Brandon Darby holds up a picture of the Molotov cocktails found during an arrest that was a result of information he gave to the FBI during the 2008 Republican National Convention in a scene from Informant. (Photo: Courtesy of Filament Productions)
Some filmmakers feel they haven’t done their job if at least one person isn’t upset by their work. By that criteria, Jamie Meltzer can take comfort in having done his job 100 times over with Informant, a documentary about the activist-turned-FBI informer Brandon Darby.
“The Q&As afterward are kind of unbelievable,” Meltzer tells TakePart, referring to festival screenings of Informant at the Austin Film Festival, where the film recently won a Best Documentary prize, and this week’s DOCNYC in New York. “People standing up and yelling, people talking from their own experiences that they knew Brandon, audience members taking on the responsibility for understanding the story and conveying their understanding of the story and disagreeing with one another; so it really becomes a dialogue.”
Brandon Darby, the film’s subject, is used to being the talk of the activist community. In 2008 he penned an open letter that disassociated him from such organizations as the Common Ground Collective, a New Orleans nonprofit he cofounded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to provide the community aid the government could not. The Common Ground Collective founders included anarchists and former Black Panthers.
In his letter, Darby confirmed he had become an informer on activist activities for the FBI. That transformation drew the ire of many former cohorts on the left and led to a plum gig as a speaker on the Tea Party circuit. It also attracted the attention of Meltzer, who believed such a polarizing figure could be a compelling subject for a nontraditional documentary.
“Some of the audience for documentary looks to documentaries to tell them the truth, to give them one argument that they probably walked in thinking and agreeing with and leave agreeing with,” Meltzer says. “That’s not the kind of film I wanted to make.”
While the film raises complex questions about Darby, as well as the role of government in our current culture, Informant also presents a conflicted view of what a modern activist is actually fighting for these days.
Meltzer never tips his hand as to which way an audience should feel about Darby. The activist-informer is allowed to speak to the camera in his own words about his experiences: From helping deliver much-needed supplies to the Lower Ninth Ward in 2005 to his role in the arrests of David McKay and Bradley Crowder, two college kids who were treated as terrorists when they were found with Molotov cocktails at the 2008 Republican National Convention, Molotov cocktails Darby is suspected of cajoling McKay and Crowder into making. While the film raises complex questions about Darby, as well as the role of government in our current culture, Informant also presents a conflicted view of what a modern activist is actually fighting for these days.
“He’s been on both sides now, and you start to see some commonalities between left and right that kind of make you think pretty deeply,” Meltzer says of Darby. “When you step back, you start to see how it could make sense how someone who was a radical anarchist, very distrustful of the government in post-Katrina New Orleans, could now align himself with another radical group distrustful of the government in 2009 and 2010 with the Tea Party.”
After being caught up in a “propaganda war” so exhausting that he considered leaving filmmaking after Informant, Meltzer learned of a group of former inmates in Dallas who had been exonerated of their charges and have become detectives who aim to help other prisoners who have been wrongly convicted.
“We’re really hoping that they crack a case and free another wrongfully convicted person who’s now in prison,” says Meltzer, who is roughly six months into this next, untitled project. “It really looks like they’ll do it.”
After making Informant, Meltzer has experience getting to the bottom of things.
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Based in Los Angeles, California, Stephen Saito writes about the movies. His work has appeared in Premiere, the L.A. Times and IFC.com. He recently founded the indie film site The Moveable Fest. Email Stephen | @mfrushmore