The following piece is not intended to be an essay on the history of the Waco Branch Davidians or the life of David Koresh. It is a piece of film criticism. However, I thought I may begin this piece by recommending some of the better available texts on this subject. James D. Taylor’s book Why Waco? deals heavily with the religious views of the group. Stuart A. Wright’s book Armageddon In Waco is primarily concerned with the Waco Branch Davidian’s conflict with the ATF. These two books are a good place to start, and should also provide a well rounded perspective on both the siege and the Davidians themselves.
In 1993 the American government laid siege on the compound that was home to David Koresh and his followers the Waco Branch Davidians. At the end of a 51-day stand off, the compound was burnt to the ground. Four years later, William Gazecki released his documentary Waco: The Rules Of Engagement.
History remembers David Koresh as the self-proclaimed second coming of Christ, who dealt in arms and had a number of wives. He earned for himself the moniker “the sinful messiah” in the press, as well as a reputation equal to that of Jim Jones. Gazecki’s film does well to discredit such biases with factual information regarding the political practices of Waco Branch Davidians, and the history of the organization that led to the conflict with the ATF and FBI. But it is not the history that concerns me at this moment, my interest is in the presentation of the history.
As human beings we are prone to sympathy, aligning ourselves to those empathetic of our own moral beliefs. This is the one major problem with Waco: The Rules Of Engagement. As I said above, the film presents a number of useful facts that better help the audience understand Koresh and the Davidians as an organized community. These facts are more inclusive and precise of the history surrounding the organization than most documentaries on the subject. However, there is an evident bias to the kind of information given.
Gazecki deems it necessary to exchange the sympathies inherent to religious understanding in favor of more superficial and visually motivated sympathies. Perhaps this is because of the medium in which he is working, or perhaps because he does not wish his audience to have any spiritual affiliation to the beliefs of the Waco Branch Davidians. What sympathy that is afforded David Koresh and his followers is as extensive as Koresh’s video messages allow.
While trapped in the compound, Koresh videotaped the daily life of the Davidians as well as a series of messages to the ATF agents outside. This is the material Gazecki is drawing from. In this footage, at least in the footage Gazecki has cut into his film, Koresh is seen three times with one of his children in his lap speaking calmly about the Seven Seals that define his faith. This image of Koresh as father rather than criminal, rapist and brain-washer is the single moment in the film in which the audience can relate to the subject directly.
Gazecki is careful to maintain a seemingly objective distance from his subject throughout. The image of Koresh described above does not appear in the film until very close to the moment the ATF ignites the compound. Gazecki’s strategy is for dramatic effect. But it is the tactics of Waco: The Rules Of Engagement that negate the audiences’ understanding of Davidian beliefs, therefore neglecting their perspective entirely.
The history in Waco: The Rules Of Engagement is thus the history recorded by paranoid liberals; the obvious audience for the film in the first place. It is not the filmmaker’s priority to inform the audience of the Davidian perspective, or enhance any understanding along such a vein. Rather, priority is given to the audience simply understanding that the Waco Branch Davidians are sick people, yet people none-the-less. That the single tragedy is that they burned alive in their compound; to say nothing of the corruption of innocent lives by Koresh, the ignorance of the American government, the paranoia of the media, etc. Gazecki seems unwilling to entrust his audience with the weightier problem of having to access the events and circumstances of Waco for themselves. This is where Waco: The Rules Of Engagement fails.