We know “dark money” is distorting democracy but it is very hard to understand how and why, and how much damage it does. The very nature of dark money in political campaigns is secrecy. In the post-Citizens United world of unlimited, undisclosed political contributions by ultra-rich individuals and corporations, forces we cannot see now control even the most small-time local elections. Kimberly Reed (Prodigal Sons) shows us how the story of her home state of Montana in Dark Money, a powerful and profoundly disturbing story of tireless, courageous heroes and greedy villains who destroy without ever being seen. She uses stunning images of the Montana landscape and Norman Rockwell-esque scenes in modest government buildings, newspaper offices, and courtrooms to show us how our most precious American institutions are being affected. In an interview, she talked about the challenges of making a very abstract, sometimes arcane story real on screen. Continue reading…
NELL MINOW: Most stories about dark money stay in Washington with shots of the Capitol Building and the Lincoln Memorial. Your entire story takes place in Montana. Why?
KIMBERLY REED: The film is an attempt to bridge some political divides. I grew up in Montana but I live in New York now and I was trying to unite those two different parts of me — parts of my brain and parts of our country that could stand for a lot of uniting these days. If you look at the issue of campaign-finance reform, there’s widespread agreement on both sides of the political aisle and independents that this system is just busted and we need to do something about it. I wanted to tackle that issue in a non-partisan way, using characters that folks on the coast or folks from urban areas might be a little bit surprised that some of the Republican folks in the film are as relatable as they are. These are folks that I know and I grew up with so I think that’s part of what led me to wanting to depict them.
In Washington, we see a lot of impressive columns and marble in government buildings and politicians in expensive suits meeting with lobbyists in even more expensive suits. It was touching to see the big issues being discussed by ordinary looking in such modest surroundings.
Montana has a lot of sparsely funded government office buildings. That cute little blue house that the Commissioner of Political Practices is in always gets a laugh. I think it is heartening and I wanted to really embrace that with the film and get back to our roots. We were founded on this principle of the democratic republic. The elected officials are supposed to be in touch with the people they represent and we have gotten so far away from that. I was happy to get a chance to show elected officials who actually are really in touch with and probably know the first name of the people that they serve. It doesn’t need to be populated only by the lawyers who are out of touch with the citizenry. I wanted to show an old-school model of governance.
MINOW: It is frustrating to try to address this issue because the people who are pouring this money into politicians hide behind the organizations they set up for that purpose?
REED: Yes, it is frustrating. The height of that frustration which is a big reveal in the film is how we deliver the news on judicial elections, which a lot of people don’t think about at all. We have some resources on our website for people who want to know more or get involved. https://www.darkmoneyfilm.com/get-involved Every Voice and the League of Women Voters are a good place to start. And Steve Bullock, the governor in Montana issued an executive order mandating that any government contractor over a certain amount has to disclose any political contributions that they make.
MINOW: The scenes where you show the glorious landscape of Montana made me want to stand up and sing “America the Beautiful.” What do they add to the film?
REED: On a very super practical level, campaign-finance is an abstract issue; it’s a dense issue. There are moving parts and regulations and we need to give people a little bit of time to think. What better way than to show gorgeous footage? But the way it’s really operating is metaphorically. We see beautiful vistas. In Montana if you witness corporate exploitation, it’s probably in the form of something that used to be beautiful but now looks like an open sore in the landscape. To show how beautiful everything is and then to show that in contrast to the Berkeley pit and dying snow geese builds up this dual mechanism where you build up appreciation for how beautiful stuff is and you experience this threat. You’d be ashamed if something happened to your beautiful environment. That tacit threat is which is something that growing up in Montana I feel like I understand.
MINOW: In your film we really get attached to the remarkable investigative journalist who loses his job but does not want to give up on the story. So do you consider yourself a journalist?
REED: I think that documentary filmmakers pick up some of that slack and I think that we need to continue to. I started to notice the increased role of documentary filmmakers in journalism after the Iraq war where there were a lot of stories that weren’t getting told. Documentary filmmakers really took up a lot of the slack. We can continue to tell a lot of long form complex stories that you just can’t cover with day-to-day journalism. I think we still need that day-to-day newspaper journalism as well. The fact that our main character loses his job as a journalist in the middle of the film is a very important part of the story and emblematic of what’s really going on in the rest of the country. I also wanted to show that it’s just really crucial that you have the press to keep an eye on these issues of money in politics. If you don’t have people chasing these stories down, if you don’t have people that are using data that’s coming from open secrets.org and followthemoney.org and extrapolating from these really crucial stories about corruption with our elected officials, we are all so much poorer and we really lose our ability as citizens to hold our elected officials accountable.
MINOW: What can we do?
REED: I think we can hold their feet to the fire. I think they’re still a little susceptible and if there is dark money coming from the 501(c)(4) we can demand that they disclose who the donors are, just because the money is being funneled through a 501(c)(4) doesn’t mean that we can’t still demand to know where it’s coming from. That’s really what happened in Montana. In the film you see the reporter’s efforts to fight to continue covering it. The whole political dialogue just really flipped. Instead of being a secret advantage that the candidate could have that any affiliation with dark money became something that would make a candidate very unpopular with voters.
My answer to that is always to drive it down a little bit more to the local level so that the scale is manageable and that means a resolution from your City Council or school board not to take dark money. There’s always a level of government that is within that scale that you can influence it.