by Alexandra Marie Daniels
Would David McKay and Bradley Crowder have made eight homemade bombs had they not come under the leadership of the charismatic, macho, and at times violent protest organizer Brandon Darby? How much did the United States government’s post 9/11 counter-terrorism efforts influence McKay, Crowder and Darby in what ultimately led to the incarceration of two naïve, idealistic, and impressionable boyhood friends with no prior arrests or criminal records?
The new documentary film Better This World, co-directed by Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega, screens in Los Angeles, California as part of International Documentary Association’s 15th Annual DocuWeeks™ Theatrical Documentary Showcase. This profoundly important American story of friendship, trust, and betrayal asks the question of all its characters, what is going too far?
David McKay and Bradley Crowder, childhood friends from Midland, Texas are dissatisfied with a country they appear to love. Their activism crosses a line at the 2008 Republican National Convention when they build homemade bombs and are arrested on terrorism charges. Through extensive interviews with the incarcerated men, their families, as well as the FBI, Better This World investigates the events and the relationships the two men developed with Brandon Darby in the six months before their arrests.
Darby is charismatic; he is convincing. The 22-year-olds, Crowder and McKay, in their personal quests to better this country, are vulnerable to his mentorship.
Better This World explores the theme of personal responsibility and government accountability while questioning the increased use of government surveillance into the lives of everyday citizens post 9/11. Part investigative reporting and part visual storytelling the film is the first directing collaboration between Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega.
Directors Galloway and Duane de la Vega went to high school together in Berkeley, California. Reuniting after nearly 20 years they discovered an instant creative chemistry as established documentary filmmakers and found their backgrounds complementary. Galloway’s work in print journalism and investigative reporting led her to radio where she experienced “stories brought to life.” A progression from radio to film evolved naturally and Galloway has been making documentaries ever since.
Duane de la Vega studied fine arts with an emphasis in photography drawing her early inspiration from documentary photographers. She began her career as a still photographer but “was always left a little empty because it was the conversations [she] had along the way that she wanted to bring to the public.” Eventually she discovered documentary film to be more true to “what her desires were in terms of visual storytelling.”
Both directors describe Better This World as a “convergence of mutual interests.” They did extensive research and spent time debating the film’s themes. Galloway describes the process as a “rich experience, asking these questions to each other.” She noted that the two of them did not always come to same conclusions.
The result is a documentary film that asks the hard questions; but refreshingly, never imposes preconceived opinions of the filmmakers. Yet Better This World begs the question ‘when the government spends trillions fighting terrorism, how far will it go to insure that terrorists are found?’
Galloway and Duane de la Vega’s quest to answer this question began in 2009 after reading an article in the New York Times about the Molotov cocktails McKay and Crowder had made and the controversy surrounding their arrests at the 2008 Republican National Convention. What makes this film accessible to all audiences is the personal relationships the filmmakers develop on both sides of the debate. When the filmmakers met McKay and Crowder they became “100% committed” to the project. Duane de la Vega described the two men as “rich, complex characters” who clearly crossed a line, but are also “full of idealism…and [the filmmakers] wanted to explore that.”
The film does not “spoon-feed” one particular perspective. Although initial interviews for the project centered on the defendants, the filmmakers were granted access to extensive interviews with two FBI agents on the case which allowed the film to be part of a broader discussion. Galloway explains that it was “important to be accessible to all political perspectives.” The personal relationships the filmmakers developed made this possible.
Extensive time was spent with McKay and Crowder’s families in Texas. Authentic, touching moments were captured on film – especially in the phone calls between the incarcerated sons and their parents. The film makes use of surveillance video, audio recordings, filmed interviews and photographs, as well as filmic re-creations of events that took place before the project began. The filmmakers licensed archival footage of Brandon Darby from Common Ground Relief, a grassroots organization Darby had co-founded during Hurricane Katrina. Visually, Better This World has a layered, artistic style that reflects the directors’ backgrounds.
The title Better This World summarizes the belief of every major character in the film whose stated mission was to better this world. Whether it was the young activists, the FBI, or Brandon Darby, “everybody’s stated goal was to try to make a difference.”
About the Author:
Alexandra Marie Daniels is a writer, dancer, and filmmaker. She has made three films with the director Bernard Rose, including The Kreutzer Sonata (2008) and Mr. Nice (2010) and has worked with the director Martyn Atkins as a script supervisor on concerts such as Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood: Live from Madison Square Garden and The Crossroads Guitar Festival 2010. Alexandra is The WIP’s Arts, Culture, and Media Editor.