After her breakthrough film Prodigal Sons, documentary filmmaker Kimberly Reed has returned to her home state of Montana for her sophomore film, Dark Money. While Prodigal Sons was a personal and intimate family drama about Kimberly and her brothers, Dark Money deals with the national issue of corruption in the world of campaign finance. Dark Money, the term used to describe money secretively used in smear campaigns, has been on the rise since the 2010 Supreme Court finding in favor of Citizens United, and as Reed shows in the film, had an immediate impact on local, state and national elections. Part true-crime, part legal procedural, and part rallying cry for all frustrated citizens to speak up on the issue of campaign finance, Reed’s created a timely and compelling documentary.
Lesley Coffin: Being from Montana, how well did you know about the campaign finance laws they had on the books before 2010? Is that an area of local history that is studied in school and part of the public discussion?
Kimberly Reed: You certainly hear about the Copper Kings growing up and just seeing the beauty of the state and driving through Butte, you can just see the physical results copper mining had on that area of land. And I think you get a really strong sense growing up there the direct impact that unregulated corporate control can have. In grade school, we heard story after story about these industrialists that came into Montana to exploit the natural resources the state had and usually leave when they’ve acquired all they can. And they left Montanans to clean up the mess they made. Growing up, you certainly heard stories of the snow geese dying in acidic water, thinking it was safe to land on. We heard the stories in school about what happened when corporate money came into elections, even if we didn’t learn the nuances of the laws that resulted. There’s definitely an atmosphere of suspicion of what can happen when corporations get involved in politics. And that certainly informed my approach to the film.
Lesley Coffin: Regarding the legal decisions being made in courts in favor of Citizens United and the American Tradition Partnership, at what point during those legal battles did you decided to make the documentary?
Kimberly Reed: Citizens United passed in 2010 and I was completely perplexed by the Supreme Court’s decision. How could they come to that decision that corporations have the same rights as citizens? It made no sense when you broke it down. If you analyze things microscopically you can kind of understand the decision but if you take a step back you ask yourself, how could they see democracy like that. I was so curious how this happened, and I think my interest in making a documentary about finance reform was really ignited right after that. In 2012 I started work on the documentary because the Montana law that was on the books, the Montana Corrupt Practices Law of 1912, was being defended. That’s really when the film crystalized for me. And I contacted the attorney general in Montana at the time, Steve Bullock, and told him I wanted to make a film. I was almost subconsciously at the time looking for ways to talk about money in politics because I think this is one of the most important, if not the most important, issues we’re facing in government right now. It in many ways is the keystone issues to every other political issue that opens doors to corruption, you have to follow the money. It can tell us who has a vested interest in a certain issue, who’s corrupt and who’s ideologically motivated. And whether you agree with someone’s ideology, it’s better to know if they can by moved by profit motive. Because those aren’t the people we want in public office. So the decision in 2010 really motivated me to want to make a documentary about this court case in Montana that wanted to challenge Citizen United. I was hoping at the time that Mr. Steve Bullock would have something of a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington moment. People forget that Montana stood alone in challenging the Supreme Court decision. And while the case was dismissed by the Supreme Court, that frustration got in my head and I knew I wanted to follow this story further. And that meant the exploration on this film wouldn’t be that case but this corruption trail.
Lesley Coffin: Because the film changed and it no longer had a clear ending with the decision of the Supreme Court, what through line kept you working on the documentary?
Kimberly Reed: By then it had pretty much come to light that the major concerns we had about corporations corrupting elections was secondary to individuals with big money and organizations which were capable of essentially laundering money. This idea of dark money, the examples we show in the film, happened so quickly. I think Montana either coined or popularized the term. It drove me back to Montana, and my tidy little Mr. Smith Goes to Washington project became a feature film six years in the making. I followed a lot of twists and turns overtime, but I ultimately realized that what was happening in Montana was probably happening everywhere.
Lesley Coffin: As the film evolved and the legal drama went from a case concerned with what could happen versus what did happen, did it become a struggle to keep sources throughout?
Kimberly Reed: Oh definitely. People who engage in dark money politics are trying to be secretive and hide the money. And as the investigation and trial revealed more, we were always having to play catch up to connect the dots. That’s what the film’s supposed to do. We wanted to show the steps being taken by these dark money groups to accomplish their goals.
Lesley Coffin: Speaking of these discoveries made during the trial, there is a moment in the film in which a surprise witness is called and reveals way more information then I think anyone could have hoped for. That’s something narrative films rarely try to pull off and you captured it in real-life. What was it like to witness that moment as a filmmaker?
Kimberly Reed: All I can is it was a very dramatic moment to see in court to have this surprise witness who would become the star-witness, Sarah Arnold. She came forward as a whistleblower and told a story that was really difficult one to tell. I consider her a hero. And I think she goes to show that the issue of money in politics is not a partisan issue. She’s a Republican, still is, but she spoke up because she saw unsavory activities in an organization trying to get a Republican candidate elected. And it’s important to note that most of the people in the film who speak of being attacked by Dark Money are Republicans who were attacked by the far right wing of their own party.
End of Spoiler:
Lesley Coffin: Screening the film, do you find it challenging to get that idea across that this is a nonpartisan issue we collectively need to concern ourselves with?
Kimberly Reed: Well, I should clarify that the majority of Dark Money spending is by the right rather than the left. But it’s also true that both sides participate. And I think we’re so used to living in such a highly polarized world, some people just can’t believe there’s an issue we can all agree with. And I think campaign finance reform is that issue, there is broad political support from the majority of Republicans and Democrats. Ever since Citizens United, there’s been a steady stream of polls about the role of money in politics and 75 to 80 percent of the public say they want something done, they want to see change. If you look at the way candidates ran for office in 2016, they all claimed they wanted campaign finance reform. Whether they were sincere in that claim we’ll never know. But that proves that even politicians know that people want change.
Lesley Coffin: The film’s specific focus on Montana is so interesting and makes it into a film about a big subject that can be easily digested by the viewer. But you choose to end the film with a comment on the national issue we’re face. What led to that editorial choice?
Kimberly Reed: I really wanted to stress the idea that Montana, and what happened in the Montana elections in 2012 and 2016, is showing where elections are going in the future. And one of the most haunting ideas in the film is towards the end when someone says, “politics is headed online…and that’s going to be the Wild West.” If we had problems in 2012 and 2016, it’s only going to get worse. The moment when we show Ann Ravel reading her letter when she resigned from the Federal Election Commission (FEC), she’s pointing out that at this point, enforcement on the federal level is not working. It’s totally broken, the FEC doesn’t even have six members, and they only have four. But it can work at the state and local level, if the states are permitted to have laws that keep these elections in shape. The first and best place to fix campaign finance reform, something we all say we want, is on the local level. There are a lot of points of contact where we can start putting out the word “we want to chance campaign finance.”
Read FF2 Media’s review HERE.