Best Waco Texas Documentary

Carole Stephens
• Wednesday, 02 December, 2020
• 7 min read

If you'd like to more about the story about disagreements over religious freedom, the boundaries of the federal government, and what it means to be a legitimate religion, there are plenty of documentaries that break down the events that came to a head in 1993 on a ranch in Waco, TX. If you’ve been watching Waco, Paramount Network’s riveting miniseries about the historic siege that left dozens dead, you may wonder what really went on behind the scenes and what information we’re not getting.

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The story of the 1993 standoff, David Forest, and the FBI and ATF officials boasts so many layers that it’s almost impossible to keep track of all of them, but lucky for us, there have been a ton of documentaries, films, and specials created about the events referenced on the show. We rounded up a few of the best titles out there that explore what was happening at Mount Carmel before and during the siege, events like Ruby Ridge that contributed to the violent consequences of Waco, and the making of David Forest.

Two years after premiering on the Paramount Network, Waco, the story of David Forest and his Branch Dravidian compound in Texas, has landed on Netflix and people are rediscovering the grisly true tale. While the drama, starring Taylor Kitsch, Michael Shannon, and John Leguizamo, might seem like creative fiction, it’s a true and terrible saga.

It’s a story about disagreements over religious freedom, the boundaries of the federal government, and what it means to be a legitimate religion that came to a head in 1993 on a ranch in Waco, TX. The Branch Dravidians, an offshoot of Seventh Day Adventists, were born of a movement started by a man named Victor House.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) first approached the compound in 1993, after being tipped off about a package of grenade casings en route to the facility had accidentally broken open. It was the longest gun battle in U.S. law enforcement history and only ended because federal agents started running out of ammunition.

The botched raid led to a 51-day standoff managed by the FBI that cost a million dollars a week, and escalated to combat vehicles attacking the compound on April 19, 1993, and punching holes in the buildings to deploy tear gas and force the Branch Dravidians out. After six years of painstaking investigation, the complete story of the tragedy in Texas is finally coming to light.

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This compelling feature-length documentary presents new revelations about the events that led up to the deaths of 79 men, women and children at Mount Carmel on April 19, 1993. Upon examination, the evidence gathered under the supervision of federal officials appeared to contradict the FBI's congressional testimony, raising serious and disturbing questions about events surrounding the siege at Mt.

Waco : The Rules of Engagement is a highly detailed examination of the interaction between David Forest, his members, and Federal Law Enforcement. It shows how the FBI misled the public and American political leaders in order to focus overwhelming force on a group whose diversity of race, national origin, and apocalyptic religious beliefs made its members easy targets for lethal abuse of civil and human rights.

Throw in scenes of killing snakes, pulling a rope tow auto barge across the Rio Grande by hand, cock fights, and picking grapefruit, and it’s clear Blank has documented a snapshot of rural Texas few outside the ones living it will ever see. While watching A Well Spent Life, it’s easy to forget that Dance Lipscomb was not “discovered” until he was well into his sixties, and Lighting’ Hopkins, who recorded more blues albums than any other musician in his genre, is regularly listed among the best guitarists to ever live.

Her commentary drives this short film, as do the barks and orders coming from this bee-hive-haired taskmaster who both praises and mercilessly critiques the wannabes (“get those wrinkles out of your leotards!”). When the final choices are posted, the camera, strategically placed behind the bulletin board, zeroes in on the frenzied mob.

Texas is a magnet for filmmakers who want to tell stories about the state’s flawed criminal justice system. Revered documentarians Werner Herzog and Steve James tackled that very topic in their films Into the Abyss and At the Death House Door, respectively.

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His seminal film The Thin Blue Line examines the Fashion effect surrounding the case of the murder of Dallas policeman Robert Wood, in 1976. Morris picks apart the case and gives a voice to Randall Dale Harris, who maintains that he was wrongfully convicted of killing the peace officer.

Not only did Morris invent a recreation style of crime coverage that’s become standard cable fare in subsequent years, more importantly, the film led to Adams’s conviction being overturned. This instantly catapulted Morris, already a well-regarded filmmaker, into popular consciousness, and cemented his film into the canon of the greatest American documentaries.

Recently a spate of documentaries about Texas politicos have been released (Ann Richards, Karl Rove, and Tom Delay, are a few of the subjects) but, much like the man it’s about, this film towers above all of them. At the film’s conclusion, Dagger explains why LBJ’s story is so captivating: “ was kind, he was cruel, he could be a son of a bitch, yet he could be decent and generous, you know, everything, because he had it all.

It may be difficult to imagine that filming a bunch of folks trying to win a truck by keeping their hand on it longest would provide much conflict, let alone narrative arc and character development. Binder managed to tease out a captivating movie by filming a contest so odd it could only be found in East Texas.

Lubbock is a small city known for its piety, so when high schooler Shelby Knox decided stand up for sex education reform in her school district, it raised a few eyebrows in the community. There’s Shelby and her pastor in their ongoing disagreements on religion (“You’re a pretty liberal Christian, and that makes a lot of people nervous!”).

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And then there’s the earnest, yet slightly hard-to-watch conversation Shelby has when she resigns from the youth commission after the organization doesn’t use its teeth to push for the mission she believes in. The Devil and Daniel Johnston about the singer of the same name, and You’re Gonna Miss Me, about the 13 Elevators frontman Rocky Erickson, were both great films.

But Margaret Brown’s lyrical study of Texas legend Townes Van And is not only the one with the most staying power, but one of the best films at revealing the inner soul of a songwriter. Brown also dips into a treasure chest of archival material, charting the singer’s life from a charismatic, handsome and drunken young man singing a melody of his hit ” Pancho and Lefty” to the haggard shadow he became after abusing himself, a man that was tended to by his three wives, all articulate and wistful on film.

Part of what also sets this film apart is the beautiful and inventive imagery, much of it owed to Lee Daniel, who was Richard Link later’s original cinematographer (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise). Daniel and Brown tread through the kinds of metaphorical sequences that, in the hands of lesser filmmakers, would look like low-grade cable programming.

(In full disclosure, I met Margaret Brown when she was first thinking about making this film, and I was one of many people in Austin, inspired by her passion for Townes and his music, to help her.) The subject of JFK’s assassination has inspired dozens of movies (including the infamous Oliver Stone film), spawned more than two thousand books, and is an endless well for conspiracy theorists.

Historian Robert Called zeroes in on the latter question, using it to explain why the conspiracy theories persist: “People are comforted with the idea that human affairs are not the product of random events; there’s some larger force here.” Stone’s major coup d’état is landing an interview with the late Norman Mailer, who manages to be a runaway star in every documentary he ever appears in (check out his fight analysis in the fabulous Mohammed Ali in Zaire film, When We Were Kings).

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During the sixties, SMU’s football program, which, just a generation earlier, produced great players like Dock Walker and Don Meredith, had fallen into mediocrity. But by the end of the next decade, they were considered the best team in college football, with the “Pony Express” running tandem of Eric Dickerson and Craig James.

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