By Robert Koehler
A case of solid journalism that happens to be cinematically interesting, "Better This World" traces the curlicues and conspiracies surrounding the trials of two protestors arrested during the 2008 Republican National Convention. Filmmakers Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega sympathize with the protestors, but they also consider the facts of the case by listening to the key players. Result is a docu thriller with twists that will catch many by surprise. Sept. 6 airing on PBS’ "POV" makes Stateside theatrical chances slim, but global biz and fest play should be terrific.
Playing out against the high drama of the GOP gathering in St. Paul, Minn., compounded by the U.S. policy of targeting terrorists as a top priority, "Better This World" delivers the kind of case study, rich in national and personal dimensions, that would have made the New Journalists of the ’60s and ’70s swoon. In a sense, the film represents the next generation of that movement in subject and style: The street-based opponents of the GOP vividly recall Vietnam-era protesters, and the film integrates facts and re-enactments, as well as some clearly prearranged scenes, to tell its story.
The saga centers on longtime pals Brad Crowder and David McKay, both in their early 20s and from Midland, Texas, who became increasingly active in oppositional politics before 2008. While Crowder grew up in a rodeo family, McKay developed as a self-described artist-athlete, but their shared outrage at the U.S. invasion of Iraq triggered their activism in high school.
Enter one of the more memorable figures in recent American docs: Brandon Darby, a grassroots activist with a legend as an uncompromising, kick-ass leftist, who successfully secured aid and support for displaced New Orleans residents after Hurricane Katrina through a group called Common Ground Relief (which he co-founded with Scott Crow). Film clips reveal Darby as a handsome figure with sharp eyes and a tough-minded sensibility.
Early in the film, the talking heads of FBI agents such as Christopher Langert abound, suggesting the Feds already had the "revolution" surrounded. In preparation for the anti-GOP demos, Darby met in Austin with McKay, Crowder and James Clark, who provides an eyewitness account of how aggressive their leader was, treating his new recruits with the kind of militant machismo more associated with Latin American anti-imperialist fighters than with American protesters.
This project took a serious turn, however, with the idea that protesters should go to St. Paul armed with bulletproof shields and even firebombs (Darby’s suggestion, according to some accounts, though Crowder contradicted this notion under oath). In St. Paul, they faced, in the words of one activist, "a pervasive sense of occupation, like a police state." Clearly outmanned and outgunned, McKay and Crowder seemed to at least take up Darby’s idea of bombing, but soon after dissolved the plan.
Near the midpoint, pic takes a dramatic narrative turn that skews the viewer’s entire perception of what has transpired, suggesting that McKay and Crowder walked into a trap. Soon arrested, the two found themselves pitted against each other as their separate cases played out — merely act one in a legal epic that threatened to destroy their friendship.
Galloway and Duane de la Vega have assembled a visually pleasing array of material, including a panoply of graphics (enlarging text from wiretaps and court testimony), found footage and video shot during the sometimes violent protests, plus some clever opticals (surveillance camera p.o.v. shots) that heighten the thriller mood. Tension is further raised by Greg O’Toole’s ace editing and Paul Brill’s engrossing score. Several re-enactment actors are listed in end credits.
A Loteria Films presentation in co-production with the Independent Television Service and in association with Picturebox/Motto Pictures/Passion Pictures/the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley/American Documentary/POV. Produced by Katie Galloway, Kelly Duane de la Vega, Mike Nicholson. Executive producers, Julie Goldman, John Battsek, Nicole Stott. Co-producers, David Layton. Directed, written by Katie Galloway, Kelly Duane de la Vega.
With: Brad Crowder, David McKay, Brandon Darby, E.K. Wilson, Tim Gossfeld, Christopher Langert, Jeffrey Paulsen, Twila Crowder, Michael McKay, James Clark, Emily, Diana Welch, Tracey Hayes, Scott Crow, Andrew Mohring, John Wedick, Jeff DeGree. Voices: John Maringouin, J. Kevin Smith, Zach Stauffer.
Camera (color, DV), David Layton; editor, Greg O’Toole; music, Paul Brill; sound (stereo), Layton, Brian Lundy; sound designers, Leroy Clark, Shane Watson; re-recording mixer, Clark; associate producers, Josh Turiel, J. Kevin Smith. Reviewed on DVD, Los Angeles, March 10, 2011. (In SXSW Film Festival — competing; San Francisco Film Festival) Running time: 98 MIN.
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