Tribeca Fest Review: ‘A Gray State’ Documentary Will Stay With You

A still from “A Gray State”

A Gray State” is a documentary that is at least in part about the making of a narrative film by the same name. The filmmaker was David Crowley, a highly intelligent, good looking, Iraq and Afghanistan vet who was a figure in the alt-right community.

In Crowley’s narrative film, FEMA troops would take over the U.S. and institute martial law. He saw this as something that could happen in the near future. As a conspiracy theorist, he considered it a warning rather than just a film.

The documentary includes footage of Crowley as he directed his actors, as well as interviews with him, his friends, colleagues, and family members.

What emerges is a portrait of a troubled man who comes across in the beginning as well-adjusted and charismatic. But he’s a study in contradictions. He admired extreme alt-right figure Alex Jones. Vehemently against Islam, he married a Muslim-American woman and helped her convert to Christianity.

As time went on, Crowley became increasingly unhinged. At the same time, there’s evidence in the film that Crowley’s wife, Komel, was also losing her grip on reality.

Just after learning that Komel was pregnant with their first child, Crowley was forced to deploy to Iraq for another tour of duty. He resented this immensely and felt that America’s actions in the Middle East were morally reprehensible.

Then, in January 2015, in their Minnesota home, 29-year-old Crowley apparently snapped and murdered Komel and their five-year-old daughter, Raniya. Before killing himself, he wrote “Allahu Akbar” on the wall in blood and left a Koran on the floor opened to a page containing a prayer for forgiveness. A handwritten note also said, “Submit to Allah now.”

Considering his feelings about Islam, the references are puzzling, leading to conspiracy theories about his death among many within the alt-right community. They believe the U.S. government killed him because his film was getting too close to the truth.

Nevertheless, the police, Crowley’s friends, and his family all seem to believe that it was a murder-suicide of a very gifted but mentally ill man. Without Crowley here to speak for himself, though, many questions about what was going on in his mind will remain unanswered for his family and for the rest of us.

Produced by Werner Herzog and directed by Erik Nelson, the documentary is a haunting look at the mystery and tragedy of mental illness. I suspect it will stay with you for days to come. “A Gray State” is currently playing at the Tribeca Film Festival.


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