Sundance Film Festival that still haunts me and has haunted me even more in recent weeks.

The movie was "Waco: The Rules of Engagement." Produced by Dan Gifford and his wife, Amy Sommer Gifford, the three-hour documentary clearly and deliberately made a case for the fact that the 1993 siege at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, was not only a drastic miscarriage of justice but quite possibly ended in a mass murder at the hands of the U.S. government.

Using audio and video culled primarily from C-SPAN and other items of public record, the filmmakers suggest that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms raided the compound as a publicity move to receive more money from Congress. And they draw a depressing picture of how the BATF and FBI manipulated the media by keeping the press far away from the compound, persuading it -- and the public -- that David Koresh and his followers were a bunch of cultists rather than a legitimate religious sect.

Finally, and most damningly, "Waco" introduces infrared videotape that provides what looks like strong evidence that the FBI fired incendiary devices on the bunker outside the house. In addition, the film provides commentary from analysts who say those devices could have ignited or at least exacerbated the fire that took more than 80 lives on April 13, 1993.

Initially upon seeing "Waco," I was in shock. Then I began to write. I wrote about the film from Sundance, then wrote about it again when it opened in Austin, Texas. I wrote about it when it opened in Baltimore last summer and again when it was nominated for an Oscar.

You can disagree with the filmmakers' perception of Koresh as a harmless gun collector. You might not buy the local sheriff's conclusion that Koresh was not abusing children at the compound. And certainly you can watch the infrared material and not be convinced that the government forces started the fatal fires. But "Waco" is still a crucial alternative view on a story that was disgracefully one-sided as it unfolded.

Now that allegations are re-surfacing about the FBI's and military's involvement at Waco, the time is ripe for "Waco" to make a repeat appearance at the Charles Theatre. Seeing the film will give viewers a chance to visualize what the news reports are describing.

Who should see "Waco"? Gun nuts, bleeding hearts, policy wonks. Military buffs, religious zealots, fence-sitting liberals. Right wingers, left wingers, no-wingers. Critical thinkers, concerned citizens, Mr. and Mrs. America. We all should see "Waco," if only to challenge our own notions of the official story in a late 20th-century democracy.

Baltimore is lucky to have a second chance to see "Waco." Don't pass it up. "Waco: The Rules of Engagement" will be shown at the Charles Theatre at 2: 30 p.m. and 9 p.m. tomorrow and 2: 30 p.m. Sunday.

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