Judgement, Clouded: 'Code of the West' and 'Informant'
Both Code of the West and The Informant reveal the vagaries of the US legal system. That they do so by looking at such different cases makes them simultaneously frightening and galvanizing.
Editor's note: This year's DOC NYC runs for the rest of this week. Documentaries to be screened include Ethel (11/9), Betting the Farm (11/11), First Position (11/11), Searching for Sugarman (11/11), 5 Broken Cameras (11/12), Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (11/13), Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself (11/14), and The Imposter (11/15).
"I've led a fortunate life, I guess I'd say. I've never felt terror, I've never felt enormous personal fear for my safety and my future," begins Tom Daubert. He goes on, "Until right after the raids, realizing that I was a probable target, and more recently, hearing from my attorney that I'm likely to be indicted." Once a professional lobbyist, Daubert is bearded and burly, deliberate and low-key, and also good-humored. And so, it's something of a surprise for Daubert, as he puts it, when "a feeling of fairly dramatic fear erupts out of nowhere, a fear of incarceration, a fear of not having options in my future."
As Daubert recalls in Code of the West, screening at DOC NYC on 12 November, that fear erupted for him when, in 2011, the FBI and DEA raided Montana Cannabis, a medical marijuana grower he co-owned. His life changed at that moment, and Rebecca Richman Cohen's film considers how and, to an extent, why Daubert has been so afflicted. That is, it looks at the politics of medical marijuana policy in Montana, the wrangling between ideals and industry since 2004, when a voter referendum legalized medial marijuana. Since then, activists in the state have worked for and against the law, even as the federal government's positions on such state processes become increasingly confusing and confused.
Just so, even as Colorado and Washington state have, on 6 November, passed ballot measures legalizing the use of recreational marijuana, Code of the West outlines ongoing struggles over jurisdictions. It also looks at the specific battles in the Montana legislature, including the fight against the medical marijuana law led by Cherrie Brady, heading a group called “Safe Community, Safe Kids," and Speaker of the House Mike Milburn's introduction of HB 161 in 2011.
While the film provides earnest testimony by supporters of medical marijuana (how it aids in the treatment of epilepsy, PTSD, and some cancers), it also considers the emerging industry, including the enormous potential profits for pot growers. Speaking in defense of more regulation -- for recreational users as well as medical users -- Montana narcotics chief Mark Long notes, "It doesn't take much of a grow at all to be in the range of $1 million to 2 million." Moreover, with the industry already underway ("It's hard to take the bone back away from the dog once you’ve given it to him," says one observer), the issue becomes more complicated: how to regulate, how to balance state and federal interests? And how to anticipate what might change as other states -- and even Montana, at some future time -- legalize and then set about regulating recreational pot?
As the film indicates, federal raids of ostensibly legal medical growers produce multiple muddles, legal as well as emotional. Some of those growers who have been raided, like Daubert and one of his partners, Chris Lindsey, cut deals with the federal government in order to avoid jail time, while others, like another partner, Chris Williams face trial. Williams says in the film that the legal contradictions present "a classic example of our government in action." That he is currently facing 80 years in prison only underscores his complaint. Daubert observes that basic issues concerning marijuana remain unresolved, even apart from its shifting legal status. "They're afraid of drugs," he says of those working to reverse the 2004 law. "I think they're afraid of the complexity of the world, and they're feeling less and less able to control anything about what affects them, this only being one piece of it." And so, he sums up, marijuana here becomes "a symbol of more than what it is."
In its consideration of such complexity and symbolism, Code of the West is of a piece with another film at DOC NYC 2012, Informant, screening on 13 November. Like Richmond Cohen's documentary, Jamie Meltzer's investigates a legal case by way of individuals who become both victims and perpetrators, sometimes at the same time. And like Code of the West, Informant opens on a subject who reflects on how he came to an unexpected and untenable place.
"I received a lot of direct death threats," says Brandon Darby. "I've had to go to trial and testify against someone sending me death threats. People put images of me with 'Kill him' on the internet." He looks directly into the camera as he speaks, framed in close-up. "The US Attorney's Office," he goes on, "offered me the Witness Protection Program."
The room behind Darby is barely illuminated, but it seems average, with unfilled bookshelves and curtains drawn over the windows. His face is grizzled and his eyes bright. It's not easy living under such threats, but he knows he's done the right thing. It's not just about them," he says, crossing away from the camera so he's standing and now gesturing with his hands in the back of the frame. "It's about the whole fucking left and their, like, support of these fuckers." From off-screen, you hear his interviewer, trying to regain control of the scene: "Okay, let's just get you to just talk, speak your mind. Just try to focus on this, and just tell it." Darby walks back into close-up and adjusts himself.
If Darby's upset is palpable, in his movement and his rising voice, so too is the film's skepticism. This remarkable start to Informant is unnerving in any number of ways, not least being the synthy soundtrack pulsing beneath it. Darby is the titular subject in a film that asks questions about the very idea of an "informant." It's hard to tell what Darby knows, how he understands what he knows, where his dissembling begins and ends. Even as Darby appears to set himself to "just tell it," you become aware that he cannot, that the "it" is fraught, the telling is fraught, and he is fraught, too.
All of this makes for a rather unusual documentary viewing experience, as Informant takes as its focus not the truth or even the pursuit of truth, but rather, its perpetual elusiveness. Premiering at DOC NYC on 11 November, Informant is one of many films at this year's Festival, which boasts more than 100 films and events), and more specifically, one of several that ponder the limits and expand the possibilities what documentaries can do. Like Code of the West, Informant asks how any single perspective might serve as truth, and more specifically, how official stories -- those told by government authorities, for instance -- speak to various interests and so might inspire skepticism.
The arrests and troubling court case at the center of Informant are also at the center of another film, Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega's terrific Better This World. That documentary followed the case through the two young men who were working with Darby, Bradley Crowder and David McKay. Arrested at the 2008 Republican National Convention and convicted of domestic terrorism (specifically, they were found guilty of making Molotov cocktails), Crowder and McKay argued in court that they were mentored (and set up) by Darby, who informed on them for the FBI. Darby -- onetime co-founder of Common Ground Relief Collective, which sought to help victims of Hurricane Katrina in the Lower Ninth Ward -- now tells his story, or perhaps several stories, in an effort to explain how he came to reject his own previous "radicalism" and instead to work for the Feds.
On its face, this story is one about lies and manipulations, about reshaping information to suit perspectives or to create selves. But it's not easy to tell whose lies trump whose, or whether anyone can know truth over time. The stories here are contingent, contextualized, they're self-involved and they're also limited, sometimes rendered in reenactment, sometime transcripts with highlighted sections. Darby's colleagues in New Orleans wonder how he might have been convinced to inform for the FBI. He wonders as well, and as much as he repeats or contradicts himself, doesn't come to resolutions: "As much as it seems crazy that a revolutionary would work with the FBI," he muses, "At some time, it's not that crazy." In this and other moments, the film doesn't make believing Darby easy. Even as he speaks here, it becomes increasingly unclear whether he is reflecting on his experience or making it up, whether he's performing a self for the film or whether he's performing a self for himself -- or for Metzler's camera, or for the FBI's various recordings and interviews.
The film includes interviews with people who knew Darby before 2008, like Common Ground Relief co-founder Scott Crow, who calls him a liar straight out (Crow says that Darby's recollection of a onetime plan to break out a group of prisoners is "total fabrication"). Others figure that Darby was duped by the FBI or that he suffers from mental illness or PTSD and manipulated by federal agents. He may be traumatized by his work in New Orleans (which was undeniably stressful) or by a subsequent visit to Venezuela, when, he says, he met with the FARC. A phone interview with McKay in prison suggests that Darby's memory of the RNC demonstration efforts in 2008 is untrue, or at least, that he bears some guilt for what went wrong for Crowder and McKay.
But the film shows as well how faulty any of these stories may be, how self-interest can cloud judgment, how legal parameters might reshape testimonies. It's possible that Darby's stories are "total fabrication," and also that he can't see differences between such fabrication and not, or maybe that he can't "just tell it." Whether or not he's responsible is another question. It also remains unclear whether he understands the effects of this film, the ways that stories become realities. Now a darling of the Tea Party, Darby presents himself as a believer in individual freedom and also government righteousness, a tricky row to hoe, certainly. As the film leaves Darby to what may be his own devices -- or delusions, or stories he believes -- you might also feel unable to know what truths and fictions Darby or anyone else might be telling.