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Waco: The Rules of Engagement

The FBI, The Cult and the Massacre of Seventy-Six Innocent People.
This Oscar nominated documentary lifts the lid on FBI ineptitute and media compliance.

    • Runtime: 01:36:00
    • Production Year: 1997

    Synopsis Information


    Nominated for Best Documentary at the 1997 Academy Awards. The true story of the events at Waco, Texas 1993.
    A controversial documentary about the stand-off between an unorthodox Christian group (the Branch Davidians, under the leadership of the young, charismatic David Koresh) and the FBI and ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) in Waco, Texas from February to April 1993.

    It presents a different spin on the events from that of the United States government, which stated that the Branch Davidians set the fire that destroyed their compound, and killed the vast majority of them, on April 19, 1993.

    Using footage from the 51 day siege, including the congressional hearings, people involved in all aspects of the siege, and from experts - technical, psychological, and religious, the movie suggests that the Branch Davidians were not a cult, but a valid religious group practicing under First Amendment freedoms.

    They fell victim to the ineptitude of an ATF raid designed to garner the agency positive attention, and the cruel, methodical work of the FBI, who over-saw the murder of the Davidians and then quickly covered it up

    Why you should watch it:

    This is an amazing investigative film exposing the FBI and ATF’s brutal tactics in the 1993 siege of David Koresh’s, Branch Davidian compound in Waco. One of the best documentaries of its kind, The Rules of Engagement will shock viewers as it catalogues the violence visited on the Davidians by Janet Reno’s Justice Department and culminating in the repeated tear gassing and eventual inferno that cost the lives of 86 men, women and children. This is a must-see for anyone interested in how the FBI and media surpress the truthand collude against the public.

    Press Reviews:

    I think Waco: The Rules of Engagement is the most remarkable investigative documentary made in the 1990s. It was not funded by a broadcaster, and the cash appeared to come from private people. It began life as a hit around college campuses, and picked up a huge number of sales via the internet, some of them no doubt from members of militias.

    Its proposition initially seems dubious - that the FBI not only countenanced but organised the burning of the Branch Davidians at Waco in April 1993. The astonishing thing is that all these assertions, except for the question of motive perhaps, were proved to be correct five years later.

    Waco received an encomium from the New Yorker. And by that time of course it had won a number of prizes. It is also a technically impressive film - anyone who truly likes journalism should view it as an example of how to tell a difficult story, and one packed with facts, in such a way that it reaches a wide audience.
    Nick Fraser, BBC Storyville

    William Gazecki's "Waco: The Rules of Engagement," which screens tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance, is a major documentary, a meticulously detailed, step-by-step and terrifyingly persuasive all-out attack on government agencies and officials for their handling of the siege of the Branch Davidian sect outside Waco, Texas, in early 1993, which resulted in more than 80 deaths.

    What emerges here is an acute sense of the ongoing struggle in American society between protecting the constitutional freedom of religion and protecting the public from the lunatic fringe.

    Gazecki and his colleagues make clear the need for law enforcement agencies--and the public at large--to understand the thinking of religious sects to communicate better with them and, when standoffs occur, to designate highly skilled, highly trained individuals as negotiators.

    Drawing from an array of footage from various sources and from many interviews, plus chunks of testimony from the Joint Congressional Committee on Waco held in 1995, Gazecki contends that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms raided the Branch Davidian compound in February 1993 as an easy way to garner good publicity--only to have four of its men shot to death and six Davidians killed as well. He then argues that the FBI then moved in and, fueled by feelings of revenge, covered up its actions.

    Gazecki challenges the FBI claim that its men never fired a single shot in its 51-day siege by showing footage from an infrared video shot by the FBI itself from a helicopter. Dr. Edward Allard, a former supervisor of the U.S. Army's Night Vision Lab, in examining the footage, concludes that certain flashes could be caused only by FBI gunfire. However, the layman is being asked to take his word for it, because the footage is so blurry.

    Gazecki has an easier time in making his case that the FBI, using a strong, highly combustible tear gas combined with a systematic ramming of large holes in the compound walls, through which a prairie wind could flow, caused the complex to catch fire. (Apparently, a large supply of kerosene was also caused to leak because of the attacks.) He does not believe the Branch Davidians set their compound on fire as an act of mass suicide, and he does not flinch in showing just how horrible death was for its victims.

    Gazecki maintains a calm, detached tone throughout, which allows us to judge Branch Davidian leader David Koresh for ourselves. Frankly, as a man with a ninth-grade education who not only believed in following a literal interpretation of the Bible, but also an ability to attract followers, he is scary. Even one of his lawyers, an eloquent attacker of the FBI, admits he believes Koresh was guilty of statutory rape. Dick Reavis, who wrote the first book on the standoff, contends that the Branch Davidians' large collection of weaponry, some of it illegal, was an inventory--the sect apparently made money in gun dealing--rather than an arsenal. But this view is scarcely comforting. It is an understatement to say that "Waco: The Rules of Engagement" is provocative in every sense of the work.
    Kevin Thomas, LA Times

    An atmosphere of stomach-clenching dread suffuses William Gazecki's grim documentary film, "Waco: The Rules of Engagement." This methodical indictment of the U.S. government's siege of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, four years ago has awful lessons to teach about governmental hubris and how a deliberate failure to communicate can have catastrophic consequences.

    That siege left 4 federal agents and 76 members of the Branch Davidian sect dead. Most of those who perished were incinerated in a fire that destroyed the Mount Carmel compound on April 19, 1993. Among the film's most unsettling images are lingering close-ups of the charred bodies of women and children who died in the inferno.

    In the official version of what happened, disseminated through the media, the Branch Davidians were a dangerous trigger-happy cult and their leader, David Koresh, was a Jim Jones-like madman who at the last minute incited his flock to commit mass suicide.

    But the film tells a different story. Taped interviews with the survivors and a replaying of the government's tape of the negotiations between the FBI and Koresh make a strong case for seeing the killing of the federal agents as an act of self-defense against an armed government assault. Once federal blood had been shed, the movie says, the government decided to move in for the kill.

    The most damning evidence against the FBI, which took over the case from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, is found on heat-sensitive infrared videos shot by the FBI from an aircraft flying over the compound. In the film, technological experts testify that strange flashes on the videos almost certainly came from automatic gunfire directed at the compound from government tanks. This contradicts the FBI's insistence that during the entire 51-day siege, federal forces never fired a shot.

    The visual evidence also suggests that a tank ran over the body of one or more sect members and that gunfire from federal troops ignited (perhaps deliberately) the highly flammable tear gas that had been pumped into the building. How persuasive is the evidence? It depends on how much you trust technological expertise. Infrared photography measures only heat. It doesn't show clearly defined images of people, places and things. Reconstructing events from such pictures is a matter of educated inference and guesswork.
    Given the scope of the tragedy being investigated, "Waco" is remarkable for its lack of overt passion. The surviving Branch Davidians who lost loved ones in the siege have heartbreaking stories to tell, but the film doesn't dwell on them. Instead of appealing directly to the emotions, the film maintains the detached, scholarly tone of a courtroom inquiry.

    Excerpts from congressional testimony are woven together with interviews and extensive television coverage of the siege into a plodding (sometimes exhausting) narrative that has the feel of a siege. But the images of the final fire are as horrifying as newsreels of war-torn Beirut. These Branch Davidians were not the insane cult that the government painted. A religious sect spun off from the Seventh-day Adventist Church, it took its eschatology from the Book of Revelation. And its leader did not present himself as a messiah but as a prophet. Allegations of child abuse against Koresh, the film insists, need to be evaluated in the context of the church's doctrine that its leader should beget 24 children who would one day become church elders.

    Although the history of the Branch Davidians includes some incidents of violent internal strife, the sect's attitude toward the outside world appeared to be defensive rather than belligerent. The film puts the group's stockpiling of weapons in the context of the local gun culture and notes that the buying and selling of guns is a profitable business.

    The movie suggests that the confrontation was conceived as a scheme by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to improve its tarnished image as a rogue agency: a tragedy that left 80 people dead began as a publicity stunt.
    Stephen Holden, The NY Times

    Further information on the Waco tragedy:

    There is a wealth of fascinating supplementary material on the Waco tragedy and this hugely influential documentary online. The best place to begin would be the producers own websitewhich has photos, the deputy attorney John Danforth’s report and a exhaustive Q and A section. You can read the full transcript of the negotiations that took place during the Waco standoff hereand the Introduction to the Branch Davidians provides a great background to their beliefs and charismatic leader David Koresh. Wikipedia has pages on the Waco SeigeDavid Koreshand the Branch Davidians with links to other interesting pages. Salon News runs an interesting article on what happened and the BBCran a profile on Koresh and the Seige. There is new evidence of FBI complicity in the Waco massacre on American Free Press. If you’d like to read up on those who arent taken by the evidence presented in Waco: The Rules of Engagement these articles attempt to debunk it: ‘Waco documentary is a hoax!’and ‘Waco Suits for Waco suckers!’.

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