Ideology is the basis of most things we do in life. Our choices are often dictated by our beliefs. But can beliefs change over time? Can an ideology you once fought ardently for be replaced by an ideology diametrically opposite to it? And if yes does it mean your initial beliefs were not as strong and rooted as you would like to believe? These are some of the questions that Jamie Meltzer’s documentary Informant tries to explore through the actions of an activist Brandon Darby.
Brandon Darby first became a well-known public figure during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Darby, an Austin-based activist, went to Louisiana to rescue one of his friends he thought to be stranded there. He and his activist friends stayed back in New Orleans and formed Common Ground Collective with the aim of helping the flood victims. They defied local government to ensure that victims received the aid they were promised and deserved, but didn’t receive. Initially Common Ground Collective comprised of certain Black Panther members (an underground movement/group) and anarchists. Later numerous other activists joined the group.
This documentary introduces us to Darby and his ideology. We watch as his friends, colleagues and journalists talk about his enigmatic personality, which often bordered on excessive aggression. They believed he was an egomaniac and suffered from paranoia. Right from the start it was apparent that these people talking about Darby’s unrelenting zeal were a bit skeptical. As the documentary pans out we watch as Darby’s ideology does a complete u-turn. He goes from being an activist sympathetic of the radical left to working as an undercover agent for the FBI. Darby clarifies that his ideology remained the same. He always wanted to help innocent people and that is what he was doing while working with the FBI as well.
What Darby does as an undercover agent is almost sure to antagonize you against him. His testimony sent two would-be protesters to prison. They were convicted of planning a disruption of the Republican National Convention. A few Molotov Cocktails (homemade bombs/explosives) were recovered from their house. Also Darby wore a wire during some of his conversations with these two young and impressionable protesters and these audio recordings also played an important role in getting them convicted.
Does Brandon Darby’s political view change or does he have psychological issues that allow him to self-justify his actions? What director Jamie Meltzer needs to be commended for is that he allows Darby to tell his story in his own words. He balances this through interviews with his friends, associates and the two convicted protesters. And never once during the documentary is Meltzer judgmental. He allows the participants to tell their own versions of the events that transpired and leaves it to the audience to draw their own conclusions. Influence of well-known documentary filmmaker Errol Morris is evident in Meltzer’s approach to the subject and his treatment. He deftly combines interviews with reenactments, which is a hallmark of Morris’ work. Meltzer gives a noir feel to the interviews and reenactments, which further heightens the mood of the film.
These associates and one-time friends of Darby have their own issues and conspiracy theories and Meltzer gets it out of them with astute questioning. This documentary is not just about Darby and the people around him, but it is also about the grassroots political movement taking shape in USA. The Common Ground Collective is but a precursor to the Occupy Wall Street movement. A number of these movements have instilled delusional beliefs in gullible people. As some of Darby’s former associates point out that the two young protesters convicted because of Darby would most certainly not have even thought of making Molotov cocktails or attempting what they were planning to if Darby hadn’t influenced them in the first place. A more effective (though highly violent as well) version of such a movement continues till date across the Middle-East and North Africa.
Darby has now become quite a popular speaker at Tea Party functions, which makes it that much more difficult to label him. His motivations are confused and complicated at best. He says that he wants to make a positive impact on the world, but it’s difficult to conclude that based on his actions. Either way Informant is a roller coaster ride and one of the best documentaries of recent times. His current political activities could well provide fodder for a sequel, and I will certainly be watching it if and when it gets made.