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Documenting Dissent

by Published on
photo courtesy Robert Stewart
still from Better This World

In September 2008, disgusted with the Bush administration and fueled by anger over the Iraq War, two best friends from Midland drove from Austin to St. Paul, Minnesota, to protest at the Republican National Convention. At the tender ages of 22 and 23, respectively, David McKay and Bradley Crowder were wide-eyed idealists when they arrived—new to the social-justice movement and eager for their first taste of civil disobedience.

In the documentary Better This World, directors Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega tell the story of what the two young men experienced instead: a hard lesson in betrayal, a close-up look at our labyrinthine legal system, branding as terrorists at the hand of their own government and prison sentences. Their mentor, Brandon Darby, an activist-turned-FBI informant, fingered them for plotting to firebomb the convention. (McKay and Crowder made the firebombs, but said they later decided not to use them.)

Better This World, which screened Sept. 6 on PBS’s POV program, raises critical social and political issues arising from Crowder and McKay’s ordeal: the short distance between idealism and disillusionment, the fine line between protest and violence, and the criminalization of political dissent in 21st century America. But what makes the documentary remarkable is Galloway and de la Vega’s use of footage from surveillance cameras posted around St. Paul prior to the 2008 Republican convention—the same footage that was used in the case against Crowder and McKay. Just before the convention, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security gave the Twin Cities’ terrorism task force $50,000 to install the cameras. Civil liberties violations and constitutional abuse aside, those cameras captured some amazing footage, from protestors turning over garbage cans to police officers in riot gear roaming the city in military vehicles, stopping occasionally to club a reporter or hold down a protestor and spray mace in his eyes. For four days, St. Paul looked like a police state, and the police caught it all on camera.

Galloway and de la Vega wisely use that footage—along with FBI footage of McKay and Crowder’s arrival in St. Paul and surveillance camera images showing the two buying ingredients for a Molotov cocktail at a local Walmart—to broaden and deepen their story. They show us moments they didn’t have first-hand access to, while simultaneously commenting on our camera-saturated culture. Ten years removed from 9/11, 10 years into an ongoing experiment to keep track of everything in the name of protecting Americans from nebulous evil and more than a decade into our love affair with reality television, we don’t have to depend on clever or daring filmmakers to get the best documentary footage anymore; it’s already being gathered by our government and an increasingly paranoid and voyeuristic populace.

The development is intriguing: Documentary filmmakers make their movies richer and more revealing by tapping into a resource littered with ethical landmines. And it raises any number of questions about documentary filmmaking methods, such as, “What is the role of the documentarian in an age when everything is being filmed in one grand mechanical sweep, free of aesthetic choice?” And apropos of Better This World: At what point does a filmmaker’s use of government surveillance footage serve to validate the invasive tools used to undo her subjects?

Listen to Michael May’s This American Life story on Brandon Darby.

 

Watch the trailer for Better This World http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kd0pY18lA4k&feature=player_embedded

Josh Rosenblatt writes about film from New York City.