Texas-related SXSW films 'Incendiary' & 'Better This World' probe high-profile cases
Amid dozens of powerhouse documentaries, two stand out at this year's South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival, which starts today. And both of them "Incendiary" and "Better This World" raise questions about two high-profile legal cases involving Texans.
"Incendiary," directed by Austin's Steve Mims and Joe Bailey Jr., explores the science behind the arson investigation that led to the conviction and eventual execution of Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004. It also looks at the increasing controversy over the Texas Forensic Science Commission, where disputes about the Willingham case have erupted.
"Better This World" takes us inside the lives of David McKay and Bradley Crowder, two young friends from Midland who moved to Austin and eventually tried to disrupt the 2008 National Republican Convention in Minnesota. Both were arrested on domestic terrorism charges after homemade firebombs were discovered in a room where they were staying during the convention.
Directors Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway take us inside a prison to talk to the two men, as well as into the Midland homes of the McKay and Crowder families as they struggle to cope with the charges against their sons.
The American-Statesman talked with the directors of both projects in the weeks leading up to SXSW to provide background information about how the documentaries came to be.
Steve Mims, a documentary filmmaker and lecturer at the University of Texas, was teaching a class in 2009 when a discussion began about a New Yorker article titled "Trial by Fire." The article basically asked whether Texas had executed an innocent man, Cameron Todd Willingham, in 2004, for a 1991 fire that killed his three Corsicana children.
Among Mims' students was Joe Bailey Jr., a law school student and an aspiring filmmaker.
"Afterward, Joe wrote me in an e-mail that someone should make a film about the case," Mims says. "I e-mailed him back, and at first I said this would be a whole lot of work. But by the end of the e-mail, I was saying 'Let's do it.' "
Mims and Bailey say that they see the case as raising serious questions about the legal system, especially since jurors and citizens believe that the evidence of arson in a murder case will be scientifically based.
As Mims warned Bailey early on in the project, they were facing a daunting task: videotaping arson experts, examining the evidence, attending various hearings.
"But right when we started on the film in 2009, the governor disassembled the Texas Forensic Commission," says Bailey, referring to Gov. Rick Perry's decision, during a re-election campaign, to replace three members of the commission and name a new chairman. The move came just before the commission was to hear testimony from arson expert Craig Beyler, who planned to detail how the forensic analysis used to convict Willingham was wrong.
"We were focusing on the science of the case," Bailey says, "but it turned into a political fiasco with the governor's actions."
Perry appointed Williamson County district attorney John Bradley as the new commission chairman, and Bradley has repeatedly clashed with representatives of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to proving the innocence of people they believe were wrongly convicted. The Innocence Project has been a big player in the Willingham case, but Bradley has repeatedly said he believes Willingham was guilty.
At one point in "Incendiary," Mims and Bailey travel with their cameras to Harlingen for a commission hearing, only to be turned away by Bradley, in apparent violation of the state's open meetings act.
Bailey and Mims promptly called up the attorney general's office, who persuaded Bradley to open the meeting. Bailey says it was as though the commission "hadn't ever received any public meeting training."
Though political scuffling forms part of "Incendiary," its heart lies in the discussions with arson experts such as Beyler and Gerald Hurst, an Austin chemist with a doctorate from Cambridge University.
Hurst was the first investigator to conclude that Willingham was convicted based on bogus arson evidence. His findings were eventually confirmed by eight nationally recognized fire experts.
The Willingham debate has led to lots of questions about possible wrongful convictions in other arson cases. Mims say he thinks Americans are predisposed to think that "trials and executions are conducted with competence."
"You trust the system," he says, "but that's not exactly right."
"Incendiary" screens at 4:30 Saturday at the Paramount, 713 Congress Ave.; at noon Thursday at the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center; and at 5:30 p.m. March 19 at the Rollins.
'Better This World'
As with "Incendiary," the new documentary "Better This World" started when Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway of Berkeley, Calif., read an article, this one in The New York Times.
"The story dealt with two young men from Midland who were grass-roots activists in Austin and who had crossed a line," says director Katie Galloway. "They went to the Republican National Convention and made homemade bombs and were arrested as domestic terrorists. We were interested in what would drive activists across the line. Then there was the fact that an informant was involved."
Austin readers are well aware of the case involving David McKay and Bradley Crowder, both of whom reached plea deals in the case.
"One of these things that interested us," Galloway says, "was that since 9/11, it seems that there are these domestic terror cases that pop up with some regularity, and many involve a government agent or informant. Many raise issues of entrapment, which is very hard to prove. So we thought about taking a single case like this where there was a question of entrapment.
"We don't want to tell people what we found," Galloway adds. "We want people to be able to draw their own conclusions about the movie. It's going to air nationally on public television in September. The people who have already seen the documentary are responding to our not hitting the audience over the head with our perspective."
Because the directors spent much of their time in Minnesota, they turned to Austin-based Picturebox for help with Texas footage.
"Picturebox is a huge part of the team on this movie," Galloway says. "Basically, we are both working mothers, and we are not in the position to be spending a lot of time in Texas." Duane adds that she first turned to David Layton at Picturebox and that his business partner, Mike Nicholson, signed on as a producer.
As happened with Robert Rodriguez's "Machete" last year, an early Internet camp against "Better This World" by conservative bloggers and commentators has sprung up.
At the conservative web site BigGovernment.com, the alert reads as follows:
"A trailer for the left-wing film ... suggests that it depicts David Guy McKay and Bradley Neil Crowder as idealistic activists who, according to the official blurb, 'set out to prove the strength of their political convictions to themselves and their mentor.' In fact McKay and Crowder are convicted domestic terrorists who manufactured instruments of death calculated to inflict maximum pain and bodily harm on people whose political views they disagreed with.
Galloway and Duane point out that such commentators haven't seen the movie yet. And they say that they were striving to create a "more fully human report."
"Our judicial system rarely allows for nuance," Duane says. "And headlines tend to lean toward black and white. When you're able to share a full story and allow people to have virtues and failings across the board, then you create a more fully human story."
Audiences will be able to judge for themselves when "Better This World" screens at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Vimeo Theatre at the Austin Convention Center. It also screens at 1:45 p.m. Monday at the Alamo South and at 2 p.m. March 18 at the Paramount.