New documentary on Branch Davidian standoff debuts on Netflix

Published: Mar. 22, 2023 at 5:25 PM CDT
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WACO, Texas (KWTX) - Marking the saga of the Branch Davidian tragedy 30 years ago, a new Netflix documentary debuting Wednesday hopes to inform a new generation about the tragedy and to reveal a human side from conflicting perspectives.

“Waco: American Apocalypse,” a three-part series directed by Dallas native Tiller Russell (“Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killers”) features interviews with participants on all sides of the conflict, including one of sect leader David Koresh’s wives, who describes what it was like to have sex with Koresh while receiving a Bible study lesson, and the last child released from the compound.

Russell also interviewed a sniper from the FBI Hostage Rescue Team and members of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tactical team who watched their colleagues die in the Feb. 28, 1993 shootout with Koresh’s followers.

The series also features exclusive footage of some of the 80 hours of aired and unaired video footage from KWTX that Russell and his team pored over as part of the production.

SPECIAL SECTION: Special KWTX reports about the Branch Davidian Standoff

“I was astonished that KWTX had archived all this material,” Russell said. “As a filmmaker, you are always hoping to find unseen, undiscovered moments. There were reams and reams of these field tapes, stuff that had never ended up on TV before… I was moved and astonished, because it put me there in a way that I had never seen before.

“The extensive cooperation and generosity, frankly of KWTX, to revisit this and share the video and say, ‘Run with it,’ I was deeply honored and appreciative and felt it brought the story alive to me. You are talking about something that happened 30 years ago, and for the people who weren’t alive, the 20 year olds who are watching this, they know the word Waco and the name David Koresh, but you are trying to make it an immersive, moment-to-moment experience of what it was like and that footage from KWTX was absolutely indispensable for that.”

In a debacle as massive as the Branch Davidian episode, there was plenty of blame to go around for the failed raid, the ensuing 51-day standoff and the deadly April 19, 1993, fire that consumed Koresh and dozens of his followers, including 20 children.

Russell, however, said his intent was not to assign blame, but to reveal the human side of the tragedy and its lingering effects three decades later.

“I think what happened in Waco is this iconic American tragedy that for any of us who were alive at the time kind of vividly remember it dominating the 24-hour news cycle,” Russell said. “And yet, here we are 30 years later as a culture still dealing with what happened and what the implications are today.

“I felt it was an important time and an important opportunity to go back and revisit this story. But, hopefully, to do it from a deeply humanist perspective, where rather than pointing fingers and assigning blame, it’s engaging with the people who lived through this and offering them the opportunity to share their very conflicting perspectives about what that was like as human beings living it,” he said.

SPECIAL SECTION: Special KWTX reports about the Branch Davidian Standoff

The documentary includes an interview with Bill Buford, a Vietnam veteran and retired ATF agent who was wounded in the shootout and who was driven out of the Mount Carmel battle zone on the hood of a white Bronco owned by KWTX. The late KWTX photographer Dan Mulloney and former Channel 10 reporter John McLemore dodged bullets on the day of the raid as they covered the story.

“I could tell as soon as I sat down with (Buford) that what happened on Feb. 28 was so intensely alive in him and that those memories had not receded at all and he was haunted by them,” Russell said. “He watched a young colleague, a protégé get killed. He died before his very eyes. At the end of the series, he says, ‘Not a day goes by that I don’t think about Waco.’ I could see how deeply he was haunted by it, and in a similar way, America is haunted by it. So this series, hopefully, is an opportunity to re-engage in that haunting.”

Russell said he thinks the 30 years that have gone by since the world turned its attention to the Branch Davidian compound outside of Waco has provided those involved time to process and interpret what happened.

“I think it’s not until you have some distance from the events that people are able to look back on and reflect on what their experiences were, and hopefully still have very vivid memories of them,” Russell said. “But at the same time they also have some distance from them so they can reflect on the impact and the import of them.

“And so I feel like these anniversaries, when they come up, are an opportunity for all of us. History is not something that is static. It is something that we are constantly writing and rewriting and changing the perspectives on to better understand it. So this felt like an opportunity to add to the canon or body of knowledge about Waco.”