Today’s Editor’s Weekend Pick is Jamie Meltzer’s gripping documentary Informant. The story of Brandon Darby, a radical left-wing activist from Austin who turned FBI informant to the astonishment and disdain of his community, the film won Doc NYC’s Grand Jury Prize in 2012.
It is a portrait of both a single man and of the America that fostered him – unsettling, ideologically convoluted, swinging recklessly between extremes. Director Meltzer writes an exclusive article for MovieMaker.com below, explaining how and why he was drawn to his charismatic enigma of a subject, and the unusual formal approaches he developed to expose Darby’s multifaceted edges.
I first heard of Brandon Darby through his public confession: an open “letter” posted on indymedia.org, where he proudly proclaimed how he had gone from radical leftist activist to FBI informant. The letter sparked intense debate and ripped through the Austin activist community. As a documentary storyteller, I was immediately hooked. The letter raised more questions than it answered (How does someone make such a drastic shift? Was Brandon ever sincere as an activist?). These initial questions started me down the road to making the documentary Informant.
My first task was to get Brandon Darby on board. I knew that I wanted to make a first-person documentary, so that we could get close to his perspective and feel in a visceral way the radical shift he had undergone. I contacted Brandon: He had posted his email publicly and invited people to dialogue with him. It took a few weeks, but he got back to me and we began a back and forth over email and phone that would finally result in me going down to Austin to film our first interview, about six months since I’d first contacted him.
My tactic was just to be honest. I was interested in his story, his transformation from the radical left to working with the FBI, and I didn’t have an ideological axe to grind. Two things grabbed me about Brandon: one, he seemed incredibly sincere and open to sharing his feelings and thoughts; and two, he also seemed incredibly ambivalent about what he had done – convinced on the one hand that he had done the right thing, but also questioning his own convictions and also the impact of his actions.
At the same time that Brandon’s involvement was so crucial, I felt that the heart of the story was in the clashing of perspectives – the controversy over Brandon’s activism (going back to his relief work in post-Katrina New Orleans) and the firestorm of heated feelings around his role as an informant at the RNC in 2008. This clashing of perspectives was apparent to me in each of my trips to Austin. I’d spend a full day with Brandon, shooting many hours of interview and getting very invested and taken in by his personal narrative. Then I’d spend a day with Scott Crow, a prominent activist and one of Brandon closest allies in New Orleans, and I’d be completely entranced and convinced by his perspective on events. When you ask three people who know Brandon Darby what they think of him and his choices, you get three distinct but often contradictory opinions. As journalist David Hanners says in the film, “Everyone has a different idea of who he is.”
I felt strongly that even as the film brought the viewer close to Brandon’s personal narrative, it needed to show that others saw things from an opposing point of view. This led me to juxtapose interviews in a way that emphasizes the divide between the two sides, and it also led me to the approach most remarked on about the film – its use of reenactments. I didn’t want to use reenactments as a way to illustrate past events, but as a way for the audience to engage with and be critical of the various narratives – including being cautious about the film itself. At several points during the film, the “spell” or the telling of the reenactment is ruptured, and the audience is reminded that this is someone’s version of what happened. Anything you hear or see in the film is subjective and therefore somewhat unreliable, colored by the storyteller’s perspective – whether it’s Brandon or Scott Crow and anyone else.
People exalt Brandon as a hero on one side, a villain on the other. I think in some sense people all along have wanted to see one thing or another in him – as a charismatic figure he does inspire that kind of projection. I was interested in the areas in-between these binary terms: that’s where the film can hopefully transcend the black and white thinking that dominates many documentary films. I wanted to challenge the viewer, whatever their political persuasion, to think actively. Ultimately they can come down on one side or another, and that’s fine, but if they don’t feel somewhat uncomfortable or challenged by watching the film, then I’ve failed as a filmmaker. MM
Jamie Meltzer’s feature documentary films have been broadcast nationally on PBS and screened at numerous film festivals worldwide. They include Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story (Independent Lens, 2003) about the shadowy world of song-poems, Welcome to Nollywood, an investigation into the wildly successful Nigerian movie industry (PBS broadcast, 2008), and La Caminata (2009), a recent short film about a small town in Mexico that runs a simulated border crossing as a tourist attraction, screened at Silverdocs and True/False, among others. Meltzer teaches in the Documentary Film and Video M.F.A. Program at Stanford University.
Music Box Films is releasing Informant theatrically and On Demand, Friday September 13, 2013.
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