There is no shortage of news and media coverage, from pundits to PBS, on the radical activist turned FBI informant Brandon Darby. Once a hero to the left during Hurricane Katrina and then shunned when he helped stop activism at the 2008 Republican National Convention. Yet, the full story wasn’t being told and documentarian Jamie Meltzer fixed his lens, interviewing Darby and even those who vehemently opposed him. Informant screens at SDFF this Fri., Nov. 9 at 6:45 p.m. and Sat., Nov. 10 at 12:00 p.m. at the Denver Pavilions.
When did you first hear about Darby? How did that grow into the kind of fascination needed for a documentary?
I first heard about Brandon Darby through his open letter to the Austin activist community, coming out as an Informant. My first thoughts were – how on earth did a radical leftist activist start working for the FBI? Was he ever a sincere activist? Starting the film was a way of exploring those initial questions. Pretty soon it was obvious that this would be a film about clashing perspectives, that it wouldn’t provide simple answers, and that I wanted the viewer to try and make up their own minds about all the questions swirling around Brandon and his choices.
Darby is often referred to as a radical, what do you think his most radical activism has been?
Brandon was most certainly a radical- he imagined himself to be a kind of Black Panther-inspired activist and prided himself on diving into volatile situations- part of the reason he was effective at Common Ground in post-Katrina New Orleans, but also a big part of the reason he created so much tension, from the very beginning, among the activist community. He was always a controversial but also magnetic figure- and still is now, but just within a very different community. What was fascinating to plot in the film was Brandon’s journey from left wing radical to right wing radical, and to think about the political spectrum as fluid in some ways, with the extreme left and extreme right having some common traits, even as they are obviously coming at so many issues differently.
Was it a challenge to get Darby to do interviews for the film? Or was he eager to tell his side of the story?
One of the biggest challenges of the film was getting people to agree to interview, not just Darby, but he was certainly a challenge, as at the time I was approaching him he felt like his life was threatened and he was pretty much under siege, incredibly suspicious. It took about six months for him to agree to sit down to interview and another year for him to agree that we could use the interview footage in the film. Of course, he also “acted” in the reenactments in the film- so he was eventually eager to get his side of the story out, even though he knew that the film wouldn’t take sides, but would present a variety of conflicting opinions and perspectives.
Do you see Darby as an effigy of fickle public opinion? We always want a hero, until they prove complex and full of contradictions.
Of course Darby is complex, I think in some sense people all along have wanted to see one thing or another in him, as a charismatic figure he does inspire that kind of projection. I knew that he was seen as heroic or villainous, in binary terms, and was interested in the areas in-between, that’s where the film can kind of transcend the black and white thinking that dominates many documentary films. I wanted to challenge the viewer, whatever their political persuasion, to actively think, and I think ultimately they can come down on one side or another, and thats fine, but if they don’t feel somewhat uncomfortable or challenged by watching the film, then I’ve failed as a filmmaker.
Journalists and documentarians often strive to find truth buried in the rubble of perception, rumors and agendas, yet, sometimes end up raising more questions than answers. Where does INFORMANT offer its strongest points?
Absolutely 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, but ultimately I don’t see the role of documentaries as telling us what to think. I also don’t conceive of the kind of documentaries I make as anything close to journalism, 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.