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Meet the IDA Documentary Award Nominees: Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway--'Better This World'

By IDA Editorial Staff

Editor's Note: Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway's Better This World has been nominated in the Best Feature category at this year's IDA Documentary Awards, to be held at the Directors Guild in Los Angeles on Friday, December 2. Below is an interview we conducted with Richardson last August.

Synopsis: How did two boyhood friends from Midland, Texas wind up arrested on terrorism charges at the 2008 Republican National Convention? Better This World follows the journey of David McKay (22) and Bradley Crowder (23) from political neophytes to accused domestic terrorists, with a particular focus on the relationship they develop with a radical activist mentor in the six months leading up to their arrests. A dramatic story of idealism, loyalty, crime and betrayal, Better This World goes to the heart of the War on Terror and its impact on civil liberties and political dissent in post-9/11 America.


Better This World


IDA:  How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Kelly Duane de la Vega: I majored in fine arts, with an emphasis in photography.I was taken with documentary still photographers like Robert Frank, Lee Frielander and Mary Ellen Mark. After I finished school, I worked as a photojournalist for a weekly newspaper in Portland, Oregon, and shot several photo essays while traveling through the South. While I was reasonably happy with my still work, I longed to include the conversations I had along the way. I eventually found my way to filmmaking, taking a couple of film classes at a struggling film nonprofit in San Francisco, but mainly learning by doing, and by editing with Nathaniel Dorsky on my film Monumental. Nathaniel helped me understand the cinematic language that I never had a real chance to study.

Katie Galloway: I worked in print and radio before I got into filmmaking. By the time I got interested in making documentaries I already knew I loved working with audio--the ability to weave in atmospheric sound and especially people's voices was, for me, a thrilling additional ingredient in storytelling. During my time in radio--mainly at KPFA /Pacifica--I was also a huge fan of documentaries: Werner Herzog, Barbara Kopple, DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, Errol Morris and Les Blank were all early influences. Discovering the richness of sound led organically to a desire to try my hand at visual storytelling. I did a one-year program in documentary production in New York, learning a bit about shooting, editing and directing. The rest is history. 


IDA: What inspired you to make Better This World?

KDDLV & KG: In January 2009 The New York Times published a story about the controversy around the arrest of two young men from Midland, Texas, for the possession of eight homemade bombs at the Republican National Convention. The story immediately captured our imaginations. With the government claiming that McKay and Crowder were domestic terrorists bent on murdering or maiming cops and Republican delegates, and the defense asserting that the young men had been unduly influenced by a radical activist 10 years their senior and were victims of a overzealous government intent on taking them down as a score for the post 9/11 domestic security apparatus, there was clearly a mystery to unravel. Once we flew to Minneapolis and met several of the amazing cast of characters and the plot thickened, and we knew we had to make a film.


IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

KDDLV & KG: While our initial intent had been to cover the case vérité-style, it quickly became clear that a central piece of the story was what had already happened between three men: the accused, David McKay and Bradley Crowder, and the older radical activist, Brandon Darby. They spent a lot of time together in the six months leading up to McKay and Crowder's arrests. Telling a story largely set in the past forced us to re-imagine our cinematic approach. Creating the back-story was a long and arduous process (looking through hundreds of hours of surveillance footage, listening to dozens of hours of jail-house phone calls, seeking out images, documents and audio of FBI interrogations through the Freedom of Information Act...), but it was ultimately incredibly enriching and rewarding.


IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

KDDLV & KG: As is so often the case with documentaries, we were following a story that was not yet resolved. Over two years of interviewing FBI agents, attorneys, defendants, family members, jurors and journalists, we were repeatedly surprised by the twists and turns we discovered. At several points we were forced to re-evaluate our perspectives...and debates between us about personal morality and responsibility versus government accountability and meanings of entrapment regularly erupted in the field and the edit room. We wanted to allow audiences to share those experiences, and we committed early on to building the twists, moral ambiguity and big questions we wrestled with into the film. 


IDA: As you've screened Better This World--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

KDDLV & KG: Better This World has inspired intense discussions around the country and internationally, encouraging people to grapple with what we view as one of the critical tensions of our time: between civil liberties and security in a post 9/11 world.


IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

KDDLV: Katie laid out several above; here are several of mine: Brother's Keeper, When We Were Kings, Man on Wire, Hoop Dreams, several from Herzog, and the work of Nathaniel Dorsky and still photographer Robert Frank.

Better This World will be screening August 12 through 18 at the IFC Center in New York City, and August 26 through September 1 at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in Los Angeles.

For the complete DocuWeeksTM 2011 program, click here.

To purchase tickets for Better This World in New York, click here.

To purchase tickets for Better This World in Los Angeles, click here.