Belief is a powerful part of the human experience. But when opposing belief systems clash, it can lead to a complete breakdown of mutual understanding. Different beliefs represent different viewpoints.
Dimitri Doganis, the founder of UK-based Raw TV, tells realscreen that prior to working on A&E’s docuseries Waco: Madman or Messiah, he had never been a part of a project in which participants’ beliefs were so wildly divergent regarding how an event actually unravelled.
“This is a story where two sides are living in almost different universes, although they are describing the same event,” he says. “That is fascinating and also the challenge of the series. The success for the filmmakers is [when] you understand both.”
The two-parter, premiering in late January, tells the story of the events before, during and after the 51-day standoff between Branch Davidians, led by their charismatic figurehead David Koresh, and federal agents. The tensions came to a devastating conclusion on April 19, 1993 when the religious sect’s compound near Waco, Texas was destroyed in a fire killing nearly 80 people.
The Branch Davidians originated in 1955. A power struggle in the mid-1980s saw Koresh — born Vernon Howell — become head of the movement, after which he started to take several wives, many reportedly underage.
Believing that the group was stockpiling illegal weapons, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) obtained a search and arrest warrant for the compound. On February 28, 1993, ATF agents raided the complex. Shots were fired, and by the end of the two-hour battle, four federal agents were killed, more than a dozen injured, and six Davidians died. Koresh refused to surrender, sparking the seven-week standoff.
Even after a quarter of a century, the events surrounding what happened remain contentious between the Branch Davidians and law enforcement officials.
“This is an unbelievable story that unfolds like a movie — it’s a tragedy, but it has a lot of emotional beats and twists and turns even if you know the end,” A&E’s Elaine Frontain Bryant, executive vice president and head of programming, says.
While the siege gripped the nation and was extensively covered in the media, Raw decided to look at what unfolded in Waco all those years ago through the POV of the Branch Davidians, the local authorities and the FBI who were there on the ground at Mount Carmel.
“I think this production was unusual in the way it started with archival material and built the story out of that archive material,” says Doganis of the approach employed by the prodco and director Christopher Spencer.
That material includes footage and audio from the FBI and home videos that were shot in and around Mount Carmel by the Branch Davidians.
Doganis points to the FBI archives as a treasure trove with some extremely critical content: 247 tapes of conversations with Koresh conducted during the 51-day standoff.
“Those tapes were scattered to the four winds, but on the FBI website, all the material of the transcripts was there,” he marvels. “I wasn’t sure if anyone read through all of it before.”
Although the team could not access all 247 tapes, they were the starting point for the project’s research team as they began work in earnest this past March. Although some had gone missing, the hunt for the tapes led the team to different police departments, researchers and academics that had the content.
Doganis says the tapes go beyond the standoff, and provide invaluable insight to Koresh — revealing details of his childhood, how he came to lead the group at Mount Carmel and his religious beliefs.
As a British native, Doganis says he found the openness of the U.S. police forces, regarding access to the material, striking.
Spencer, meanwhile, cites establishing the trust of the Branch Davidians who appear on screen as the most challenging aspect of production.
“It’s been principally about establishing and nurturing that relationship with them,” he says.
It was vital for the prodco to assure the former members, some now living in the UK and Australia, that the project was a serious endeavor and that their stories would not be sensationalized.
“When you hear, from the people who experienced it, what life was like there before, during and after the siege, I think you understand people better,” says A&E’s Frontain Bryant.
- This article first appeared in the January/February 2018 issue of realscreen magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.