Gov. Steve Bullock leads bill signing for dark money campaign finance reform
TRIBUNE VIDEO/KRISTEN INBODY
A documentary that emerges as a political whodunit with Montana in the spotlight is among the films featured in this year’s 15th annual Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, which runs Feb. 16-25 in Missoula.
A free showing of director Kimberly Reed’s “Dark Money” will be 7 p.m. Friday at The Wilma theater. Gov. Steve Bullock, who was attorney general when some of these events unfolded, is expected to attend. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion moderated by reporter Charles S. Johnson.
There will also be paid viewings on Feb. 19 and Feb. 25.
The 99-minute movie taps into the state’s history with copper kings of the 19th and 20th centuries, who influenced elections and politics, leading to changes.
“A century ago, corrupt money scarred Montana’s democracy and landscape, but Montanans voted to prohibit corporate campaign contributions,” the film’s website says.
“Today, after the Citizens United ruling, dark money floods elections nationwide, but Montanans are standing up to stop history from repeating itself in a struggle that has the potential to change the way elections happen nationwide.”
The film, which features former Great Falls Tribune reporter John S. Adams, is about the Citizens United ruling, in which the U.S. Supreme Court found in 2010 the First Amendment prohibits government from restricting independent expenditures for communications by nonprofit corporations, for-profit corporations, labor unions and other associations.
In 2011, the Montana Supreme Court held In a case involving Western Tradition Partnership that state law limiting corporate contributions had a compelling reason to maintain the restrictions. It found these restrictions on speech were narrowly tailored and did not contradict Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
The U.S. Supreme Court rejected that opinion.
Reed said she was drawn to the topic as a former Montanan and thought it was a compelling story.
It had five screenings and made its world premiere in January at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival and received a producing award, Reed said.
“I’m happy that the film seems to be playing as a really good mystery story,” Reed said. “That was always our aim.”
She said “dark money,” often seen as political spending meant to influence voters, where the donor is not disclosed and the source of the money is unknown, remains a compelling story.
“The argument you hear most often is that the First Amendment freedom of speech argument,” Reed said, adding these are the same freedoms she has as a documentary filmmaker.
“It’s an interesting discussion to have,” she said. “I also always come back to fact that year after year, poll after poll, since Citizens United passed, the majority of Americans agree that reform needs to happen.”
Reed said the film also has a subplot that highlights the changes to journalism. And that is seen through Adams, who has since left the Tribune and started the Montana Free Press, an online news organization dedicated to investigative reporting statewide.
“We all know that the newspaper industry is undergoing some fundamental changes and before long became clear John was also becoming a character who was personifying the changes to the newspaper industry,” Reed said.
A trailer for the film shows Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, speaking against dark money while holding up a suspicious pamphlet bashing friend and colleague, Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad, and warning the audience: “Who is paying for this? What are they attempting to buy?”
Jones says such groups were abusing free speech and “they were speaking from the darkness.”
Cook said Tuesday he has not seen the film but will see it Friday. He said he will be part of the panel discussion.
“I’ve heard a lot of good things about it,” he said. “As far as the professional reviews go, they have been outstanding.”
A review in The Hollywood Reporter calls it “a densely packed documentary that earnestly and obsessively addresses campaign finance reform, its history and vital importance.”
Cook said the film could spark more debate about dark money in the 2018 election cycle.
“It has the potential to open some old wounds,” he said.
Adams attended the Sundance Film Festival.
“I think Kim did an incredible job of taking a very complex and very broad topic such as Citizens United and campaign finance and the role of dark money in politics and did an outstanding job of educating and entertaining viewers,” he said.
“This is more storytelling and filmmaking than straight journalism,” Adams said.
Adams said he met Reed in 2013 after filing a story on emails that reflected infighting within the state Republican caucus.
She asked if he’d be willing to go on camera for her documentary. That evolved.
“At some point, I thought I was on camera a lot more than I thought I would be,” he said.
The Hollywood Reporter review calls Adams a “hero to this story … whose relentless persistence helped local authorities prevail in a relevant corruption case that at least created a ray of optimism.”
Rachel Gregg, executive director of the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, said “Dark Money” was a “shoo-in” to be part of the event.
“It’s very good,” she said, adding later that “Montana comes out as the hero.”
Gregg said about 20,000 people are expected to attend the festival, now celebrating its 15th year, with about 25 percent of them coming from out of town.
There will be 180 films, ranging from short films to features, shown this year, pared down from nearly 2,000 submissions, Gregg said.
She said the festival will run the gamut, offering entries such as political engagement and wildlife.
“This is what I am excited for,” Gregg said. “People gravitate toward the festival because there is a lot to learn.”
“I’ve noticed a lighter note,” Gregg said. “There are a lot of fun stories as well.”
Adams hopes the public makes a point of seeing the film.
“It has really broad appeal,” he said. “If you care about democracy, if you care about elections, if you care about who is buying influence — it’s a story about Montana, but you can extrapolate it for anywhere in the nation. Montana is the case study of how you can fight back. It’s not a uniquely Montana story.”
Some reel fun
For more on the 15th annual Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, which runs Feb. 16-25, go to: http://www.bigskyfilmfest.org/
The ‘Dark’ side
For more on “Dark Money,” go to: http://darkmoneyfilm.com/
If you go
Screenings for “Dark Money” are:
Friday, Feb 16th at 7 p.m. – Wilma, 131 S Higgins Ave, Missoula (free)
Monday, Feb 19th at 5:30 pm – UC Theatre, 32 Campus Drive, Missoula – Tickets are $7-$9, buy at ttp://ticketf.ly/2EBBuBL
Sunday, Feb 25 at 3:15 pm – MCT Center for the Performing Arts, 200 N Adams St.,
Missoula – Tickets are $7-$9 at http://ticketf.ly/2F0zDnR
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