Reel Straight SXSW: ‘Better This World’ Review

Directors Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane with one of the boys in the film, David McKay, and the other Common Ground Relief co-founder, Scott Crow.

Up and coming movies one good reason to go through the hard work of attending a film festival, but the chance to see something you might never see anywhere else is why they exist. Take for example Better This World, a stirring political documentary that premiered at South by Southwest. Directors Kelly Duane and Katie Galloway follow the plight of two high school friends who team up with a radical political activist and attempt to bring down the Republican National Convention during the 2008 campaign. What happens throughout the course of the film is brilliantly laid out like a political thriller, with more twist and turns and stomach churning anxiety than one would think possible. It was a perfect example of what can be accomplished with documentaries.

The movie focuses on several inequalities in the justice system. For example, although the boys were young and influenced, since what they did qualified as a terrorist attack, they were prosecuted to almost the full extent of the law. One member of the group they went with to the convention turned out to be an informant. The questions raised about his testimony and influence is worrisome. According to a one of the FBI agents involved in the case claimed that the use of informants have risen, but no longer merely operate as eyes and ears of the FBI. Now, they are allowed to participate and lead others into traps that could end in prison.

And what was it these boys did to qualify them for excruciatingly long separations, jail time, and a record that will forever haunt them for the rest of their lives? Because of the militaristic crackdown of protesters and the influence of their so-called leader, the two boys decided to make Molotov cocktails. However, once in the field of pepper spray and police brutality, they chose not to use their makeshift weapon. The FBI caught one, then the other. The boys, their families, and friends are torn because of an adolescent mistake. One of the men are still in prison, the other appeared alongside the directors at the premiere. His family and the family of his best friend were also in attendance.

The movie does a magnificent job at portraying the human cost of falling into the unjust justice system. Recording of tearful phone calls and comprehensive interviews solidify their pain to the audience. By the middle of the film, audible gasps and groans could be heard. They were hooked on the story of betrayal and persecution. Although the perceived bad guy in the film has since turned into a radical conservative and refused to participate in the documentary, he was once the co-founder of the New Orleans grassroots organization, Common Ground. The directors wove his promotional videos and interviews into the story so the audience could understand his role in the drama. But because of this lack of access to the other voice in the story, Better This World is not a complete documentary. It is however, a great chronicle of the events that culminated into the loss of faith in the courts and government for two Texas families.

Highly emotional and engaging, Better This World stands as a well-crafted documentary. The directors clearly did their homework, and the product is possibly one of the best arguments over the trigger-happy justice system that has turned its mantra backwards to guilty until proven innocent. It brings the ethical questions to the audience’s feet and does a responsible job at presenting the evidence of security tapes and recorded transcripts. Never a dull moment, the editing quickens the pace, and once the movie starts to run, it doesn’t stop. It’s not an easy watch, but it is a must-see for anyone who pays attention to the political climate. A

About Monica Castillo

Monica Castillo (CAS '11) is a Film writer for the Quad. Drawn into the world of film studies accidentally, she's continued on writing, writing, and writing about film since. She also co-writes on another blog,, which is about even geekier film stuff. If you have the time, she would love to watch a movie with you.

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