Frightening, enthralling and important – these are the first words that come to mind when thinking of the documentary Better this World, screening at Hot Docs 2011. The story focuses, very sympathetically, on two Texas activists who set out to protest and disrupt the 2008 Republican National Convention only to end up behind bars under charges stemming from domestic terrorism legislation. Filmmakers Kelly Duane and Katie Galloway have pieced together this dramatic and tragic story with a grace and thoughtfulness that makes Better this World a documentary not to be missed.
David McKay and Bradley Crowder are social justice activists who meet an older charismatic activist they look up to and ultimately travel to the 2008 RNC with to, as he says, “shut that fucker down.” It turns out there is an FBI informant among them and it is McKay and Crowder who are ultimately shut down – arrested with intent to commit acts of violence. The very nuanced and complicated moments that happen between, as well as after, including the trial and sentencing, is brought to a palpable surface by filmmakers who have clearly imagined themselves in the shoes of their protagonists.
The result is a gripping documentary about activism, justice and the violence of the state. There are other films about state infiltration into activist groups (McLibel comes to mind) but none have dug so deep and with such a sober and steady eye for the mechanics and the emotions involved, as Better this World. Most seasoned social justice activists are aware that the individual constantly pushing the group or other individuals to “amp it up”—to take actions to a new level that are usually illegal and often violent—are either informants or undercover police. This has been well-documented at demos the world over (see our Montebello video for one such incident). But beyond the facts of infiltration and entrapment are the lives that are deeply effected, and Duane and Galloway have given us tremendous access with charged, intimate scenes in their documentary.
Better this World is a film about social justice activism that refuses to moralize or judge the methods or individuals who carry it out. In this sense it is an extremely important film that will undoubtedly help non-political people better understand those of us in the fight for a just, equal and fair world. The film gives voice to McKay and Crowder, and despite missing considerable critical voices from people outside their case, by virtue of their voice, we empathize with them and we learn of the grave injustice and violence the state is capable of committing against undeserving citizens.
In that sense the film is also about the risks and consequences associated with illegal direct action activism, conducted as it is in a framework of neoliberal capitalism and oppressive legal and enforcement apparatuses. One might expect that the two protagonists of this harrowing tale would be deterred in their efforts to better this world, but audiences will be surprised to learn otherwise. As one says (in reference to their enduring and strengthened relationship), there is a “thick silver lining in an otherwise very dark cloud.”
Better this World exposes the dark cloud of state oppression of social justice activism. But it puts forward a silver lining as well – that the dedication and commitment of individuals risking their own freedom is not only very honourable, but inspiring in its stamina, courage and vitality.