Better This World: Film Review

SXSW -Better this World - 2011
Doc about Texas protesters jailed as terrorists makes upsetting claims about FBI entrapment.

Sharply focused and superbly put together, Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega's documentary tells a tale of law-enforcement overreach and the collision of politics with national-security concerns in Texas.


AUSTIN — A tale of law-enforcement overreach and the collision of politics with national-security concerns, Better This World is particularly relevant now, as its story of protesters in prison offers ironic counterpoint to the praise U.S. officials are giving activist youths on the other side of the world.

Sharply focused and superbly put together, the doc's theatrical appeal may be limited by subjects that are unsympathetic at first glance. But word of mouth could support a small theatrical run, and impact on TV should be strong.

The film addresses issues of entrapment and prosecutorial overzealousness through the story of two idealistic left-leaning youths from politically conservative Midland, Texas. David McKay and Bradley Crowder were arrested at the 2008 Republican National Convention for possessing Molotov cocktails, and quickly were portrayed in the media as anarchists bent on terrorist acts. Through ample court evidence and interviews with their peers, filmmakers Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega tell a much more nuanced story.

The picture that develops is one of young men eager to participate in a non-violent anti-war movement, whose enthusiasm was steered down a darker path by a charismatic older activist, Brandon Darby, who made his name by co-founding the Common Ground Hurricane Katrina-relief group.

Darby riled McKay and Crowder with macho challenges, but the youths still seem to have had no desire to hurt people (or to use any sort of weapon) when they got in a van headed to the Minneapolis convention.

The turn the story takes then will come as a shock for anyone who hasn't read much about the case: Darby was an informant for the FBI, and it can be argued he worked very hard to convince the young men to do something violent.

As the filmmakers follow the separate prosecutions of McKay and Crowder, using crisply stylish motion graphics to bring transcripts and audiotape to life, they also visit prosecutors and FBI agents in hopes of getting one to admit Darby entrapped them. The steadfastness of the government's position in light of contrary evidence will upset many, and viewer sympathy for the defendants will probably not fade much even when we learn that one of them hasn't been entirely honest.

Along the way, Better this World offers tidbits about the stacked-deck realities of plea-bargaining and gives yet another illustration of what has happened to presumption of innocence in the post-9/11 era.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival, Documentary Competition section
Production Companies: Loteria Films, ITVS, Picturebox, Motto Pictures, Passion Pictures, the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley, AmDoc, POV
Directors-writers: Katie Galloway, Kelly Duane de la Vega
Producer: Katie Galloway, Kelly Duane de la Vega, Mike Nicholson
Executive producers: Julie Goldman, John Battsek, Nicole Stott, Sally Jo Fifer, Simon Kilmurry
Director of photography: David Layton
Music: Paul Brill
Editor: Greg O'Toole
No rating, 97 minutes