Art Beat: Despite troubles, Urbana native's film up, running

Art Beat: Despite troubles, Urbana native's film up, running

Filmmaker Carl Deal continues to support public television — even though the Independent Television Service famously withdrew funding for his and his partner Tia Lessin's latest documentary, "Citizen Koch."

"We watch public television, and we encourage everybody to watch it and give to it," Deal told me by phone on Friday. "That's the only thing we can do to counter the influence of folks like the Kochs."

He considers public television one of our most revered public institutions, one that informs the public, even though "Citizen Koch," which will be screened Monday and Tuesday at the Art Theater Co-op in Champaign, won't be shown on public television.

"There's been some well-deserved outrage that the programming and funding decisions of the people at public TV can be influenced by private donors," he said. "If the stakes were higher and this happened in a different country, it might be considered corruption."

Deal, who grew up in Urbana, acknowledged there are massive problems in the world, and what Independent Television Services did is "probably a little lower on the ladder" on the scale of government misdeeds.

"It's still pretty egregious — the fact that the public television executives were so sensitive to the interests of a major donor who didn't know at the time that the project existed."

Deal said he and Lessin weren't aware at the time that David Koch was on the board of WNET and WGBH, public broadcasting stations in New York and Boston, respectively.

"Apparently, the executives at PBS weren't particularly aware of it either," he said. "They embraced our film and were great cheerleaders for us.

"The film that we delivered is exactly the film we pitched. In fact, they loved the rough cut they saw. Three weeks later, they started feeling the heat from another film they had screened on 'Independent Lens' that was directly critical of David Koch."

The public broadcasting execs then turned up the heat on Deal and Lessin in a way that wasn't transparent, he said.

"We had to take an investigative approach to what happened, and it took an investigative reporter, Jane Mayer at The New Yorker, to sort out what happened."

Her story was published in May 2013; she later published another in August 2013 on how Deal and Lessin had turned to online crowdfunding after public television withdrew its $150,000 to help fund "Citizen Koch."

As a result of the Kickstarter campaign, 3,384 people donated nearly $170,000 to help support  production of the documentary.

Still, Deal said he and Lessin were disappointed "Citizen Koch" didn't get a public-television broadcast and lost financial support needed at a crucial time.

"But the crowd came to our rescue in small donations from people interested in seeing the film," he said.

In "Citizen Koch," Deal and Lessin focus on the state of American democracy and the fracturing of the Republican Party, looking at the finances behind the tea party.

The documentary also traces the impact on democracy of unlimited election spending by corporations and billionaires such as Charles and David Koch. And it " also explores how the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizen's United ruling has affected campaign spending.

Deal said he and Lessin would have loved to have appeared in person at the Art Theater Co-op screenings, but their schedule didn't allow it. They continue to promote "Citizen Koch," which is winding down its theatrical run.

It's played in 80 or so theaters nationwide. In addition, "Citizen Koch" was shown in additional movie houses via Tugg, a platform in which moviegoers choose a movie they want to see that a mainstream movie theater might not show. If the moviegoers get enough friends and others to reserve seats, the theater will screen the movie, usually on a weekday night when business is slower.

On Sept. 2, "Citizen Koch" will be released on DVD and be available for streaming online.

Deal and Lessin are working on other documentary projects — one about country music, which he said will be easier that "Citizen Koch" — but at the moment are focusing on getting that documentary seen as widely as possible in the run-up to the midterm elections.

Deal grew up in Urbana and graduated from Urbana High School in 1983. His parents, Carl and Yolanda, continue to live in Urbana.

Deal and Lessin, also his life partner, are perhaps best-known for their Oscar-nominated and award-winning documentary "Trouble the Water," about how Hurricane Katrina affected the lives of a New Orleans couple. Roger Ebert screened it at the 2009 Ebertfest, and it was shown in 200 movie theaters nationwide.

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or mmerli@news-gazette.com. Her blog is at news-gazette.com/blogs/art-and-about.

Topics (1):Film

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