Kimberly Reed’s Dark Money documentary is a thrilling and explosive look at the corporate funding of political campaigns. The very process that threatens our democratic process today. In the documentary, Reed takes us to her home state of Montana, following John S. Adams, a local investigative journalist as he looks at a legal case with ties to dark money and the anonymous financial contributions to campaigns. Reed works to show how billionaires often operate within a dark web that clouds how corporations and their own interests are filtered into the political realm.
Adams works, despite behind shut down to explore the story, expose corrupt politicians and Reed investigates the impact of the dark money by following the trail.
Dark Money is important viewing, terrifying at what it reveals and uncovers as these powerful corporations damage the structure of the land , exploiting for their own purposes. Reed looks at Montana and how her home town is fighting back against the lack of political transparency and efforts to impede journalists.
I caught up with Reed to talk about making the film.
How did Dark Money begin for you?
The film really started with me hearing about the Citizens United decision coming from the US Supreme Court. It raised a bunch of questions. I didn’t know how to approach it and, at the time, I wasn’t thinking of it as a film because it’s this big complicated issue that doesn’t really lend itself to a cinematic approach. It was super important as you know and really intriguing. For a few years, it sat there until 2012. I’m from Montana and I saw that my home state was not only the battleground for this issue, but it was leading the way in what you see in the film because of this long history, paying attention to his campaign finance instead of Citizens United. There’s this feeling of, “We’ve been through this before and you don’t want to go back to a situation where there’s unlimited money being poured into political campaigns.” But, that’s what was upheld in the US Supreme Court and Montana would have to adhere to Citizens United and that’s where it started in 2012 and that’s why I grabbed the camera and started following Attorney General Steve Bullock and that was the real hook for me.
Once I got into it and started looking at it and realized that Montana was the best case study to talk about these issues and I could talk about it in a way that put human faces at the forefront instead of bar graphs and pie charts and I knew I could make it about people, I signed up for the long haul.
What about the trail of the investigation in bringing it all together and following the money?
A crucial part of that is John Adams. I started filming in 2012 and in 2013 I met him. I was using and admiring his reporting. There’s a strong tradition of following these issues in Montana and he’s one of the best in doing that. It was mostly using his reporting. Then we got to this stage where we were both moving in the same direction and following the money. With my documentary filmmaking approach and him with the perspective of being a journalist on the ground, I realized at a certain point, I really needed a narrator to pull us through all these rather complicated issues. As an investigative reporter, he was the perfect journalist for this. I tried convincing him for a while, but journalists are notoriously famous that they don’t want to be part of the story. He finally went on camera and then we ended up really digging into the big story that was really intriguing and from that point on, we were digging at the same story together and following it until that courtroom scene that you see.
At the time of you setting out to make the film, journalists weren’t under attack. Right now, they are attacked daily. What is that like and how that interweaves with your story?
What happened in a very natural and organic way was John’s personal story became a secondary story or the plotline because of the fact that in order to keep an eye on money and politics and in order to follow the money, you really need a strong watch on prep.
The general financial restructuring that the journalism has had to undergo for the last decade, that’s one thing that John became emblematic of.
Since the film has been completed, there’s the whole issue of Trump attacking the press and calling them the enemy of the people.
To the former point, I thought it was absolutely crucial to show the struggles that John was going through to deal with the changing financial structure of the daily newspaper and that gets shown and in that process, hopefully, what people get is the second point that you’re raising about, how I want to build respect for journalists and I would love for our film to inspire a bunch of journalists and it has. You simply can’t have a healthy democracy without a strong fourth estate. I think our film shows how those two are intertwined.
In terms of the timeliness of the documentary, were you surprised by how much conversation dark money is in the news?
In some ways yes, but in most ways no. This has been the plan for a while, to release the film during an election year so that it hits in the run up to the election. What happens time and time again is there’s no real talk about money, politics and the election. When the election rolls around and the horserace coverage starts, people start thinking about it again. It’s been the design for a long time to have the film released during this run up.
That’s part of it. However, there are many things that could not have been anticipated. Let’s put it this way, it was very interesting to me that the largest outside group to contribute money to the Trump campaign in 2016 was the NRA. It was an interesting fact that we know. They gave three times as much money to him as they had done to any former Republican candidate. That’s interesting.
I did not anticipate Maria Butina providing this direct connection to the Trump Campaign and the NRA. We’re about to find out where that goes.
I could have anticipated and did anticipate that there would have been a lot of recalcitrants on the part of the IRS to enforce money in the campaign. We’ve seen that and nothing is more obvious than that. I did not anticipate that the administration would do something as brazen as shutting down all reporting of donor information to the IRS and that happened the other week.
I could not have not predicted that maybe Bullock would have been involved somehow. The fact that he is now suing the IRS, I can’t say it really surprises me because I know campaign finance reform is really important to him and once again Montana is leading the way on that. It’s not a surprising thing to me, but it does go to show that this case study that we have in Montana is a really interesting one and at the end of the day, a really inspiring one. If you can pass some of the strongest campaign laws in the country in Montana, I think that’s a model that can be replicated in every state.
On the subject, the cinematography is really captivating and so luscious. Talk about the decision to put that in and how you take us into that moment.
It really is. Everyone I know is really proud of how beautiful it is there. I’ll give you two angles. One is a practical angle. If you’re a filmmaker and making a film about such a dense subject such as campaign finance reform and you have moments where you just need to let something sink in and let people think about, if that’s the case, there’s no better place in the world as far as I’m concerned, than to shoot in Montana because you can just cut to some gorgeous scenery.
The other aspect is that I’m from there and so very proud of how beautiful it is and I want to show it off. There’s some very deep personal connection there that allowed me to wake up at 4am to get a timelapse of a sunrise because one day I would use that shot.
Where is all the foreign money headed? I bring that around because you mentioned Brexit.
I think what our film shows is how easy it is, there were fourteen candidates in the 2010 election that the trial focused on, it shows how easy it is for a national organization working anonymously to move that one election. I think what you do, is you take that example and apply it to international business and huge influences of power working throughout the world, and it gets scary very quick. Each of the countries we’re talking about have strong regulations stating that foreign money should not be affecting the election. It’s a truly scary prospect when all you see is international business interests controlling the local politics, not just city to city, but country to country. I don’t know about the money, but I hope the film can be applied not just to other states in the US, but also other countries around the world.