Wanting to explore the impact of the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, which lifted limits on corporate spending in politics, filmmakers Carl Deal and Tia Lessin went to Wisconsin to cover how financing -- particularly from the billionaire conservative industrialist brothers David and Charles Koch -- was playing a role in Governor Scott Walker's push to limit collective bargaining for public employees. Lessin says the people protesting Walker's actions surprised her.
"They weren't the usual suspects. It wasn't just nurses and teachers and students -- they were fire fighters and cops," says Lessin. "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.'"
In Citizen Koch, Deal and Lessin (who co-producers of several Michael Moore movies and co-directors of the Oscar-nominated film Trouble the Water about Hurricane Katrina), focused on three lifelong Republicans who felt attacked while voicing their opinions on the changing direction the Republican Party. We hear from a nurse who's also a SEIU member, a teacher who's also a beef farmer, and a corrections officer. It was difficult to find Republicans who wanted to talk with them, Lessin said, but these three were proud to be in the film.
"There's a civil war going on in the Republican Party, and right now they're on the losing side." Lessin adds, "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."
Deal says many people thought that the Citizens United decision would only affect federal elections. That's not the case, he says.
"What we found out is that it created so many opportunities for money to flow secretly into elections at the state levels because 22 states across the country who had restrictions on corporate spending or strict disclosure requirements stopped enforcing those laws." He adds:
"About a year and a half after they rendered their decision, the Supreme Court had an opportunity to make a clarification when the state of Montana wanted to enforce its own bans on corporate spending in elections, and the Supreme Court refused to hear that case. That sent the message nationwide that the intent of this decision was to allow unlimited spending in elections anywhere."
Just seeing the film is an act of civil disobedience, says Lessin, pointing out that it was kept off PBS so as not to offend David Koch, a donor. She hopes after seeing it people will start to talk about what they can do to change things.
"It's not just money and politics -- it affects everything we do, where we send our kids to school, how much we pay their teachers, the curriculum they study, the water we drink," Lessin notes. "All this money has a direct impact on us and our children and our communities, and we've got to do something about it."
Citizen Koch opens June 27 at the Opera Plaza, the Shattuck in Berkeley, and Camera 3 in San Jose.