Doc of the Day: Better This World Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Better This World

Posted in Days of Docs by - June 02, 2012

 They came to protest. Their friend convinced them to do more. Then they were arrested. And then things got complicated.

Dir. Katie Galloway & Kelly Duane de la Vega, 2011, 88 min

I strongly believe that documentaries can easily out-horrify the most effective horror movies. The Corporation is the scariest film of the past few decades, easily. Better This World is another scary doc. It will make you afraid of what the government can do to you. It will make you afraid of what your friends could do to you. And it will make you afraid of what you could do, if pushed by circumstances.

At the 2008 Republican National Convention in the Twin Cities, Bradley Crowder and David McKay, two friends from Texas, were arrested and charged with terrorism. The two had come to protest the convention, and eight molotov cocktails were discovered in the house they were staying in. Crowder and McKay had started out as merely politically impassioned, but were tempted by more radical methods to agitate for progress. The FBI had been following numerous perceived threats to security for years leading up to the convention, and had been tipped off by one of the pair’s friends.

The masterstroke of this film is how it sets up what looks like one situation, and then, with one simple reveal, turns everything you think you understand about that situation on its head. With one move, everything you’ve seen and heard up until that point is utterly recontextualized, and what you thought was one kind of story turns out to be a completely different kind of story. It’s the best “plot twist” in a doc since Dear Zachary.*

The turn is so effective that I honestly don’t want to spoil it. Suffice to say that what begins as a tale about how a normal person might turn into someone dangerous becomes about how the actions law enforcement has taken in the “War on Terror” has possibly bred more terror than it’s stopped. It’s about the kind of dangers to liberty that arise when dissent is viewed as possible rebellion. What’s great is that the film is still about the initial impression even as it reveals its true face, because these problems are infinitely complex. Even as the FBI screwed over Crowder and McKay, the pair still had their personal responsibility in how they acted. The problem is where one participant’s culpability ends and the other’s begins, and whether the line of what can be considered “crime” can be drawn.

In the process, we meet and get to know the two people who have been branded “terrorists.” But Crowder and McKay aren’t terrorists. They really aren’t. To compare them to people who blow up buildings or buses is ludicrous. And I don’t say that just because you get to know the two as people. I’d have to ruin the twist to explain it fully, but they would not have built their molotov cocktails if it weren’t for the FBI. And they ended up not planning to use them anyway, unless they were going to do it in the three hours between their arrest and their scheduled flight out of the city.

Since the film is about a conspiracy, it’s only fitting that it’s filmed like a conspiracy thriller. The lighting, framing, and graphics all collude to create an atmosphere of dread and paranoia. Even better is that the filmmakers were able to use security camera footage taken from various sources in the Twin Cities in the lead up to the arrest, showing the protagonists at various stages of protest, and later building their cocktails. It’s a chilling testimony to the omnipresence of surveillance. The Twin Cities looks like a police state, and it’s eerily prescient of the police response to the Occupy Protests, which began just a few months after this film began premiering at festivals.

Better This World is an unnerving doc about the state our security is in, and the measures the government is willing to use to enforce it. It’s not a situation that really changed all that much after the election that followed the convention Bradley Crowder and David McKay protested. In fact, it may be even worse, which is the scariest part of all.

*I put “plot twist” in quotes because, really, anyone can read about these events before a doc about them is even conceived.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.
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