Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Apr 28, 2011 9:01 am 
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FBI informant case against two young political demonstrators with an intricate aftermath

Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega's Better This World is a documentary about two protesters at the 2008 Saint Paul, Minnesota Republican National Convention and the machinations that took place and personal moral dilemmas that arose for them after their arrest. It was shown at the Austin, Texas SXSW festival and picked up by the San Francisco International Film Festival. A TV release on the PBS show "POV" makes its theatrical distribution unlikely, but students of US politics will want to watch it in some form.

The FBI and other government security agencies assumed that there was a 100% chance of a "catastrophic" terrorist attack occurring at the convention. Brad Crowder and David McKay, two childhood friends from Midland, Texas in their early twenties, came to the Twin Cities to disrupt the proceedings by violent means. Midland, incidentally, is the hometown of George and Laura Bush, so a sign at the border of town proclaims. Brad was the more political, and he politicized David. In prison interviews, excerpts from which run through the film, Brad, though younger-looking and less burly, is clearly the more articulate, intellectually energetic of the pair. It's not clear that David understood the seriousness of the RNC disruption plan. But his awareness grew in prison.

Brad's and David's mentor became Brandon Darby, a leader of the grassroots organizing program Common Ground Relief who fought extensively for the rights and needs of Katrina victims in New Orleans. After a kind of recruitment rally in Austin, Brandon Darby met with Brad and David and another young man planning on going to the RNC. He played the bad-ass, challenging and taunting them a bit. But in the weeks following Darby worked closely with the two and others planning to come up from Texas to disrupt the RNC in Minnesota. When the little group got to the Twin Cities, the police and FBI had already mounted a vast operation of repression with raids and arrests, and they followed Bradley and the others and stopped them. Later their van was broken into and gutted of all its contents, including shields Darby had made for protesters. This apparently led Brad and David to think about violence: they bought the makings of homemade bombs at a Walmart. We see surveillance camera images of this.

(Warning: don't read beyond here if you want to be surprised by the story the film tells. )

Then, when Brad and David were arrested at a demonstration with Molotov cocktails which they had not really decided to use but had no time to dispose of, it emerged that Brandon Darby had been an informant for the feds for the 18 months leading up to the convention. He instigated them and then betrayed them.

Brad was held because he had no ID but David was released. Brandon kept track of him for the FBI, which raided where David was staying in the early morning and took him. Later, Brad took a plea bargain on possession of two years. The feds had sought David's cooperation against Brad and not gotten it, and David chose to go to trial, a dangerous move indeed. Thus the two were pitted against each other in a case where both had been entrapped and instigated to perform an act that they would probably not have performed. They were about to leave Minnesota, and assembling the gasoline-in-a-bottle firebombs was a gesture that they had little or no motivation on following through with. What follows in the story is a complicated tale of more plea bargaining and federal manipulation of the two defendants. The film shows where they are now and what has become of Brandon Darby, who evidently was always a very confused and dangerous man.

The film is sharply assembled, with an amazing array of archival material, surveillance shots, calls from the prison by David to his father and girlfriend, Brandon Darby's cell phone remarks to his FBI handler, cell phone images of the riots showing the principals involved, many moments of Darby speaking, a police raid (presumably simulated), and so on, along with enlargements of text messages and transcripts. Also key are interviews with lawyers on both sides of the David McKay trial, and a member of the jury, who explains the dubiousness of choosing Darby as an FBI informant -- seriously undermined the federal case against David and leading to a hung jury. That was not the end of it, for him or for Brad. However Brad served his plea-bargain two years, having narrowly escaped an upgrade of his sentence, and is out of jail and a political activist. The filmmakers had such access, they can even film David at a bar thereafter with his girlfriend discussing his legal options. Sometimes this seems like reality television, though of a high order and with much to think about concerning the perils of being a dissident in post 9/11 America.

Better This World premiered at SXSF in Austin, and has been included in Boston and Sarasota festivals. It was also part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, where it was screened for this review. It is one of a number of strong and varied non-fiction films at SFIFF 2011 that I have seen, which include: The Arbor, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu, Black Power Mixtape, Foreign Parts (seen but not reviewed), Le Quattro Volte, Something Ventured, and the exceptional The Tiniest Place.

SFIFF Screenings
Sat, Apr 23 6:00 / Kabuki
Tue, Apr 26 6:30 / PFA
Fri, Apr 29 9:30 / Kabuki

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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