The prime issue when discussing documentaries is to separate the subject matter from the presentation. The subject matter can be good, bad or indifferent, the treatment of the matter, in terms of the filmmaker’s skill, can be good, bad or indifferent—and then there’s the stance that the film takes relative to its subjects.
When Comedy Went To School, for example: the subject is a good thing of some cultural import, with uneven handling from the documentarian, and reverential treatment bordering on worship.
The Act Of Killing: About as big a subject as you can get (democide), expertly handled, with the subject being treated with a kind of respect that doesn’t include any sort of approval. (Tricky, that.)
The King of Kongs: Trivial subject, excellent handling, respectful treatment of the subject.
The Central Park Five: This is an excellent example of a well-told documentary of an important subject which is totally ruined by the pushing of a narrative.
Although I personally have never felt this way, Triumph of the Will is considered a great documentary: A big subject about an evil thing, handled expertly from the standpoint that the evil is, in fact, a very good thing.
So part of what we’re looking at is how the POV reflects on the topic. And while it’s easy to denounce Nazism now—you can tell because everyone denounces it all the time—it’s often not easy to tell in the thick of things what’s what.
Those watching in the ‘30s should’ve been suspicious just because it was clearly propaganda, but a bias doesn’t have to mean dishonesty. Werner Herzog’s great treatment of capital punishment, Into The Abyss, succeeds in part because Herzog states his bias up front. Something like Gasland, on the other hand, is rather wounded by its over-the-top outrageous bias.
Then you have the films like Supersize Me, where the filmmaker makes you think he’s being straight with you, but subsequent efforts reveal that he’s not always honest. Or, like Roger and Me, where the whole premise was bullshit from the start.
So, let’s look at the documentary Informant in those terms. (I tell ya, my intros are getting longer and longer.)
On point two, the craft used to present the story, all is well. Jamie Meltzer takes an oral history approach, relying primarily on firsthand accounts from different people, with no editorializing when they conflict (except to the extent that secondhand observers editorialize on the events). There are a few dramatic re-enactments of scenes, but Meltzer pulls back to show you the camera equipment, as if to say “I’m not endorsing this, I’m simply dramatizing one man’s story”.
But that leaves us with the tough part: What is Brandon Darby actually, and what does this movie try to convince he is? I actually tweeted Darby—his name came up in my Twitter timeline right before I went to see this—but he didn’t respond.
The facts not in dispute are that Darby went to Louisiana in the wake of Katrina to do something and in fact something was done. It’s pretty much agreed, I think, that the efforts were helpful there and he was significant to those efforts, even as there’s debate about exactly how significant a role he played.
He was running in a left-wing crowd, so while part of this was actual assistance in the form of money, goods and services to areas that needed it, another part was making this the site of Social Justice. And Darby, it is agreed, was attracted to that aspect.
But then a funny thing happens: He goes to Venezuela (heh) and sees what revolution really looks like—and he’s not, in fact, super-excited about the end results.
In what would be a shocking twist for a regular movie, Brandon Darby changes his mind.
But we are dealing with the Left, and in particular that fringe of the Left for whom Politics Is Religion and Everything Is Political. So when Darby is approached by the FBI to go undercover, he agrees, only to find himself among those who would make molotov cocktails in celebration of the Republican National Convention.
This is not in dispute. Nor is it in dispute that Darby was instrumental in bringing these folks to justice.
What is in dispute is whether or not the molotov cocktail guys are actually guilty. Well, no, that’s not actually in dispute, since they did make the molotov cocktails. But there’s the mitigating circumstances of “Well, we wouldn’t have done if not for Brandon’s encouragement and even if we did we were only going to destroy property, not hurt anyone.”
At this point, I have to make my own biases known: I know the FBI has a long history of infiltrating groups and inciting violence. (Much like the CIA’s penchant for assassinating troublesome foreigners, it’s way easier than actually investigating and bringing ne’er-do-wells to trial.) The FBI’s history of violence comes up over 100 years short of the Left’s however (with them killing and destroying in the name of social justice since the French Revolution).
But, look, there’s literally no evidence that Darby did anything to encourage these guys. They say it was all his idea—well, of course they would—yet he seemed to have literally no hand in the actual making of the incendiary devices. The best that Darby’s detractors (none of whom were there) can come up with is that, well, it sounds like something he’d do, the traitorous bastard.
Of course, completely unmentioned is that, if Darby hadn’t been there, some other old radical might just have easily been there, and maybe these firebombing weenies might have killed someone or gotten themselves killed as the FBI tried to stop them. Not that I’d expect them to be thanking him for saving their lives.
And I was wrestling this while watching it, because the movie gave a whole lotta time to Darby’s detractors, but not so much any supporters other than Darby himself—whose testimony it challenges. And even his few supporters are kind of tepid about him. Very late in the movie we see footage of Andrew Breitbart, supporting him wholeheartedly, which was very significant to me, but could just as easily be taken as a sign Darby’s celebrity-seeking.
Ultimately, though, the movie makes no case for Darby’s innocence or guilt. For me, when Scott Crow—a radical left-wing activist who seemed like he got the lion’s share of screen time, next to Darby—starts talking in defense of the molotov-gang, and how there’s a time for the destruction of private property in protesting, I began to see the insanity of the whole thing.
I mean, Darby’s detractors are people advocating the violent overthrow of society. They like to mock him as paranoid for thinking someone might kill him, but they would hail as a hero anyone who did. There is no civility in this alleged civil rights movement.
So, in the end, I come down in favor of the POV used here, because it showed pretty clearly the players and known facts (as far as I can tell) and did so without any overt editorializing.
As for Darby, well, I think he has a right to live. I ended up kind of liking him, actually. And I strongly disapprove of any political movement that thinks it’s okay to kill defectors, even if they have a stated philosophy that “means well”.
But that’s just me.
I also liked this documentary, as did The Boy.