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Remembering an American Tragedy

Santa Fe filmmaker Tiller Russell’s new Netflix series explores the Waco siege 30 years later

Waco: American Apocalypse Waco: American Apocalypse. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023 (Courtesy of Netflix/Courtesy of Netflix)

Thirty years ago, religious cult leader David Koresh faced off against the federal government, armed with hundreds of illegal weapons, in a 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas that lasted from Feb. 28 through April 19 and ended with building burning down and 76 Branch Davidians dying. Several members also died in an early shoot-out with Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives members, along with four ATF officers.

In conjunction with the 30-year anniversary, a new Netflix three-part documentary began streaming March 22: Waco: American Apocalypse, directed by Santa Fe resident Tiller Russell (Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer). The documentary incorporates videotapes filmed inside the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit, raw news footage filmmakers say was never released to the American public, and FBI recordings. Interviews include: one of David Koresh’s “spiritual wives;” the last child released alive from the compound; and several journalists who covered the story, along with law enforcement agents who played roles in the standoff.

Like most folks who were paying attention in 1993, Russell remembers the Waco standoff: “It’s this iconic piece of American history that all of us who were alive remember on the 24-hour news and on the front page of every paper, but it was very strange and sort of surreal to go back to it and find myself connecting with all of the people who had lived the story,” he tells SFR. “Wading back into the history of it and trying to bring it alive for a new generation of people that may have heard the word Waco and heard the name David Koresh, but didn’t necessarily know the story; and to use the new access and new materials to sculpt—hopefully—a dynamic and propulsive version.”

The Texas native filmed in Texas and California, not New Mexico, but he hopes to film more often here and says of his pre-pandemic move to Santa Fe: “I’m so happy to be here.” His next project, a limited documentary series about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, begins streaming on Netflix next month.

SFR chatted briefly with Russell the day Waco: American Apocalypse began streaming. The following has been edited for style and clarity.

SFR: Were you trying with this series to humanize the people from this enormous American historical event?

TR: From day one, this was this incredible hot button story where everybody seemed to be kind of screaming at everyone else and assigning blame and pointing fingers. And the story seems like it’s been told that way so many times. I also had a bunch of preconceived notions about it and unsophisticated prejudices. But then when I got into it, I was repeatedly struck by the humanity of all of the people involved. And the range went from the woman who was a 9-year-old girl and the last kid to make it out alive to the sniper from the hostage rescue team. They felt like people who were caught in these impossible circumstances. And so I just wanted to approach it from the human condition point of view; not passing judgment, not being biased, but let everybody articulate their human and emotional experience.

What were your concerns in terms of showcasing David Koresh?

It’s always dicey with these sort of stories that have a larger-than-life predatory character at the center of it. We faced the same thing with Knight Stalker [about serial killer Richard Ramírez]. When we made that a few years ago, it just felt like: OK, but for this person at the center of it, all of these people’s lives wouldn’t have been changed forever and irrevocably. But at the same time, you don’t want it to be a ‘give them their 15 minutes of fame’ sort of thing. And so really, it became about showing everyone else and what their complex interior lives were like stuck in the middle of this and affected by Koresh and his decisions.

We live in fairly tumultuous political times right now. Do you think this story has some relevance for today? Is there current resonance beyond the 30-year-anniversary?

I think there’s huge resonance to today. History is at its most compelling and meaningful when it echoes with what you’re seeing in the world today. And I think so much of the seeds of what we are contending with as a culture were planted at Waco. This is a story about God and guns in America and how it affects our children. And those questions are as vital and polarizing and gripping today as they were 30 years ago; frankly, as they were in the founding of this country. I think they’re kind of eternal, American questions that we all have to grapple with, and that it’s kind of our responsibility to have these periodic reckonings with our uncomfortable history and to stare it in the eyes so that we don’t make those same mistakes again.

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