Hometown Without Pity

Austin-based filmmaker Don Howard enjoys documentaries; he's just not keen on the way they're usually presented. "The assumption is that if you use a lot of footage and put a voice-of-God narration over it, it becomes the truth," he says. "But it's really more complicated than that. I want to challenge people into thinking about how these things are made."

Howard didn't have to look far for the subject of his cinematic experiment; he chose his hometown for the offbeat yet ultimately warming Letter from Waco. Howard wrote, directed, produced and narrated the movie, which combines historical footage, contemporary interviews and Howard's unique sensibilities to tell the city's story.

"Even growing up, I thought it was an interesting place. And a lot of people see their own hometowns in the film. But there's a lot of tall tales in Texas history, and I wanted to [address] that, as well," Howard says. He boils down the Waco story to race, religion, death and football. Well, that and the Branch Davidians. Howard began collecting footage shortly after a longhaired, gun-toting Wacon named Vernon Howell (a.k.a. David Koresh) focused the world's attention on the Southern town.

"It was thought that the town was full of crazy people after that, but a lot of [locals] didn't even know those people were out there. Once they understood I wasn't out to make anyone look bad, they opened up," Howard says. One who opened up a little too much was Jim Phipps, an elderly, suspenders-wearing former Baylor football star. Oblivious to the camera, Phipps punctuates his own take on the town's history with expletives that are beeped out of the soundtrack but clocked with an on-screen "odometer." Letter from Waco also touches on everything from gunfights to debutante balls. Newsreel footage explores the 1953 tornado that destroyed the once-thriving city's downtown district.

In Waco, Howard reflects that the city is like "the Old South slamming up against the wild, wild west." Over a montage of equally ubiquitous churches and bars, the narrator adds that "Saturday night and Sunday morning is the yin and yang for lots of Americans -- and certainly Texans. But it's extra-vivid around here."

-- Bob Ruggiero

Letter from Waco screens at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 11. Filmmaker Don Howard will be present; a reception follows. The Rice Media Center, Rice University entrance 8 (University and Stockton), 527-4853. More info: 522-8592. $5.


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