“He made that shit up!” – “Shut up already.” – “That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard.” – a sampling of quotes from 'Informant'
It is said that truth is subjective. Ask two people to tell the same story and you can get two supposed, at times even contradictory, “truths” from them. But the actual truth often lies somewhere in between.
Like so many documentaries, the notion of truth lies at the heart of the new film, Informant – an exposé about left-wing-radical-turned-FBI-informant-turned-right-Wing-activist Brandon Darby.
“There were many perspectives on him and his style of activism,” explains the film’s director Jamie Meltzer. “He was never an uncontroversial figure and the film aims to present the controversy, and to give the audience enough information to make up their minds about where they stand on him and his actions.”
So exactly how and why did this anti-government rabble-rouser make such a dramatic and surprising turn in the span of just a few years? Well, that truth all depends on who is telling the story.
“To some degree everyone in the film is in a propaganda war with one another – and I was more interested in the grey areas,” Meltzer says. “I didn’t want to come down as a filmmaker on one side or another, but rather show the fascinating complexities of Darby and his choices. I don’t believe a documentary film should tell people what to think or believe. I’d rather provoke, challenge, and invite people to be active, intelligent participants in deciphering the 'story.'"
The Austin-based Darby, a self-proclaimed anarchist, made his way to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina with the altruistic intention of helping those in need. After a fantastical tale about trying to save a friend trapped in the 9th Ward flood waters, Darby settles is to describe his work with Common Ground Relief, a group he played an integral role in. Based in Algiers, Common Ground set about to provide relief (mostly fresh water, medicine, and a support base) to those in need because, he and others, adamantly felt that the government would not. He was angry at the government for how they were treating the situation and the people of New Orleans. Like many, he asked, “This is wrong. How could this happen?”
After a falling out with the group due to ideological differences and what he viewed as relative placidity, Darby makes his way to Venezuela – for what purpose exactly and what actually happened there is left purposefully ambiguous by an uncharacteristically reserved Darby. And since he is the one telling the story, the audience is left largely in the dark as well. Only one thing is certain: Darby returned home with a significant ideological change.
“I don’t know exactly what happened in Venezuela,” Meltzer states. “That was never entirely clearly clear to me – but what I do know that that trip is where Brandon really had an emotional and psychological breakdown. He was beginning to question the whole concept of being a “revolutionary” that he had imagined. He idealized Chavez and Venezuela and wasn’t ready for the complexity and intensity of the situation he found there.”
After this, Darby – and by association, the film – switches gears. How Darby ends up an FBI informant spying on anarchist groups during the 2008 Republican National Convention is one thing, but how he then turns into a political activist for the Tea Party is quite another. Darby – obviously conflicted and slightly paranoid, but still incredibly self-serving – explains his actions with mostly half-truths and self-martyrdom as he attempts to justify his abrupt switch to not only the audience, but also himself.
The film utilizes a series of distinct and atypical reenactments in an attempt to show Darby’s story from his own point-of-view, as well as others. Often breaking the fourth wall, these reenactments are clearly distinguishable from the actual events, but are no less revealing – even with Darby serving as a highly unreliable narrator.
“With the reenactments I always wanted to make sure the audience understood that this was not an illustration of the past, but a representation, refracted through the perspective of whoever was telling the story," explains Meltzer. "I hope the way I used the reenactments creates an active and critical viewer. I don’t want the viewer to passively accept anything said or represented in the film, instead I used the reenactments to challenge the viewer to revisit key events and see them from varying perspectives.”
Has Darby really changed so much in so little a time? Or is he just that malleable to the most convenient situation presented to him? What are his motivations behind all this? . . . These are just some of the questions posed throughout the film.
“This film is more about raising questions than giving simple answers. I hope I've given the viewer enough info that they come to their own conclusions about Brandon and his choices,” says Meltzer.
From the get-go, Darby comes across as self-serving, hyperbolic, and off-putting despite his seemingly good deeds (his post-Katrina work and thwarting of two accused domestic terrorists). Much of his story seems outlandish and hard to believe, but one learns that there is some truth in it, hiding underneath all the overstatements and grandstanding. It seems Darby always liked the romantic idea of being an anarchist, but lacked true conviction. As the movie progresses, the viewer must sift through multiple points-of-view – led by Darby and the film’s re-enactments of his story – to find their own version of the truth.
Meltzer sums it up by saying, “I make no claims to absolute truth, and in fact I think this film tries to make the viewer questions the perspectives of everyone in the film in a critical way, hopefully also making the viewer critical of the film itself and of documentaries in general. The most honest documentaries tell you that they aren't clear representations of truth.”
* * * ½ out of 5 stars
Informant is now playing at at Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center at 7:00 p.m. nightly.
So come out to the Zeitgeist (1618 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. New Orleans) this weekend and take advantage of this unique film-going experience and all the Zeitgeist Arts Center has to offer. And by doing so, help support one the premier alternative arts center in the South.
You can visit the Zeitgeist Multi-disciplinary Arts Center’s website here.
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