The Koch Brothers Starring as Charles Foster Kane

Documentarians: Deal and Lessin
National Journal
Christopher Snow Hopkins
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Christopher Snow Hopkins
May 27, 2014, 8 a.m.

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.”

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