A good documentary about a (probably) bad guy
[For the next week and half, we will be covering DOC NYC 2012, New York City's premier documentary film festival. Check back with Flixist for reviews of the DOC NYC 2012 slate. You can read all of our DOC NYC coverage here.]
For most of America, Brandon Darby is not a household name. There are probably pockets of the South which recognize him, but in the grand scheme of things, he's really a nobody. But so are most documentary subjects, and that's often what makes them interesting. Telling the story of these nobodies, showing everyone why they are names worth knowing.
My life may not be enriched by knowing Brandon Darby's name, but his story is an interesting one. His life brought him from a role as a radical anarchist to an FBI informant to a columnist for Andrew Breitbart. It's a bizarre turn of events, and it certainly seems like a story worth telling.
That's where Informant steps in.
For the first part of Informant, I felt like I was watching the wrong movie. It should have been called Anarchist. Not knowing who Brandon Darby was, I watched as a government-hating community organizer went down to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and did his best to help those who were suffering. [As an aside, I'm curious what the reaction to this film will be, since it's playing in NYC so soon after Sandy.] Although at this point in his life he wanted to overthrow the government, there were clearly shades of his eventual conservatism; he was more of a fascist than an anarchist. Within the group that he co-founded (Common Ground Relief), he acted more as an overlord than as an equal member. To hear him explain why he took the role that he did, it's hard to disagree. I have no doubt that it was a nightmare dealing with the people who were coming down to help but actually impeding progress. Still, it's odd.
But eventually the FBI came a-calling, because, odd or not, Darby was something of a hero among anarchists. He was asked to infiltrate some groups that were protesting the 2008 Republican National Convention in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He did, and his information would eventually put two young men in jail for the possession of Molotov cocktails, weapons which he believed were going to be used to destroy police cars (and perhaps even kill police officers). That's where things get really ambiguous, and Informant thrives on that ambiguity.
I got the feeling from watching Informant that director Jamie Meltzer doesn't really like Brandon Darby. He's interested in the story, but on a personal level, he doesn't think Darby's a good guy. Maybe it's an unconscious thing, or maybe it's the fact that an unbiased look at what Darby has done makes him out to be the bad guy. Given the way he comes across, the latter may very well be true. There are a lot of people who do not like him, and I imagine most of the people who do (the FBI agents he informed as well as his overly conservative colleagues) wouldn't want to be interviewed for the film, nor would they be likely to make a significant case in the opposite direction. The endorsement of Andrew Breitbart, for example, is enough to immediately turn me off from a person, and the instant Breitbart came on screen I turned against Darby. The anarchists who were against Darby also said some things that I found unsettling, but I didn't have the same visceral reaction. I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels that way.
Much is made of Brandon Darby's tenuous link to reality. He seems to be the only one who believes his version of the events. The film tells it as he sees it, but while interviewing other people involved in the case (including at least one of the young men who would eventually go to jail), the case becomes far more convoluted. It's not as simple as, "These men were making Molotov cocktails to blow up police cars." How much of a role did Darby play in the creation of those Molotov cocktails? Probably more than he would admit, but I don't know that I put all of my faith in his opposition either. At some point, it's just different people pointing fingers. But there is one on-film example of Darby fabricating/embellishing/misremembering some aspect of what he did. In the direct interview that makes up much of the movie, he refers to something in a certain way. Not long after, video of him speaking to a group of Tea Party members shows him saying something notably different. I don't know how horrible the untruth is (whether it's to the camera or the group), but it lends credence to the people who had been speaking out against him.
Reenactment also plays a major role in Informant, and it makes the whole thing even stranger. Brandon Darby plays a part in most of the reenactments, which gave me pause at first. I usually think of reenactments as things done entirely by actors, so I honestly thought for a little while that they were using archival footage (since it was mixed in with archival footage, that didn't seem so strange). Then the camera was in a position where there really shouldn't have been a camera, and then I was confused. Was it a reenactment? It had to be, right? And then the film cuts to a wide shot of the scene, exposing the camera equipment behind Darby. They ask him questions about what was going on in the scene at the time. I appreciated the clarification, but it's strange in the sense that the film showed him justifying his memory. The same thing would happen again later, the only other time a reenactment broke the fourth wall.
Part of what made it so confusing was that Brandon Darby appears to be a solid actor. His reenactment looked legitimate, which is another part of why I didn't question it for so long. This opens up a whole new host of questions though, because if he can act within those settings, who's to say he isn't acting outside of them? That realization didn't turn me against Darby, but it made me more leery of everything he was saying. Especially because he gave the impression early in Informant that he didn't understand how documentary interviews worked despite the fact that he had participated in documentary interviews during his time in New Orleans. These facts all combine to create an image of Darby that is less than flattering, and it comes from the way the film is presented.
Is Jamie Meltzer really biased against Brandon Darby? I don't know, but his movie definitely seems to be. After Informant ended, I wasn't on Darby's side, and I was having trouble figuring out how I could have been. He really just seems like a bad guy, even if he was trying to do the right thing (which I believe he was). The questions raised within the film are interesting to consider, though, and I could go on and on about who seems legitimately trustworthy, but I think this has gone on long enough. You should see Informant and form your own opinions about it. If nothing else, it's a good conversation starter.
[Informant will screen at The IFC Center on Sunday, November 11th and Tuesday, November 13th. Director Jamie Meltzer is expected to attend Sunday's screening.]