When Citizen Koch has its Washington premiere on June 20, two seats will be reserved for Charles G. Koch and David H. Koch.
“We welcome them to come and talk about it,” said Tia Lessin, who wrote and directed the documentary with her longtime partner, Carl Deal. “We’d love to have a dialogue.”
The billionaire industrialists are unlikely to attend. Citizen Koch, which documents the political turmoil in Wisconsin after Republican Gov. Scott Walker took office in 2011, casts the Koch brothers as shadowy fossil-fuel magnates who pumped millions of dollars into the tea-party movement following the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling.
“We didn’t set out to do a takedown of the Kochs, but we thought that what they were doing was symptomatic of a bigger problem,” Deal said during a recent interview at the Mayflower Hotel. “When Citizens United came along, we knew that the landscape had shifted dramatically, and there were going to be a lot more opportunities to spend money secretly.”
The 86-minute documentary splices together footage of tea-party unrest with the stories of three Wisconsin state employees, all stalwart Republicans, who had become disenchanted with the movement. It also advances the argument that tea-party politics have been engineered by corporate interests. At one point, the filmmakers cut to a posh resort in Rancho Mirage, Calif., where the Koch brothers arranged a retreat for conservative leaders in January 2011.
The meeting “provided a clear example of how moneyed interests were warping democracy,” the directors say in the press notes for the film. “This secret convening of the country’s wealthiest conservatives, tea-party-aligned politicians, and right-wing pundits plotting to deploy hundreds of millions of dollars to influence the outcome of the 2012 election clearly could not survive the light of public scrutiny. Just as the convening began, the Kochs’ private security detail ejected Tia — a registered hotel guest — from the premises.”
Much of the film takes place on the steps of the Wisconsin Capitol, where tea-party activists faced off with public-sector employees following an attempt by Walker to curtail collective-bargaining rights in February 2011. “We wanted to give an experience of what it was like to be there,” Deal said. “Our challenge was to convey that to an audience.”
He added that the juxtaposition of tea-party activists with their left-leaning counterparts highlighted the differences between the two. “There is a populist anger in Wisconsin, and it comes from both sides.”¦ But the [left-leaning demonstrators] felt very authentic and very local.”¦ It just felt like a groundswell of people in the heartland.”
Citizen Koch, which was shown at the Sundance Film Festival in January, was originally intended for public television, but the documentary’s financial backers withdrew their support under pressure from WNET, the New York PBS affiliate. As The New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer reported in May 2013, a previous film about the extravagance of Park Avenue had incensed David Koch, and WNET was unwilling to antagonize one of its main benefactors by airing a second film critical of the Koch brothers’ lifestyle and political activities.
“When public television killed the funding, it was pretty devastating,” Lessin said. “We’re big fans and supporters of PBS. If Koch money can even get to PBS, where can’t they get to?”
Ultimately, Lessin and Deal made up the difference by launching a 30-day Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign that raised $169,552.
Lessin and Deal, who proudly reside outside the Beltway, were nominated for an Academy Award for Trouble the Water, a 2008 documentary that combines a home movie with cinema verité footage as it shadows two self-styled “street hustlers” in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
They were also producers on three of Michael Moore’s best-known films: Bowling for Columbine (2002), Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), and Capitalism: A Love Story (2009).
Lessin and Deal, who have collaborated on films since 2002, are raising a 3-year-old son. “People ask us all the time how we work together,” Deal said. “People raise children together, people build lives together, people do really hard things together. We find a lot of joy in it.”