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"Better This World," Behind the Camera

The makers of a hot new doc on domestic-terror prosecutions talk about our surveillance culture, Brandon Darby conspiracy theories, and how they got the FBI talking.

| Sun Aug. 21, 2011 1:15 PM EDT

Like the protagonists of their riveting new documentary, California filmmakers Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega attended high school together. But it was years later, after striking out on their own and working in various cities and having kids, that they moved home to Berkeley and bumped into one another by chance. "We realized that we both had pursued documentary film and decided to go have a drink, and we had strong creative chemistry and decided to do a project together," Duane de la Vega says. The project was Better This World, a fast-paced, emotional film that has garnered rave reviews on the festival circuit and is scheduled to air September 6 on the PBS program POV (and will then be available on the POV website through October 6).

Better This World looks at the cases of Bradley Crowder and David McKay, a pair of fledgling activists who were seized by federal agents at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, and charged with making Molotov cocktails, although they never attempted to use them. Their prosecutions hinged on cooperation from Brandon Darby—a well-known activist and cofounder of the radical collective Common Ground—who shocked his colleagues by becoming an undercover snitch for the FBI.

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In telling the stories of these three primary characters, the film explores the disturbingly fuzzy line between observing an alleged terrorist plot and encouraging one. It also probes the extent to which the FBI now operates within that gray area and exposes how the system is stacked against defendants who risk trial rather than copping a plea. What ultimately makes the film so powerful is its access and the depth of its character development, which leaves even partially sympathetic viewers with a vivid feeling of: There, but for the grace of God, go I. I caught up with Galloway and Duane de la Vega on the eve of the film's theatrical debut in New York City. Check out the trailer below, then read the interview.

Mother Jones: How did you guys first hear about the Brandon Darby saga, and what made you decide to dig deeper?

Kelly Duane de la Vega: We first found out about the story in early 2009. There was a piece in the New York Times that talked about this case of a couple of young men from Midland, Texas, who had been charged with domestic terrorism. The fact they were from Midland we thought was interesting; the fact that David McKay was headed into a federal trial and was alleging he'd been entrapped piqued our interest; and we had noticed, as I imagine many of your readers have noticed, that since 9/11 there have been a bunch of cases where there are charges of domestic terrorism and counter-allegations of entrapment by the defense. We thought this would be potentially a great story, because we could sort of look at the case inside out by meeting the people involved and following the trial as it unfolded. So we just jumped on a plane to Minneapolis.

Katie Galloway: Most of my work has been criminal-justice related. I did a film with Ofra Bikel at Frontline called Snitch, about the government's use of informants in the drug war, and I see a lot of overlap with the war on terror. I also did a film years ago on the anti-globalization protest movement after Seattle. So it was hitting a bunch of different things that have been of interest to me.

"With the FBI, we went in and we got to know them, and we were really lucky that they granted us access."

MJ: Your access was mind-boggling: FBI and court documents, audio from jailhouse phone calls, tapes of federal interrogations, and great footage, not to mention getting all these FBI guys on camera. How did you do it?

KDV: We got access to David McKay's lawyer, who helped introduce us to some of the central characters, and he was our first entrée. And then we did a lot of research. You know, we started poring over transcripts, piecing together the puzzle of the story. And once we figured out who the key characters were, we reached out to them and spent time building trust. We knew that these jailhouse phone calls were used as evidence, and so that was something we could potentially get access to. Also Darby's FBI letter was entered into evidence. And then ultimately, with the FBI, we went in and we got to know them, and we were really lucky that they granted us access.

MJ: Yeah, those guys are usually pretty tight-lipped.

KDV: Lowell Bergman was an early supporter of the film, and he has a strong reputation with the folks at the FBI, and it may be that it came down from somebody he knew that he was involved.

KG: I don't know about Lowell's current relationships at the FBI, but he gave us a great piece of advice: that we just get in touch with the local office, the Minneapolis division, and say: "We're interested in following this case. Can we just come in and meet you and tell you what we're interested in?" We were very fortunate that when they eventually accepted our offer for coffee, the person who was the public-affairs appointee had moved from McKay and Crowder's case to public affairs, and so he had intimate knowledge of the case. We kept up with him, and once the case was closed, Minneapolis granted us access. We think it was a confluence of circumstances, good advice, and luck.

MJ: Surveillance was a not-so-subtle theme in the film. What was your intent?

"There is another theory that many have floated: Was Brandon Darby ever a real activist, or was his trajectory always part of some deep cover?"

KDV: I think we approached surveillance as a character, almost. One thing is, a series of key events in the film took place when we weren't present, and so we had to get creative in terms of bringing those moments to life. We discovered that there was a Homeland Security grant given to the Twin Cities for $1.2 million for cameras, and so we knew that so much of the Twin Cities was being taped—everybody coming and going. We figured out how to get access to that and we started watching a lot of footage; we felt that it was part of the larger story, which is a story of the post-9/11 security apparatus, and sort of the growing "security culture."

MJ: What do you think motivates Brandon Darby?

KG: We weren't able to sit him down and ask him that point-blank. We've talked to a lot of people, obviously, and I'd say the dominant theory is that he has a hero complex. And he had his moment of incredible heroism after Katrina. But as the dust settled, the organizing principle of Common Ground was anarcho-syndicalist, and not hierarchical, and that is not Brandon Darby's style. That's reductionist, but he sort of fell out of favor there for various reasons. And many people, including his ex-girlfriend, have said, "I think he wanted to be the hero again," and the FBI perhaps provided him an opportunity. He is called [a hero] by several conservative blogs, and Andrew Breitbart has become a close ally. So he still gets to sort of play that role. There is another theory that I certainly wonder about, and many have floated: Was Brandon Darby ever a real activist, or was his trajectory always part of some deep cover?

MJ: Or it could have been as simple as Darby being insecure and always needing affirmation.

David would ask fellow activists: "Why on earth are you paranoid? We're just a bunch of stupid kids. The FBI has much better things to do."

KDV: A lot of the people in that world sort of live in conspiracy theories and then [when] they find out that one of their own is an undercover FBI informant, it sort of confirms those "paranoid" feelings, right? David McKay talked about how paranoid everybody was, and he kept saying to them, "Why on earth are you paranoid? We're just a bunch of stupid kids. The FBI has much better things to do than to worry about us." And the irony was, they were actually…

KG: Right. We don't talk about it in the film, but it is interesting to look at Darby's relationships and how they were formed as made his way through the activist world. Scott Crow, who was one of his main allies and one of the cofounders of Common Ground, was a very well-known and well-respected anarchist activist. And Brandon quickly became tight with him, and quickly became tight with members of the Angola Three, and did a lot of work in New Orleans with Malik Rahim and Robert King Wilkerson, both members of the Black Panther party, and so it is an interesting trajectory.

MJ: Now, Darby did talk to you off camera, right?

KDV: I had a phone relationship with him. He had originally agreed to give an interview, but he wanted to wait until after the McKay trial was over. He ultimately changed his mind.

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