Food for the Soul: Dark Money

“Campaign finance is the gateway to every other issue you might care about – whether it be education or tax reform or foreign policy.” Ann M. Ravel, former chairwoman of the Federal Election Commission.

By Nina Heyn, Your Culture Scout

Dark Money is a new political documentary that addresses financing for political campaigns at a state level, or to quote the movie’s logline: “the influence of untraceable corporate money on our elections and elected officials.” The US Supreme Court decision in 2010 in favor of Citizens United led to a legalization of giving election funds from undisclosed sources that allowed manipulating elections by sinking some candidates and elevating others. This decision’s devastating impact on state laws, democratic processes and the protection of states against corporate harm is shown in a case of the state of Montana and a court case this state recently waged against a corrupt politician. Dark Money was directed/produced by Kimberly Reed, and produced by Katy Chevigny, it has already been a success at many major US festivals, and it is currently being screened in selected theaters around the country.


    a.) Yes, it is a movie worth seeing
    b.) No, it will not be widely seen by anyone who is affected by the issue (i.e. anyone who lives in the U.S.)
    c.) Yes, it reveals an increasing threat to democratic processes in the U.S.
    d.) No, it will probably not be able to move the needle among the potential voters

And here is why:

The movie is told in a traditional (and therefore efficient) way that socially conscious documents are often made: all the main characters and their issues are presented upfront, there is a coverage of a trial that brings into focus the mechanism of paying for an election result, and woven in between these issues is an emotional, personal story of an investigative reporter who loses his job when five key Montana newspapers close down but keeps following the story through his own website, Montana Free Press.

Montana is a fairly unique place. It is a sparsely populated state where many politicians and elected officials are also farmers or small business owners who are very much in touch with their constituents and local problems. The state has a painful history of a corporation destroying the environment (the Anaconda Mining Company whose open pit mining has poisoned land and waters) and consequently, Montana had one of the cleanest campaign laws that were passed to fight corporate greed and corruption. However, as soon as the Citizens United decision was passed and any corporation or any organization (foreign governments included) could finance and manipulate elections – the dam broke with myriads of hidden players jumping into the fray.

This well-researched story of a rigged election in Montana can stand as pars pro toto for all other cases and places all over the country where a similar process has been taking place for the last few years. If the impact of secret contributions on seemingly democratic elections is so devastating in relatively small universe of Montana’s politics, one can only imagine what harm the same activities have in larger states. The movie itself shines a ray of hope. The corrupt politician is found guilty and there is hope that voters in Montana will take back some of the power of decision that the new campaign law has taken away from them. The problem is that their courtroom victory seems so precarious. The politician seems to be convicted to a large extent thanks to a testimony of one brave young woman who volunteers to tell how the election was bought and manipulated by her employer. Not every case is going to have a fearless whistleblower which is why this victory in Montana does not offer much hope for more complex election landscapes.

Dark Money should be seen as widely as possible because most voters have neither the time nor the means to learn about the new, secret way of influencing elections even if this issue affects their rights, their jobs and even their health. Unfortunately, this is another important, award-winning movie that very few people will see. It is being distributed by PBS – a wonderful institution that is keeping the culture and education alive in this country but which has a limited reach outside public television. It does not have the clout of a major US distributor of specialty movies (like Sony Classic or Fox Searchlight) nor has the audience reach of Netflix or Amazon. Even if the movie was widely distributed in theaters and streamed everywhere, a campaign finance documentary is not what an average millennial wants to see. Consequently, the pool of potential viewers is limited to older, educated and politically engaged audiences, leaving out most of the voters.

Dark Money is affected by the same problem most documentaries have- no matter how important the subject and how well made they are, their viewership and impact are limited. Once in a while there is a star documentary (Michael Moore’s films like Roger and Me and Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me) that ignites a wide national discussion. Most of the time, documentaries are hard to learn about and even harder to see somewhere. Outside of festivals, only a few of them manage to get theatrical releases throughout the year, the most recent ones including Three Identical Strangers (an amazing story of separated triplets), Won’t You Be My Neighbor (about Fred Rogers) and RBG (about Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg). At the same time, since the 20th century experience of watching TV, especially in a family setting, is disappearing fast, it will be hard to find a millennial that actually watches anything this way, and practically impossible to find a Generation Z teenager who would watch a documentary on a TV in a living room. Hopefully, the younger generations will learn to seek out important documentaries and watch them online the same way Baby Boomers caught them on TV.

Dark Money has luckily had a good festival run, it is being distributed in theaters and thanks to PBS it will also have a great TV exposure. Hopefully this will be to enough to sustain its momentum and reach its audiences until the upcoming elections…

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