Why did Brandon Darby, a former left-wing activist, turn in a group of young R.N.C. protesters to the F.B.I.? That question was tantalizingly raised by Better This World, a sympathetic documentary from 2011 that leaned heavily on these protesters’ own stories about how they got involved with Darby and how he influenced them and eventually turned them in, which, for Brad Crowder and David McKay, lead to time in prison for the charge of being in possession of molotov cocktails. Informant addresses this question more directly, but instead of taking sides it smartly gives all sides of the story their chance to speak, creating an almost Rashomon-like viewing experience where, without easy answers, we’re encouraged to decide the truth on our own.
Director Jamie Meltzer gives the charismatic Darby considerable running time to speak intimately into the camera about what he was thinking and feeling at critical points in this story of loyalty, betrayal, values, and politics. By doing this, Meltzer effectively gave Darby rope to hang himself. (As Akira Kurosawa wrote in his autobiography: “Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing.”) Not only is much of what Darby says rebutted by the protesters and his former colleagues at Common Ground Relief (a radical, anti-government nonprofit that helped those in need in of immediate relief in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina), but it’s often apparent that Darby is embellishing and telling himself lies to justify questionable choices that seem to have been made in the service of his ego.
If you have a propensity for psychology, Informant offers fertile ground for analyzing Darby’s expressions, words, and body language through various behavioral explanations. Meltzer has Darby reenact scenes in shadowy dramatizations and read from letters he wrote to the F.B.I. and the public. This isn’t only suggestive of Errol Morris’s documentaries and Rashomon’s flashback sequences, but it creates a useful distance between Darby and his stories that allow for us to assess them individually, reinforcing the film’s suggestion that the truth is elusive.
One complication from the reenactments is that they call into question whether or not other scenes were rehearsed as well. The opening scene is remarkable for the raw, confrontational way Darby speaks to both the camera and then, when he needs direction on how to start talking, to Meltzer. But as Dennis Harvey noted in his Variety review, Darby “gives off an oddly studied vibe even as he’s supposedly flubbing an initial direct-camera address.” It’s unclear whether scenes such as this one were planned out by Meltzer or if Darby is just putting on an affect (perhaps as a defense mechanism), but this is a small formal ambiguity in an otherwise impressive, evenhanded documentary.