Home Video Hovel- Informant, by Tyler Smith
Documentaries have what I would consider an unfair advantage over conventional narrative films. In either case, an interesting story peopled with fascinating characters can and will go a long way in engaging an audience. However, where a narrative film has to arrange several different elements- such as writing and acting- in order to best present its content, all a documentarian has to do is try to get out of the way and hope he doesn’t screw it up.
Obviously, there are a number of documentary filmmakers that will employ re-enactment, cinematography, music, and editing in order to heighten the emotion of their subject, but I feel like those are the exception. One need only look at the various documentaries available on Netflix to see a definite trend. Interesting subject, near-unlimited access, and an unobtrusive filmmaker and you’ve got yourself a fairly successful documentary. Indeed, there are a number of documentaries that have thoroughly entertained me, but there are only a handful that have really stayed with me.
Unfortunately, Jamie Meltzer’s Informant isn’t one of these, though certainly not because Meltzer isn’t trying. His subject is indeed fascinating and he does what he can to emphasize the ambiguity of the story, but the film too often falls into the familiar territory of talking heads reflecting on something that happened in the past. And those few moments in which the director really tries to set his film apart only serve to remind us of films that achieved his goals better.
That’s not to say that the subject isn’t interesting. The film is about the story of Brandon Darby, a left-wing activist whose efforts to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina- all while subverting the authorities- were inspiring to those around him. Eventually, though, for reasons few can really understand, Darby became an informant for the FBI, ratting out other activists that he considered to be capable of dangerous tactics.
Darby is a mystery whose actions never seem to add up. We never quite know why he does the things he does. He may be a raging egotist, committed to doing whatever will get him the most attention. Or perhaps he’s a man of genuine conviction who responded to what he perceived to be a genuine threat. In the end, we don’t know and I actually prefer that. Not unlike Errol Morris’ The Fog of War, Informant seems to understand that some people are just unknowable.
The key difference between those two films is that Morris’ movie wisely lets its subject- former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara- speak for himself. Meltzer’s film does feature a number of perplexing interactions with Darby himself, but it isn’t content to stop there. Instead, we get several other interviews, each with people from Darby’s past; people that felt betrayed by his actions. These people are quick to portray Darby in the worst light possible. It’s notable that there really isn’t anybody on the other side. There is nobody besides Darby himself that praises what he did, and their absence is felt deeply.
Because what Informant eventually amounts to is the statement that Brandon Darby is enigmatic and largely unknowable, but that he’s most definitely a traitor and should be condemned as such. Here we have ambiguity undercut by some definitive, harsh statements. My personal preference would have been for Darby to be the only one allowed to speak, as his recounting of events and motives is already baffling enough. However, if Meltzer really felt like he had to incorporate other people’s opinions, he could have maintained the confusion and complexity by allowing us to hear from all sides. By doing so, it would create a vast tapestry of strong, opposing stories all centered around a deeply mysterious man, leaving the viewer to make up his own mind.
Unfortunately, the ambition that led Meltzer to approach such a complex subject falls short of really embracing the enigma inherent in it. And instead we get a film that could have been as unsettling and inscrutable as Capturing the Friedmans, but wound up being just another in a sea of mildly interesting documentaries that are seen and then forgotten.