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‘Citizen Koch’ Filmmakers: Watching This Movie Is ‘Civil Disobedience’

Posted on Jul 2, 2014

By Emily Wilson

The Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC marked a shift in how America’s elections can be financed, allowing virtually unlimited corporate spending. In “Citizen Koch,” filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal tell the story of the effects of the Citizens United decision through the viewpoints of three lifelong Republicans in Wisconsin.

All three are state employees who don’t like the direction in which their party is going, with the billionaire industrialist brothers David and Charles Koch’s financial support of the tea party and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s limiting of collective bargaining rights for public employees.

“Citizen Koch” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013 and was scheduled to air on PBS last year, but according to an article by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker, the public broadcasting network pulled it to placate David Koch, who has donated millions to PBS. The documentary opened in select cities in June.

In San Francisco to discuss their new film, Deal and Lessin, co-producers of several Michael Moore movies and co-directors of the 2008 Oscar-nominated film about Hurricane Katrina, “Trouble the Water,” sat down to talk about the civil war in the Republican Party, how the Citizens United decision created the opportunity for money to secretly flow into elections at all levels and how the Supreme Court ruling affects everything from the water we drink to the schools our kids attend.

Emily Wilson: How did you end up covering what was happening in Wisconsin?

Carl Deal: When you’re making a film, you want real drama that’s unfolding in real time and that will make the points you’re trying to make or will teach you something. We’d heard about one of the convenings of Charles and David Koch, the billionaire conservative industrialists. They have these gatherings where they bring together some of the wealthiest conservatives, and they plot election strategies and political strategies and messaging strategies.

So, we had gone there to cover a meeting in Palm Springs, and just shortly after that meeting, we heard that in Wisconsin, Scott Walker, the newly elected governor, whose largest individual supporters were David and Charles Koch, was about to eviscerate collective bargaining for public employees, and there was a battle on the horizon. We were invited by my brother, who’s a teacher, so he’s a public employee who works for the university in Milwaukee. He said, “You should be here because all the stuff you’re talking about with money and politics is about to happen here.” So we covered the drama as it unfolded, and it was quite a story.

EW: Your film focuses on Republicans who didn’t like what was happening in Wisconsin. How did you find them?

Tia Lessin: Wisconsin is the birthplace of the Republican Party. A little town, Ripon, Wisconsin, claims that very proudly. It was a very populist, progressive party, and that’s where that began. Wisconsin is somewhat of a purple state, and we were struck by the protests at the Capitol when we first saw the crowds protesting Scott Walker’s so-called reforms—they weren’t the usual suspects. It wasn’t just nurses and teachers and students—they were firefighters and cops. There were also farmers on their tractors, coming down from rural areas.  And we saw a lot of Republicans with signs saying “Not my Republican Party.” We were curious about that; it surprised us.

It wasn’t easy to find a lot of Republicans who wanted to talk to us. We ended up focusing on three of these people. One is a nurse at a VA hospital and a lifelong Republican and a SEIU member. One is a corrections officer from Ripon, Wisconsin. One is a teacher and a beef farmer in southwestern La Crosse. They’re NRA members, and one is an anti-abortion activist. All of them strongly felt the Republican Party that they care deeply about had betrayed them because of the Koch brothers and money in politics and because Scott Walker was laying into them as public servants. They were conflicted because this was their party, and their party was attacking them. They were deeply engaged in the recall movement.

EW: Why do you think they agreed to talk to you?

TL: We were very upfront with them: “Here’s who we are, Google us, watch these movies.” They’d also seen “Trouble the Water,” and they liked it.

CD: Also the level of political engagement was so high. It was all anybody was talking about, and everybody had an opinion. They felt so passionately about this that they were OK with this, and they’re very proud to have their voices in this film.

TL: There’s a civil war going on in the Republican Party—and right now they’re on the losing side. These voices aren’t being amplified. So they really were excited they would have a chance to speak, not just to their friends and neighbors and union members, but on a national stage.

EW: What do you think is the worst thing about Citizens United?

CD: The thing that surprised us is when we were making the film—we started shortly after the 2012 midterms, the first federal election after the decision was rendered—it was a tea party revolution in Washington fueled by a lot of big money that started to flow. The conventional wisdom was this just applied to federal elections, that it had no implications for disclosure.


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