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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Aug. 26, 2011 | 11:00 AM

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So much has transpired since the Presidential election of 2008 that the tumultuous events of that campaign season have become a faint memory. Better This World, a new documentary screening this week at the International Documentary Association’s DocuWeeks festival in L.A., takes us back to the events of that turbulent summer, and unfolds a surreal story of two young, idealistic activists who wanted to make a difference and instead found themselves pawns in the federal government’s War On Terror.  Instead of battling Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the film focuses on the government’s pursuit of twenty somethings Brad Crowder and David McKay, who drove from Midland, Texas to protest the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Better This World, directed by Kelly Duane and Katie Galloway, begins by examining what it means to be an activist.  Juxtaposing the sleepy streets of Midland, Texas with the devastation of Post-Katrina New Orleans, the film presents two starkly contrasting portraits.  Midland is the adopted hometown of George W. Bush, for those who may doubt its conservative bona fides. Without much else to distract them, Brad Crowder and David McKay grew up together and found plenty of time for political discussions while walking their town’s sleepy streets. 

Meanwhile, one state and an entire world away, activist Brandon Darby was leading a collective trying to help rebuild the hurricane ravaged lower ninth ward of New Orleans.  Interviews with Darby early in the film present him as a kind of compassionate revolutionary.  Claiming that first the apathy, then the abusive practices of the police and National Guard in New Orleans spurred him to try to provide help where the government couldn’t, Darby comes across as an inspiring and charismatic figure.  At least this is how he appears to Crowder and McKay, when they encounter him at meetings of activist groups in Austin.  As we get deeper into the story, it becomes apparent that Darby may not be what he seems, and that his previous activism may not be the best predictor of his current agenda. 

One of the most startling things about Better this World is the footage of the 2008 Republican convention.  Crowder and McKay travel to the convention with the intent to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan only to find that the streets of St. Paul had become a war zone of their own. After an ill-advised flirtation with Molotov cocktails, the two young men find themselves in federal custody under suspicion of domestic terrorism. 

As the filmmakers follow the cases of both men (Brad chooses to cop a plea, while David decides to go to trial), Better This World holds a revealing mirror to the current state of the U.S. justice system in the post 9/11 World.  Duane and Galloway make sure that their film never endorses violence as a solution, but it raises a number of disturbing questions regarding our current political climate and the tremendous allocation of federal resources to lock up Crowder and McKay, who come across as a couple of thoughtful, but mixed up kids. 

In spite of the harsh light it sheds on current government practices, the film ends on a somewhat positive note as Crowder and McKay attempt to filter their activism through more nonviolent channels.  Brandon Darby also continues to change his views, although not in the ways one might expect.  The film shows that all three men are attempting to better this world, even if each has vastly different notions of what that means.

Better This World begins a one week theatrical run at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in West Hollywood on Friday, August 26th.  Visit the DocuWeeks website for showtimes.


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