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    Timely Documentary by Trans Filmmaker Examines Campaign Finance Reform

    Gary M. Kramer

    By Gary M. Kramer–

    Don’t want to see a documentary about campaign finance reform? You’ll be sorry. Dark Money, opening July 27 at the Shattuck Landmark cinema, is trans filmmaker Kimberly Reed’s jaw-dropping investigation of undisclosed corporate contributions.

    The filmmaker, who made a splash ten years ago with her excellent documentary Prodigal Sons, uses Montana as a case study to investigate funds used to influence elections by “buying” votes to change laws to achieve a specific agenda. Reed illustrates how dark money (often from corporations) is used to control politics, and by extension, to control resources and public policy. In a recent phone interview with me for the San Francisco Bay Times, Reed discussed her fantastic new film.

    Gary M. Kramer: Dark Money seems to be very different from Prodigal Sons and the other LGBT documentaries that you produced. What prompted you to shift to this topic?

    Kimberly Reed: At its core, Dark Money really is about civil rights, LGBT, and environmental issues. Regardless of where you sit politically, you can’t sort out politics until you figure out the influences, and you can’t do that until you know where the money is coming from.

    Gary M. Kramer You let the story unfold without being partisan, which is its strength. Can you discuss your approach to the subject?

    Kimberly Reed: Political bickering and partisan positioning were bad in 2012. It was obvious that the film would be stronger and the audience bigger and the appeal would be sincerer to a larger number of people if it were bipartisan. That was the foundation of it.

    Gary M. Kramer: How did you get someone like Jim Brown, who worked for the American Traditions Partnership/Western Traditions Partnership, one of the dark money organizations, to talk on camera?

    Kimberly Reed: There are two sides to the argument, and it is incumbent on documentary filmmakers to explore both sides. The counterargument you hear all the time is that it is a violation of the First Amendment—a violation of free speech rights—to expose the donors of these dark money groups. So, as a documentary filmmaker who takes advantage of the First Amendment and free speech every day, it would not be intellectually honest not to engage in that debate about the limits of the First Amendment. Listening to Jim Brown, and getting his side of it, is letting him articulate the counterargument enough that we get a sense of what it is, and viewers get a sense of what the limitations of the argument are.

    Kramer: You literally follow the money in the film. How did you shape the film and determine what paths to pursue?

    Kimberly Reed: I structured the film around accidental disclosures. We do it in a couple of ways—such as the leaks that [journalist] John Adams gets that show the internecine battled in the Republican party and how they are attacking each other with dark money, and in Wisconsin, with the reordering of the three branches of Wisconsin government, and how dark money reshaped all of those branches. It’s exciting to tell that story, but I think underneath all that is this tacit argument that the way to overcome this dark money is via disclosure, which means things are always on the books.

    Gary M. Kramer: How do you see your film work to raise awareness, change thinking and foment action?

    Kimberly Reed: Time and time again when you look at these dark money issues, you see them coming back to environmental concerns and human rights concerns, especially LGBT rights. Why? Dark money groups are used so people don’t have to put their name or fingerprints on our environmental issues, civil rights, LGBT rights, etc. So, the challenge with our film was not about convincing people that there is a problem and inspire them to do something about it—everyone knows there is a terrible problem with the influence of money and politics—but no one know what to do about it. My hope is to show people doing something about it in a spot they least expect it, Montana! Tackling the issue of corrupt money in politics, and doing something about it, will inspire the other states to establish strong campaign finance laws of their own. The most important component of that is getting people engaged in our democracy. If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re on the menu. A lot of people are worried about money and politics, but when the election happens, it drops to the bottom of the issues they hold their elected officials accountable for. But those issues flipped when people paid attention to money and politics and the impact dark money had on their elections.

    © 2018 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer