Department of English

Documentary Film Director Keith Maitland's 2017 English Department Convocation Speech

Tue, May 23, 2017
Documentary Film Director Keith Maitland's 2017 English Department Convocation Speech
Keith on graduation day

Keith Maitland, Director and Producer of Tower, and a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, gave the English department's 2017 convocation speech on Friday, May 19. His compelling speech to our graduates is reprinted below. 

Maitland was drawn to the story of the Texas Tower shooting when he first heard about it from an eye-witness - his 7th grade history teacher. Through interviews, animations, and archival footage, Tower tells the story of America's first mass shooting through the viewpoint of a survivor. The film won the grand jury prize at the 2016 SXSW Film Festival. Keith Maitland is also the director of the  Emmy-nominated, The Eyes of Me, a year-in-the-life of four blind teenagers. Eyes was broadcast on PBS's Independent Lens and was honored with a Barbara Jordan Media Award by the State of Texas.

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So this is what graduation looks like.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I am a graduate of this fine institution but 19 years ago when I graduated, I purposely skipped the English department graduation – I mean there are two ceremonies, right? The department one and the big one tomorrow? Here at  the departmental ceremony you have to get dressed up, see your professors strangely out of context in these weird robes, you have to get up and walk across the stage to awkwardly shake hands with a dean and physically acknowledge whatever it is that this has all been about – scary as that is;  and then there’s the big one tomorrow where you can wear shorts under your gown, get lost in the crowd like any day on the South Mall, and you just sit there, sip on your flask and wait for the fireworks show. I chose fireworks…

I’m happy to be here today with my wife and mother in the audience, supporting me, and because I denied her the pleasure of seeing me on the graduation stage 19 years ago, this one is for you Mom.

 

So here I am all these years later, robed-up in some borrowed regalia, invited to impart whatever collected wisdom I can muster and it’s a little scary.

I want to thank Dr. Elizabeth Cullingford for inviting me here & Dr. Coleman Hutchison for the beautiful introduction. This all came as a complete surprise to me and like I said, it is a little intimidating. I mean, you’ve had four years of study: reading, writing, listening, debating, all to form a foundation of knowledge upon which to launch the rest of your lives, and then I get to come in and put a little punctuation mark on the end of all that.

What can I offer you beyond a great big congratulations? Well, I’m a storyteller - so I’m going to tell you a couple of stories.

When I got to UT, like most of you, I took a campus tour. Now this was the 90s, so we were all decked out in flannel shirts & doc martens, we were talking about South Park & Twin Peaks, listening to Nirvana and Soundgarden... some people were really turned off by Hillary Clinton & Donald Trump was just some blowhard that nobody could take seriously -- y’know it was a different time.

And as we walked around the 40 acres I learned a lot of great details about the campus and some UT trivia. We all know to salute Bevo as a sacred representation of our independent spirit but did you know the first Bevo was served up at a BBQ celebrating the 1920 football season?

We talked about the jaunty UT jingle, The Eyes of Texas, cleverly sung to the tune of I’ve Been Working On The Railroad… about how that song means that we’re all in it together, under the watchful and not creepy-at all “Eyes Of Texas”. They’re upon you. Not just here and now, for these four years, but forever. And as you go off and find successes in this world like Lady Bird Johnson or Neil Degrasse Tyson, Walter Cronkite or Farrah Fawcett,  or Kevin Durant, the “Eyes of Texas” will be there - you know, til Gabriel blows his horn.

At the end of the tour we ended up in front of the tower - it hadn’t come up yet, so I asked about the 1966 shooting and the tourguide kind of rolled her eyes and said,  “We’re really not supposed to talk about that”.

I remember pointing up at the main building at the engraved message there: Ye Shall Know The Truth and the Truth Shall Make you Free… and the tour guide kind of rolled her eyes and said, “Well if you stick around I can show you where there are some bullet holes?”

“We’re really not supposed to talk about it.” Making the movie, I learned in my research that they closed the campus for just one day - the shooting took place on Monday, they cleaned up the blood on Tuesday, and classes resumed on Wednesday. That year at graduation there was no mention of the tragedy, no moment of silence or reading of names - “We’re really not supposed to talk about it.”

What were they afraid of…? I wasn’t there but I think they were afraid of shame... and of blame. They were afraid that parents would pull their kids out of school, that students would start carrying guns to class, that any mention of the shooting might inspire more acts of violence. They were afraid of what they didn’t know and what they couldn’t control.

Even back then as a freshman, I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker and I started interning and working on movies and TV shows here in Austin, to start paying my dues - but at the same time I chose to be an English major. Working for Richard Linklater or MTV, or for Jim Henson Productions on a TV show some of you may have watched as toddlers  (The Wubbulous World of Dr Seuss), was giving me the kind of experience you need to succeed in a hands-on field like film. But back here on campus, I chose to be an English major because I wanted to focus on story, character, voice, and perspective…
 
I was eager to read and especially to write, and it was in Parlin Hall that I was being exposed to the stories and the tellings that would shape my perspective for years to come.  

Raymond Carver taught me a complex approach to humanism through the sparest possible lens; Joyce Carol Oates showed me blood & violence, love & hate beyond my limited experience, but in a way that engendered empathy, bringing me into the fold of her characters’ lives; Shakespeare exposed me to every human archetype and every comedy and tragedy that man has known - I’m more drawn to the tragedies. That was the reading - the fun part. Then there was the writing. There is nothing more exciting, and nothing scarier than the empty page.

A few years after I graduated I was working on a new screenplay - I pulled out an old empty notebook, something I bought at the start of a new semester in college and had never actually used. Staring at the empty expanse of the cold white notebook page, I was at a loss. But flipping through that old notebook, I found one surprising bit of writing. Halfway through the book, written in my own hand was a supposition which has come to guide my life - a few simple words on an otherwise blank page in an otherwise blank notebook - it simply said: Spin like a spider, the web that you rely on.

Spin like a spider, the web that you rely on? OK. That’s pretty clear. It’s not exactly “To thine own self be true.”  It’s more than that -- it’s: You’re on your own. It’s up to you. Create your own opportunities - without that web, the spider doesn’t eat.

Where did it come from? I don’t know. I’ve googled it and got nothin’. Did I conjure up this short elegy, this mantra - my motto? I really don’t know. Is it a line from a book or a play? I read a lot of Pinter, but that doesn’t sound like Pinter - not bleak enough. Did one of my professors eloquently toss that off in a short story critique or in an attempt to inspire? Maybe, probably. I don’t know. But never has a set of words so dictated my path. It’s up to you - you’re on your own. That’s scary as hell…

Fear. It surrounds us. For some it’s a motivator, for others it’s the catalyst for paralysis.

We know what the University feared in the wake of the 1966 shootings. What about the students? What about those that overcame fear?

During the sniper’s rampage the first student shot from the tower was Claire Wilson, an 18 year old freshman who happened to be 8 months pregnant. She was just walking casually across the South Mall along with her boyfriend Tom Eckman. When the first shot rang out from the observation deck, Claire was hit in the side of her pregnant belly and was thrown to the ground. She said, “It felt like an electric shock,” like she stepped “on a live wire.” Tom reached out to Claire, confused and concerned, but a second shot rang out. He died instantly at Claire’s side… but Claire was alive. She was conscious, confused and in pain, but she was alive. And she was out there in the middle of that concrete mall, exposed to the sniper’s scope.

As the confusion of that day turned to hopelessness and  frustration, as thousands of students witnessed the 96 minute barrage, there was Claire at the center of it all, wilting in the hot sun. Parlin Hall had a front row seat to the shooting and anyone who peered from the windows on the east or north facets of the English building saw Claire. In the movie, Brenda, a student in a Shakespeare class, describes the events. She watched as Claire writhed in pain wishing someone could save her, but Brenda couldn’t bring herself to leave the relative safety she enjoyed to run out to Claire. It was a moment that she realized something about herself -- that she was a coward. I don’t agree but I appreciate her perspective. Another student watched Claire’s ordeal and was overcome by her own realization, that she had to run out there and help Claire. And so a red-headed co-ed named Rita did just that. She ran out onto the South Mall, as exposed as one could be… and she tried to help. She couldn’t carry Claire off by herself, so she did the next best thing, she laid down next to her. Rita overcame her fear because the empathy for Claire’s plight was too much to ignore, and for over an hour she remained at Claire’s side, talking with her, comforting her - keeping her conscious. Keeping her alive.

Rita is the reason that I made TOWER. Her act of courage was the bravest and most humane action I can imagine. It’s exactly the story that they should be telling on the campus tour, but “We’re really not supposed to talk about it.”

We’re not supposed to talk about Claire? About Rita? About James and Artly - the two 17-year-olds who eventually risked everything to run out there and carry Claire off to safety? Why weren’t the “Eyes of Texas” on them? When Frank Irwin and Harry Ransom (men who would become buildings) let the fear of “talking about it” guide their actions in the aftermath of the shooting, they managed to skip most of those tough conversations about shame and blame, sure -- but they also lost Claire and Rita in the mix. And Tom, Claire’s boyfriend. And the 16 other victims of that day, we lost all of them, and until recently there was no place on this campus that recognised those individuals - the ones we lost.

While making the film TOWER my greatest surprise was how little the people who were there knew about that day, beyond their own distinct experience. They hadn’t talked about it much either. They hadn’t come together, they didn’t have a forum to do so. To me the greatest success of TOWER wasn’t what ended up on screen, but it was the conversations and relationships that were born off screen, the community of survivors that coalesced behind the scenes...

By talking about it and engaging with each other for the first time, the survivors of the shooting got together and they petitioned the university for a proper memorial and a significant recognition of the 50th anniversary of this, our darkest day. After 50 years of silence, UT decided they were ready to talk about it and they made room for the memorial that now stands to the north of the tower, a place where the survivors could go and grieve for their fellow longhorns and for the innocence they lost that day.

It’s the things that we’re not supposed to talk about that challenge us. And when we refuse a challenge we miss opportunities to grow -- and that’s what this institution stands for more than anything, right? The opportunity to grow? To know the truth? To be set free? This past year, on August 1st, 2016 the University finally met the challenge and created a place to “talk about it.” By rising above their fear, they created a real opportunity for us all to honor those we lost that day, and to deal with this trauma.

When you rise above fear, you create opportunity. And often it’s opportunity that you could never plan for or expect.

The last few years have offered significant challenges for you, the student body. With debates about statues, and guns & dildos, and sexual violence, and the spray-painted threats of violence, and the tragedies of Haruka Weiser and Harrison Brown, these aren’t easy times. As we’ve seen, fear often stifles dialogue and debate - but you haven’t let it, have you? You’ve made me and all longhorns proud. The Eyes of Texas are upon you.

I got a note from one of the 1966 shooting survivors who was on campus the other day, and he had stopped by the memorial to take a moment of reflection - and while he was there a current student, maybe it was one of you, also came and had a seat on the bench there. Eventually their shared silence turned to conversation and they talked about Harrison Brown.


The young man told the old man that when the stabbing happened, “I didn’t know where to go or what to do, but as I walked across campus I found myself in front of this memorial here and I read those names, and I thought about Harrison. I didn’t know him, but I thought, we’ve been through this before and though we feel the pain of the loss - we will go on.”

And go on you will. I’ve gone on, maybe too long - and I know that a lot of this is a downer, but hey there’s always tomorrow. Fireworks! (Wear shorts under your robe. Bring a flask.)

So let me leave you with just a few short bits of advice. I’m assuming many of you will go off and try to get a job, and some of you will skip the job in favor of becoming a writer - stories, a novel, a play, maybe a screenplay… I have one piece of advice for each camp.

I’ve never really had a “job” but I do know this: If you’re going to a job interview and you wear a tie, and you decide to loosen the tie and undo the top button because you want to look relaxed, know this: it doesn’t make you look relaxed, it just makes you look drunk.

And for you writers, this, I do know, there is no path, there are no rules, there’s just the intimidation of the blank page. Writers write, and assholes talk about it.

But back to Fear - that’s what we’ve been talking about…

I know some of you parents out there are afraid that your graduate is going to cash-in their English degree for a one way ticket back to their childhood bedrooms - some fears are well founded.

And for you graduates, I know people have been telling you that the decisions you’re making right now will affect the rest of your life, and I want you to know that that’s bullshit. Every decision you’ve ever made has already affected the rest of your life and that will continue throughout your life, til Gabriel blows his horn.

Don’t let the fear of choosing the right path hinder the opportunities you create for yourself. Don’t let the empty page intimidate you.

Spin like a spider, the web that you rely on.
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