“Better This World” at SXSW
In early 2009, I met filmmakers Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega in a federal courtroom in Minnesota. We were all there to cover the riveting trial of David McKay, one of the two Austin activists, along with Brad Crowder, charged with making Molotov cocktails at the Republican National Convention. McKay said he had been entrapped by the government, and the trial focused on the personality and actions of the FBI informant in the case, former radical activist and Austinite Brandon Darby. I ended up producing a radio documentary for This American Life on Darby. A few months later, Darby became convinced that the two filmmakers were biased against him, and decided not to grant Galloway and Duane de la Vega an interview.
I wondered, what would the two filmmakers do without access to the mercurial informant at the center of the case?
As it turns out, their lack of access to Darby was a blessing in disguise. “It pushed us as filmmakers,” says Duane de la Vega. “It made room for us to focus on Brad and David. When the story is covered, Brad and David are usually left out.”
Better This World is a deeply humanizing portrait of Crowder and McKay. While the film doesn’t shy away from the fact the two got carried away and built the bombs—an unambiguously illegal act—there’s a disturbing contrast between their naive and impulsive decision and the government’s insistence on designating them as “domestic terrorists” and aiming to lock them away for a very long time.
Without Darby, the filmmakers turn their focus on his FBI handlers, which was very illuminating. FBI agent Christopher Langert gives a remarkably candid interview, where he talks about directing Darby to be McKay’s “best friend” and pushing Darby, who was initially reluctant, to wear a wire and get McKay to express his intent on using the Molotovs. He tells Darby that he won’t record the conversation so it will be harder to use against McKay. As it turns out, the notes taken from that conversation are offered as evidence in his trial and released to the media.
Much of the film deals with the courtroom drama. McKay’s first trial ends in a hung jury, so the filmmakers have access to McKay as he returns to Austin and plans his next move along with his family. The FBI and the federal prosecutor make their case that they are after two very dangerous terrorists, but after watching the film, one can’t help wonder if the effort has made us any safer.
The film leaves open the reason why Darby went from activist to informant. But another film in the making will look at that question. Darby has agreed to participate in filmmaker Jamie Meltzer’s documentary that will focus primarily on his story. It should be an interesting counterpart to Better This World.