Last week, filmmaker Joe Berlinger tweeted about a review of West of Memphis at DocGeeks in which the writer wrote, “I’ve never had the time or the energy to watch all 3 Paradise Lost films and, having seen West of Memphis, I’m glad I never bothered to.” As the co-director of the Paradise Lost trilogy, Berlinger had a right to be annoyed with that opening line and not just because West of Memphis probably wouldn’t exist without Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s coverage of the West Memphis 3 cases over the last 20 years. If there’s one thing we as film critics and/or fans should be good at it’s considering the distinction of individual works and the independent perspectives that go into their storytelling craft.
With more and more documentaries being made it’s understandable that multiple films will tackle the same specific story. Sometimes they will seem like competitors, and sometimes, as in the case of this year’s two AIDS treatment docs, How to Survive a Plague and United in Anger, they’re actually linked through overlapping producers. Another new film, which just won a Grand Jury Prize at the 2012 DOC NYC documentary film festival and also recently received the Best Documentary Feature award at the Austin Film Festival, is one of the greatest examples of why it’s a wonderful thing that so many docs are being produced, even if some appear to be redundant on the surface. Titled Informant, this film tackles the exact same incident already covered by the 2011 Gotham Award-winning doc Better This World.
The difference between the films is that they focus on different subjects involved in this incident, which was the arrest of two young activists during the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, both charged as domestic terrorists on the grounds that they had built and intended to use molotov cocktails during the protests. Better This World concentrates on these two men, David McKay and Bradley Crowder, leaning on their sides of the story and how they believe there was entrapment on the part of the FBI through an informant who influenced their decision to consider such violence. Informant, as the title implies, is primarily concerned with that informant, a once-admired activist named Brandon Darby.
I found Informant a lot more interesting, as I tend to be fascinated by controversial subjects being allowed to speak on their own behalf. We’ve seen it with docs like The Fog of War, Unraveled, The Imposter and the recent Oscar nominee If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front. That last film also dealt with domestic terrorism, and throughout last year I compared it to Better This World, favoring its address of the subject matter so much more. And as it turns out, Informant was produced by Steve Bannatyne, an executive producer on If a Tree Falls. Since both If a Tree Falls and Better This World were each featured as episodes of the POV series on PBS, I think it would make perfect sense for Informant to follow suit.
When I caught Better This World at SXSW last year, I wasn’t a fan. I thought it took too long to get to its points, offered little new insight into the general subject matter and failed to provoke a worthwhile discussion on domestic terrorism. But even after seeing Informant, which features nearly all the same interviewees and gives accounts of the same story, I wouldn’t say the later film (which was already in production when the earlier film hit theaters) is redundant, nor would I say that the earlier film is now obsolete or not worth looking back at (I revisited it this weekend after watching Informant, in fact). In their statement accompanying their award decision, the DOC NYC jury that gave its prize to Informant cited “its Rashomon-like investigation of a terrorist crime that did or didn’t happen.” Of course, the two films together offer even more of a Rashomon-like consideration of the incidents.
Just as we appreciate having as many sides represented and viewpoints shared in a single documentary, it’s valuable to have more sides and viewpoints offered through multiple documentaries. There possibly could have been one film that covered both the McKay and Crowder angle and the Darby angle as comprehensively as Better This World and Informant do as a collective unit. But it probably wouldn’t have seemed as focused as each is on its own. Now maybe we could even use a third documentary that primarily deals with the FBI’s side of the story, its concerns about domestic terrorists and its take on the line between entrapment and legitimate pre-crime detection.
Informant is now screening at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) with no further events listed on the doc’s website.
Better This World is on home video and available to stream on Netflix. Watch it while you wait for the newer film to become available.
If a Tree Falls is also currently available to stream on Netflix.