Citizen Koch (Variance Films, NR)

film citizen-kochI think allowing billionaires and corporations to dominate political funding, and thus politics, is a terrible idea.




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It’s common these days to refer to politics as a blood sport, but although the adjective in this expression may be appropriate (it’s no accident Bismarck likened politics to sausage as the two things the public should never observe being made), the noun is trivializing.

No one, with the possible exception of bookies and their clients, is harmed by the outcome of a sporting event. The consequences of political decisions, on the other hand, can literally be life and death. Even when mortality itself is not at stake, the world created by politics allows some people to prosper far beyond what their merits or work ethic suggest is their due, while others must struggle to survive despite doing some of the most important work in our society.

How did our democracy, which supposedly functions by and for the people, come to this pass? There are many answers, of course, but one big contributor to our current state of affairs is the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which determined that corporations and individuals could make unlimited, anonymous financial contributions to political causes. Drawing on two concepts that may seem chancy to the average individual—corporations as people and money as free speech—the result was an unprecedented flood of money into the American political process.

Two of the largest contributors have been Charles and David Koch, who became billionaires thanks to their father Fred Koch, who founded the oil refinery firm that became Koch Industries. If money is speech, the Koch brothers have a lot more of it to communicate with than most people, and communicate they have, contributing to a variety of conservative causes including, perhaps most famously, Scott Walker’s gubernatorial campaign in Wisconsin.

As you can probably tell, I think allowing billionaires and corporations to dominate political funding, and thus politics, is a terrible idea. So do Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, whose documentary Citizen Koch examines the activities of the Koch Brothers in the context of the influence of money in American politics, with particular focus on Walker’s activities as governor (mainly, his attempt to get rid of the public service unions) and his (spoiler alert) triumph over an attempt to recall him in 2011.

Of course, that’s not really a spoiler alert, because if you care at all about politics, you already know how that election came out, and if you don’t care, you probably won’t be interested in this film. Unfortunately, it’s a well-meaning documentary that is essentially unsatisfying because it takes on too many issues and allots its screen time unwisely. As such, it is a real come-down for Deal and Lessin, whose 2008 documentary Trouble the Water was far more successful (including a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance) thanks to its central focus on a single couple within the context of Hurricane Katrina.

Citizen Koch begins as a standard-issue documentary, juxtaposing well-chosen interviews and news clips relating to the influence of money in politics. When the film’s focus shifts primarily to Wisconsin, it spends a lot of time with a handful of salt-of-the-earth public employees who oppose Walker’s attempts to destroy their unions. I’m sure they’re all admirable people, but they’re just not that interesting, and several come off as being only interested in political issues when their own pocketbook is affected. Nowhere do they, or the film’s directors, display any understanding of the fact that such self-centered thinking makes political organization difficult, and organization is the only hope ordinary people have to combat the interests of the rich.

There are also regular references to the 2012 presidential campaign, with Buddy Roemer popping up far more than necessary, but instead of broadening the discussion, these digressions just dilute the focus.

More significantly, Citizen Koch suggests that Wisconsin served as a trial run for similar attempts to destroy public unions, using out-of-state financing—such a campaign has already succeeded in Michigan, for instance. All the anger focused on Walker and the recall election turned out to not achieve much: Walker not only retained his office after the recall election—no doubt the fact that he outspent his opponents 8 to 1 had something to do with that—but managed to reduce the number of Wisconsin public employees in unions by about half in just two years.

There’s plenty to be outraged about in Citizen Koch, and the film will no doubt serve to strengthen the convictions of those who oppose a politics dominated by rich people and corporations. Unfortunately, it’s just not a very good film—too scattered and with little understanding of how to allocate screen time in proportion to the importance of the material—so it’s not nearly as effective as it might have been. | Sarah Boslaugh

Citizen Koch will be screened as part of the Webster University Film Series, on June 20, 21, and 22 at 7:30 p.m. in the Winifred Moore Auditorium (470 E. Lockwood Ave., St. Louis, Mo. 63119). Tickets are $6 for the general public; $5 for seniors, Webster alumni, and students from other schools; $4 for Webster staff and faculty; and free for Webster students with proper I.D. Tickets are available from the cashier before each screening; to learn about other options, contact the Film Series office 314-246-7525. The Film Series can only accept cash or checks.

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