Reenactments of real events are nothing new in the world of documentaries, but neither is the controversy that often surrounds films that employ the technique. The manner in which a film presents reenactments is crucial — those that are easily distinguished from real events and represent no hidden agenda on the part of the filmmakers generally get a pass. But a couple of things have changed in recent years. Reenactments have become far more commonplace in documentaries, and sometimes they feature a film's real-life subject in narrative scenes that recreate moments from that subject's life. The dangers here are many, and a delicate balance must be established to avoid philosophical quandaries on the nature of truth in documentary film. At what point do reenactments like these become indistinguishable from so-called reality television?
Writer/director Jamie Meltzer's Informant explores the ever-shifting identity of Brandon Darby, a former left-wing activist and co-founder of Common Ground Relief, the group that developed in the Lower 9th Ward immediately after Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures. To the disbelief of his friends and followers, Darby went on to become an FBI informant who was directly responsible for sending two young activists to prison. Even more galling to some, Darby resumed his career as an activist — for the tea party. His story is fascinating on a number of levels, and there are many articulate people from Darby's life who share their interpretations of key events in Informant. Then we have the film's reenactments, which Darby uses to justify his often-questionable actions. Meltzer has explained widely that these scenes are intended to encourage viewers to question all the facts presented in the film. But Darby's status as the ultimate unreliable narrator is clear long before he starts presenting mini-movies from his life.
Informant is carefully structured and well crafted throughout. Meltzer does an excellent job of keeping his own perspective out of the film and allowing the story to unfold in a fairly organic way. It moves briskly from New Orleans to Austin to Venezuela — where Darby was apparently shocked to learn of the existence of left-wing extremists whose actions he couldn't condone — and on to Minneapolis where he wore a wire for the FBI as he aided and abetted younger revolutionaries bent on disrupting the Republican National Convention in 2008. All roads lead back to the deeply flawed personality at the story's center, as Darby struggles mightily to make sense of his unfortunate choices.
Though Meltzer works hard behind the scenes to leave the final analysis of his subject up to the viewer, there's really no getting around Darby's outsized ego and the havoc he wreaks on others. In the end, Darby looks like someone who needs desperately to be a hero at the center of dramatic events, whatever the cost may be. It's impossible to say what — if anything — Darby actually believes in as he repeatedly asserts contradictory and largely unspecified ideals. It's rare to see such severely limited self-awareness openly displayed in a film, and it serves to make us question our own assumptions about ourselves. For that, no reenactments will be required. — KEN KORMAN