Money may change everything, but big money wreaks havoc in harsh and unpredictable ways. That's the central truth in the documentary Citizen Koch, which examines the growing influence of corporate funding — particularly as supplied by right-wing billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch — on American elections and public policy. It's also a fair description of behind-the-scenes events that almost prevented the film from ever seeing the light of day.
While in the editing room, filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal were stunned to learn that the final $150,000 in funding for their film was pulled by backer Independent Television Service, which partners with PBS and provides documentaries for broadcast on popular series like Independent Lens. According to a high-profile feature written by journalist Jane Mayer and published last year in The New Yorker, PBS acted out of self-censorship for fear of losing its own crucial Koch brothers funding. (Somehow Lessin and Deal got to the final stages of their film without knowing that David Koch had donated a total of $23 million to PBS and sat on the boards of PBS affiliates in both New York and Boston.) The filmmakers mounted a successful crowdfunding campaign and managed to finish Citizen Koch. But the irony of the film's Koch-induced setback was lost on no one.
Known primarily for their Oscar-nominated post-Hurricane Katrina documentary Trouble the Water, Lessin and Deal start Citizen Koch at the top with the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling, which reversed more than a century of law and allowed corporations to make unlimited political contributions. It then moves to Wisconsin for Republican Scott Walker's successful campaign for governor, his immediate quest to bust state workers' unions and his recall-election victory, all of which was financed from afar by the Koch brothers through anonymous political action committees.
Citizen Koch does a good job of connecting all the dots in a story that unfolded gradually over months. But widespread familiarity with the recent events in Wisconsin works against the film, especially with its extensive use of existing news footage. Topic-driven documentaries typically justify their existence by revealing new information, and this is where the film falls short. It gets the most mileage from giving voice to lifelong Republicans who voted for Walker, happen to be union members and now feel betrayed by their own. The film's freshest voice belongs to former Louisiana Governor and U.S. Congressman Buddy Roemer as he struggles for a foothold in the 2012 presidential race ("I'm the Louisiana governor who didn't go to jail!" he tells a Wisconsin voter). The film repeatedly returns to the Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Independent as its most colorful proponent of campaign finance reform.
Lessin and Deal both worked on the Michael Moore films Bowling For Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11 and Capitalism: A Love Story, and they don't try to hide their progressive politics or the pro-union perspective that underlies Citizen Koch. While admirable, this choice helped shape a film that seems destined mainly for preaching to the choir — especially without the large audience PBS might have provided. But that, in a nutshell, is how big money prevails.
Thru July 3; through Thursday
5:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday
Zeitgeist Multi-disciplinary Arts Center, 1618 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.