Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Apr 27, 2012 1:36 pm 
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A man of contradictions

If you watched Better This World or read my review of it as part of the 2011 SFIFF you will already know Brandon Darby as the man who incited young 20-somethings Brad Crowder and David McKay to go to Saint Paul, Minnesota to disrupt the Republican National Convention in 2008 by violent means -- and then arranged for their arrest while acting as an informant for the FBI. Meltzer's film delves deep into the contradictory life of this former "charismatic activist" and "glory hound" who "values bravado over brotherhood," as the 2012 SFIFF blurb puts it. This is a kind of sequel, or another entry in a saga, if you like. Here you meet a different Brandon Darby.

This Brandon Darby grew up in the industrial town of Pasadena, Texas, where he saw the eco-exploitation of the poor by corporations, which made him angry at an early age. He moved to the liberal Texas town of Austin and became friends with former Black Panther Robert King Wilkerson. He and a friend went to New Orleans after Katrina to save "King," who lived in the Lower Ninth Ward, which they did with the help of the Army Rangers. They afterward wound up co-founding the Common Ground Relief organization. A woman describes Darby in his Common Ground days as an alpha male, macho, egomaniac, but says she saw him do incredible things. Though he'd never organized anything, Darby became a tireless hero of post-Katrina relief. But his arrogance and unwillingness to discuss things antagonized people. He also had wild fantasies about revolution and prison breaks. Then he went to Venezuela to get help from Chavez to shame Bush into helping. But the Venezuelans tried to get Darby to meet with the FARC in Columbia and he freaked out -- and changed his views, becoming much more conservative.

Back in New Orleans, Darby had a kind of nervous breakdown, withdrew, and began to sympathize with authority. It's a bit hard to follow the transition, but he claims (on camera, because he narrates much of this film) that he found a Palestinian activist planning a pipeline to send money from the US to fund terrorism against Israel and this led him to get an FBI handler. The rest we know. At the FBI’s urging, Darby infiltrated a group in Austin that wanted to oppose the RNC. In Saint Paul the two young men got in a lot of trouble for the Molotov cocktails that Darby contributed to their making, then reported them to the FBI for.

Back in New Orleans yet again (after many brief reenactments used in this short 80-minute film), the pastor of a church Darby helped get rebuilt thanks him before the congregation, but "King", representing the activist community, says for him Darby is now “dead.” Throughout the film Darby's other Common Ground cohort Scott Crow of Austin shows he no longer trusts or believes in him at all and always saw him as a fantasist with a loopy side. Carloline Held, another Common Ground activist, is the one who says her first impression of Darby was that he was "an egomaniac." Lisa Fithian, a leftist organizer who was active in Common Ground too, is another talking head who expresses the activists’ condemnation of the new Brandon Darby (she has written a lengthy blog entry doing so). Appearing as an FBI informant at the trials of Brad Crowder and David McKay has dramatically broadcast Darby's cognitive dissonance to the world.

This film humanizes him as Better This World did not -- it shows his rough good looks, masculine intensity, and brooding charisma -- but it doesn't ultimately make us like or understand him. Now he is seen addressing Tea Party and other ultra conservative meetings whose approval validates what he has agonized so much over doing, betraying two young men who looked up to him. Showing Darby addressing different right wing groups, Meltzer shows he reframes the Molotov cocktail case each time.

The two films are interesting segments in an ongoing drama of lives altered by actions, events, and politics. What we need is a Michael Apted-style sequel in five or ten years' time showing what Brad Crowder and David McKay and Brandon Derby have become. While Better this World is more of a feat of editing and multi-media data-gathering, Jamie Meltzer in Informant has gathered much data in the field too, in Austin and New Orleans this time (with good archival footage of Common Ground in the latter), and has performed the feat of getting Darby to speak candidly about himself on so many levels in a film full of testimony by people who now revile him. But then speaking about himself is what Darby does. However tormented or confused, in his own mind he is a hero. But for us, the inside of his head looks like a dark, uncomfortable place.

Jamie Melzer is associate professor of Media Studies at Stanford. He teaches documentary filmmaking, and he knows his craft. This is a well-made and engrossing study. Informant was produced in San Francisco and debuted at the San Francisco International Film Festival, where it was screened for this review. It was shown in the SFIFF as follows:

Screening Times:
Sunday, April 22 – 9:00 pm at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas
Monday, April 23 – 6:30 pm at the Pacific Film Archive
Friday, April 27 – at 9:00 pm at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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