According to Byron Sage, FBI agent, most sieges end “within eight hours.” Cops outside, hostages inside, perp and negotiator on the phone, either a fight or a surrender, home by dinner. But when the US government raided the multi-building compound of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians on February 28, 1993, they set off a fifty-one day standoff, and a dialogue between libertarianism and the institution, that, in many corners of America, never ended.
The extended courtship between Koresh and federal negotiators is well documented. You can read the transcripts from their phone chats, even watch home video Koresh shot specifically for his interlocutors, including scenes of him cuddling with his children and testimonials from fellow Branch Davidians, who one after another assure authorities that “No, I’m not being held here against my will.”
Cate Giordano shot “Negotiation 1,” an excerpt from the forthcoming film The Final Wife, on VHSC and Mini-DV to mimic the quality of Koresh’s tape. Giordano plays both sides, casting themself as cocksure messiah and as Steve, a mustachioed negotiator. The scene adds absurdist drag to the countless documentaries and dramatizations of the Waco nightmare, a subtle gender shift revealing how thin the surface of power can be. A line like “I’m trying to get everybody out of there safely, especially the women and the kids,” shifts tone when spoken by Giordano as the conscientious Steve, who presides over a town populated by scribbles, stroking tiny cars, seemingly lulled into complacency by the comfort his uniform affords him. The chips he chews feel like a metaphor for government negligence, and when Koresh hears the crunch (“Are you eating?”), he abruptly ends the call.
For Giordano, who has played their own romantic interest in 2017’s “After the Fire is Gone” and 2008’s “Species,” on-camera twinning is old hat. But The Final Wife marks a new phase: dragging historical figures. Along with a recent performance in which they played Henry the VIII, these pieces deepen an interest in what Giordano calls “unwatchable” men. Both Koresh and Henry use their amateurish power to bend women, governments, and entire religions to their whim. Giordano’s Koresh speaks with gaze fixed, voice unwavering, showing respect for the working class con man. “I’m not taking instruction from you. I’m taking instruction from God.”
According to Texas Monthly, Byron Sage arrived the day after the first raid, and remained in Waco two and a half weeks after the compound went up in flames to explain to the press how and why everything went so horribly wrong. Maybe Sage found himself lodged between an over-armed paramilitary force that drove tanks onto Koresh’s lawn and a wannabe martyr who had stockpiled guns and gas masks for the End of Days. In the twenty-five years since the siege, Sage has accepted his role as envoy to an endless parade of reporters and documentarians, staking out his point of view amidst what he sees as a war to “rewrite history” between libertarian conspiracy and anti-cult sentiment. Sage said that the night the fire killed seventy-six Branch Davidians, his wife held him all night in their hotel room as he wept. “I’m not a cuddler, but I needed it,” and it was Sage’s idea for the negotiators to respond to Koresh’s tape with their own home video, in which FBI agents hold wallet-size versions of their children and spouses towards the camera. Actual negotiation requires facing your weak humanity, loosening your grip. If Giordano worships a higher power, it’s the amateur, flailing around, trying their best.
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