AFF 2012 Interview: Jamie Meltzer, 'Informant'
Informant, an intense documentary which focuses on Austinite Brandon Darby, is documentarian Jamie Meltzer's latest film. The movie is made up of interviews with Darby, a former anarchist who informed on two young men during the 2008 RNC, and his (former) friends and co-workers.
Meltzer is currently an assistant professor in the MFA program in Documentary Film and Video at Stanford, and his previous films include Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story, Welcome to Nollywood and the short La Caminata. His Informant will show as part of Austin Film Festival on Sunday 10/21 and Wednesday 10/24.
Before the fest kicked off, Meltzer answered some questions I had via email.
Slackerwood: Why did you decide to make a film about Brandon Darby? Did you know him before you started working on the movie?
Jamie Meltzer: I first discovered this story when Brandon posted his "open letter" declaring he was an informant, which The New York Times picked up on. I immediately emailed him and began the (long) process of getting him to agree to an interview (it took six months to do the first interview and another year before he agreed to allow me to use the interview in the film).
My tactic was just to be honest: I was interested in his story, his transformation from the radical left to working with the FBI, and I didn't have an ideological axe to grind. I was interested in creating a complex film that didn't present simple answers -- a film that challenged the audience to make up their own minds about him and his choices.
I was also clear that the film would contain perspectives very different from his own, because I was interested in portraying clashing viewpoints in the film. That is really at the heart of it, because when you ask three people who know Brandon Darby what they think of him and his choices, you get three distinct but often contradictory opinions (as journalist David Hanners says in the film, "Everyone has a different idea of who he is").
What are your thoughts about what Darby chose to do?
Meltzer: I didn't want to come down as a filmmaker on one side or another, but rather show the fascinating complexities of Darby and his choices. I don't believe a documentary film should tell people what to think or believe, I'd rather provoke, challenge, and invite people to be active, intelligent participants in deciphering the "story," in this case Brandon’s journey and its ramifications (political, personal, etc.).
How much time did you spend with Darby?
Meltzer: We spent three years making the film -- 20 hours of interviews with Darby, a few trips to New Orleans to visit the places where he established himself as a prominent activist, and a trip to St. Paul to visit the sites where the Republican convention happened in 2008. We also shot many of the reenactments in the film with Brandon "starring" as himself -- at once reenacting and commenting on the most contentious parts of his journey and the most controversial moments at the Republican National Convention.
Has Darby seen the final film? If so, what was his response?
Meltzer: He had mixed feelings about the film is the short answer -- at first he was angry and despised it, and then he slowly understood that the film didn’t take sides, even as it presented varying perspectives on him and his choices. I think if everyone involved in the film isn't entirely happy with it, then I've done my job, which is to respect the viewer to make up their own minds and not try to reduce the complexity of the film for the sake of making a simple political statement (which both sides tend to want to do) or pleasing any of the subjects of the film.
How was the filmmaking process for this movie different from past documentaries you've made?
Meltzer: I used reenactments in this film which I hadn't done before, but that was essential to getting across the idea, central to the film, that anything you hear or see in the film is subjective and therefore unreliable, colored by the storyteller's perspective -- whether its Brandon, Scott Crow, or David McKay.
I don’t want the viewer to passively accept anything said or represented in the film, instead I used the reenactments to challenge the viewer to revisit key events and see them from varying angles/perspectives.
How did you find the right tone for Informant?
Meltzer: The hard part in editing the film was trying to find a balance -- where two sides of an event or issue are revealed, but where the viewer is forced to make up their own minds. The challenge of the edit was providing the viewer with enough information without confusing them- this was incredibly hard in parts since Brandon's life journey is so intense and complicated -- spanning revolutionary politics in post-Katrina New Orleans, guerilla movements in Venezuela, FBI involvement in a few different cases and of course, more recently, Tea Party activism! Portraying all these aspects of his story, and keeping the storytelling gripping and complex all the way through was an exciting challenge.
What are you working on next?
Meltzer: I'm working on a film about a group of exonerated men in Dallas County (between them they have served 83 years in prison for crimes they didn't commit) who are starting a detective agency to look into cases of imprisoned men who, like themselves, were wrongly convicted. They call themselves the Freedom Fighters, and these guys are truly inspiring; I'm following them as they start the detective agency and take on their first cases over the next year or so.