Waco: Madman or Messiah? review – the remarkable story of a hellish cult

The Guardian

Rebecca Nicholson

Wed 2 Jan 2019 Last modified on Thu 3 Jan 2019 

What better to ease viewers out of any residual festive mood and into the new year than Waco: Madman or Messiah? – Storyville (BBC Four)? This dense two-part documentary, first shown in the US in early 2018, chronicles the events that led to the 51-day siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Texas in 1993, which resulted in scores of deaths. The title’s implication that David Koresh might not have been all bad may seem a little off given the horrific outcome. But it turns out to be a fair indication of a nuanced film that interviews many people involved, from government officials to survivors, some of whom still believe that Koresh was sent by God to do his work.

The blunt force of the material is remarkable, and there is a lot of it. You get the sense that, even at 85 minutes for the first instalment, there would have been enough for a Ken Burns-style detailed analysis over many more hours than this. There are interviews with people who survived the siege, and with those who left the Branch Davidians before their apocalyptic beliefs led them towards the hellish inferno that Mount Carmel became. There is extensive footage from inside the complex over the 12 years Koresh was there, rolling news coverage of the siege itself, and 247 tapes’ worth of conversations between Koresh and the FBI, which took place as the standoff played out.

Many of the tapes had not been heard by the public before this documentary. Given the context in which they were recorded, their calm is staggering. Koresh, formerly Vernon Howell, gives a history of his life and beliefs, and of how, having struggled with a difficult childhood, he came to be a self-proclaimed messiah. His aunt recalls how his mother was 14 when she had him, and he was raised as her sibling until she married a cruel man and took him away from the family he knew. When he joined the Branch Davidians, after a night of “cussing out God”, he claimed to have impregnated their 70-year-old leader. “I am God!” he yelled, asking how that would be possible if he were not. She was said to miscarry, and as a result, he started to believe that she was not the spiritual leader and therefore he must be.

It gets stranger and more disturbing. Accounts of Koresh’s charisma and skills of persuasion come thick and fast. “He could tell you the grass was blue, and he would get you to believe it,” says one former follower. As his leadership grew more proscriptive and controlling, Koresh issued an edict that marital relations were forbidden within the families who moved to Mount Carmel to follow him, then declared that he was the only one capable of producing “righteous children”. He fathered 24 of them. He had sexual relationships with underage girls, often with the permission of their families. One of the most extraordinary testimonies comes from the Branch Davidian Kathryn Schroder, who talks of giving up her husband for Koresh. “It was the highest honour … to be taken as God’s wife when you don’t even feel like you deserve it.”

By 1993, Koresh’s paranoia and insularity had become destructive. The cult had trained for apocalyptic warfare, armed to the hilt for the end of days, as written in the book of Revelation. (Dick J Reavis, a hard-boiled reporter for the Dallas Observer and one of the standout contributors, gives his own unique take: “When I read the book of Revelation, I say, oh, the guy who wrote it was on acid. First acid work.”) According to this film, 82 people, including 23 children, lost their lives. There has been much controversy over the government’s handling of the siege; there is space left to explore why and how it went so horribly wrong in the second part, airing on Thursday.

Waco: Madman or Messiah? is certainly a detailed account that distributes its astonishment evenly, though the story of it all, from the beginnings of the cult to their own end of days, is so enormous that plenty is skipped over in order to tell the story concisely. Netflix’s Wild Wild Country was another popular slack-jawed account of life in a cult. It got away with a confusing and messy chronology by weight of the story being so gripping. This documentary takes a more elegant approach, and is no less fascinating for it.