Kelly Duane de la Vega (center) and Katie Galloway chat with Scott Crow for their documentary-in-progress.

'Better This World' Takes a Look at Criminal Injustice

Michael Fox October 13, 2010

Better This World began when Katie Galloway (Prison Town, USA) read a blurb in The New York Times about the imminent trial of two young Texans on domestic terrorism charges. Three weeks later, she and Kelly Duane de la Vega (Monumental: David Brower’s Fight for Wild America) were on a plane headed to their first shoot. But the project’s roots can be traced to 2006, when a government task force began preparing for protestors at the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul. 

“It’s a domestic terrorism story, and it’s a story about the fallout of the ways we changed the laws after 9/11—what terror is and who is classified as a terrorist,” Duane de la Vega says. “It’s also a story about two families caught up in a justice system that was much more powerful, and which they weren’t savvy about.”

“For all the problems with the American criminal justice system, there is a commonly held belief it will be just and it will be fair and it won’t be draconian,” Galloway adds. “It is shocking for families who haven’t had exposure to it to be in this world of Federal criminal justice. A former FBI agent said, ‘The system has gotten so massive that more people’s sons and daughters are going to be touched by it.’”

Better This World centers on two young men from Midland (George W. Bush’s hometown) who moved to hipper Austin and had their political awakening. At a bookstore in early 2008, they heard a presentation by a member of the RNC Welcoming Committee, a Minneapolis-based group that was organizing protests and events during the convention. The duo met and befriended a local activist, leading to their eventual arrest in Minnesota with eight (unexploded) Molotov cocktails. 

“I [had] long wanted to do a doc about John Walker Lindh, people who are filled with political passions—whether they are right or left—and they make one decision and it changes everything,” Duane de la Vega says. “What is it that takes you one step over the line, and how do you get back? I got into [this project] because I was interested in that nugget, but once I was in it’s a complicated story that deals with the FBI and the justice system and the prison system, and that’s the pretty heavy place to be.”

Domestic terrorism, and the expansion of the Federal justice system (including the increased use of informants after 9/11), are hot-button issues that inflame people at both ends of the political spectrum. But Galloway and Duane de la Vega emphasize that the case they follow in Better This World doesn’t accomodate knee-jerk responses.

“One of the aspects of our filmmaking style that really helps is not using narration,” Galloway notes. “That’s not to say we don’t write it to some degree through the words of our characters, but we film with as many people connected with the story as we can. Even if it’s uncomfortable, [we’re] leaving space—and Kelly has been really good on pushing me on this—having the moral ambiguity present and looking at the dark side of your ‘good’ characters, and having everybody be as complex as they are. Even people who’ve suffered injustice, that doesn’t mean they’re saints, right?”

Galloway and Duane de la Vega went to Berkeley High together, where they were in the same crowd but didn’t really know each other. Several years later, they ran into each other at a pre-school with their kids and discovered they were both documentary filmmakers. Galloway is oriented toward investigative journalism, with several “Frontine” and “P.O.V.” programs to her credit, and is the filmmaker in residence at the Investigative Reporting Program at U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. Duane de la Vega cut her chops with See How They Run, an entertaining verite record made with Emily Morse about the 1999 San Francisco mayoral election.

All the shooting on Better This World has been completed, and the filmmakers have an early rough cut. They’ve received funding from prominent sources such as ITVS and Sundance, along with HBO/FIND and Berkeley Film Foundation grants. The filmmakers expect to finish and release the film in 2011.

Notes from the Underground
Lucasfilm is converting the Star Wars films to 3-D for theatrical re-release in 2012. The company also announced construction of an eight-story facility for its animation, games and special effects units in Singapore. …  Laura Lukitsch’s Beard Club premieres October 22 at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival.

Gail Dolgin Remembered
East Bay documentary filmmaker Gail Dolgin died October 7 after a 10-year battle with cancer. Her best-known film, Daughter From Danang (2002), co-directed with longtime friend and collaborator Vicente Franco, won the Jury Prize for Best Documentary at Sundance and was nominated for an Academy Award. Dolgin was part of the community of filmmakers at the Zaentz Media Center for many years, where she mentored and advised numerous documentary filmmakers. She was a member of the board of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and a reviewer for the 2010 Berkeley Film Foundation grants.

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