Waco: The Rules of Engagement

William Gazecki's "Waco: The Rules of Engagement" is a provocative "story behind the story" account of the 1993 clash between federal agents and members of the Branch Davidian religious sect. Pic is a natural for fest exposure and TV airings. Limited theatrical runs may also be in order, though the 165-minute running time likely will be a commercial handicap. Relying heavily on interviews, home movies, news footage and C-SPAN coverage of Senate hearings on the Branch Davidian tragedy, Gazecki succeeds in raising serious doubts about what really happened before, during and after the 51-day siege at Waco. While he stops far short of offering a revisionist portrait of cult leader David Koresh as a misunderstood and unjustly maligned martyr, Gazecki makes a strong case against the popular perceptions of Koresh as a demonic crackpot

“Waco” gives a brief history of the Branch Davidians, showing how the group began as an offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. By the time BATF agents came to call on the Waco compound in January 1993, cult leader Koresh had assembled a loyal following of hardcore believers, many of whom had moved into the compound with their spouses and children. When the compound burned to the ground, allegedly because the Branch Davidians preferred self-immolation to surrender, the fire took the lives of 70 men, women and children.

After the tragedy, reports circulated that Koresh was encouraging — and actively participating in — the sexual abuse of children at the compound. “Waco” doesn’t really dispute these allegations. On the other hand, the pic questions the methods — and, for that matter, the authority — of the BATF agents who were sent to arrest Koresh. As one interviewee notes, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms has no jurisdiction over child molestation.

At the time, the Branch Davidians were reported to have fired on the BATF agents, fatally wounding several. The attack supposedly was unprovoked. But “Waco” indicates that the Davidians may have been acting in self-defense. Again and again, the pic offers persuasive evidence of bungling by BATF agents, fatal deceptions by FBI operatives and a possible coverup by almost every government agency involved. Even the “facts” about the devastating fire are called into question. Not only does “Waco” suggest the blaze was deliberately set by law-enforcement officials outside the compound, but Gazecki gets a retired Houston fire chief to claim on camera that, based on the evidence he has seen, federal tanks damaged the compound to make it especially vulnerable to a fast-

moving fire.

Occasionally, Gazecki uncovers material that, in a different context, might seem darkly comical. At one point, “Waco” replays a recording of an often heated telephone exchange between Koresh and an FBI negotiator outside the compound. Koresh angrily claims that government agents are firing on the compound from guns mounted aboard helicopter hovering overhead. Repeatedly pressed on the issue by Koresh, the negotiator sounds unnervingly like Jon Lovitz’s compulsive-liar character. He tells Koresh there are no guns aboard the helicopter. Well, OK, there are guns, but they’re not mounted. And even so, no one was firing them. And even if they were, they have stopped. And so on.

At another point, journalist Dick Reavis notes that members of the Branch Davidian sect earned money by selling firearms at various gun shows. In news reports and official statements, the cultists were said to be hoarding “stockpiles of weapons.” But if you’re in the gun-dealing business, Reavis says, “We call those ‘stockpiles’ inventories.”

Tech credits for “Waco: The Rules of Engagement” are generally fine, though David Hamilton’s musical score frequently is intrusive and over-emphatic

Waco: The Rules of Engagement

  • Production: A SomFord Entertainment presentation of a Fifth Estate Prods. production. Produced by William Gazecki, Dan Gifford. Executive producers, Dan Gifford, Amy Sommer Gifford. Directed, edited by William Gazecki. Screenplay, Gazecki, Dan Gifford
  • Crew: Camera (color), Gazecki, Rick Nyburg; music, David Hamilton. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (American Spectrum), Jan. 25, 1997. Running time: 165 MIN.