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"Citizen Koch" arrives in Milwaukee Friday night at the Downer Theatre.

Wisconsin serves as backdrop for new political doc "Citizen Koch"

Back before they were making movies together, Carl Deal and Tia Lessin were just two cinema fans heading out on a first date. The film of choice? "Paris Is Burning," the renowned, poignant 1990 documentary about the drag queen community in New York City. Not exactly your typical date night selection.

"We've since become good friends with the filmmaker Jennie Livingston, and when we met her, she said that we're the very first straight couple that's ever told her their first date was her film," Deal jokingly noted.

It was an unusual choice but one that also apparently worked. Deal and Lessin are now partners in life, as well as behind the camera. Their first joint directorial feature, 2008's "Trouble the Water" about New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, earned the duo an Oscar nomination. For their latest effort, the passionately enraged "Citizen Koch," Deal and Lessin moved from a touchy political topic to touchy politics in general, namely the increasing role of money in elections. And at the center of their new doc is Wisconsin and its role as a battleground several years ago.

The film, as well as the directors, will be arriving at Milwaukee's Downer Theatre Friday night. Before the movie's first showing this weekend, however, I got a chance to talk with Deal and Lessin about their new film, its inspirations and the state of American democracy. When did the idea for "Citizen Koch" strike you guys?

Carl Deal: For us, after Barack Obama was elected president, the fever pitch within the media … it was the end of days for so many people. I actually became glued to Fox News and was really fascinated by how such ugly discourse was being passed off as news. I was sort of an addict, and Tia had to put her foot down and said, "Look, we have to do something about this. Either we make a film about it, or you stop filling up the Tivo with Glenn Beck."

I say that in jest, but also it is very close to the truth. When the Citizens United ruling came down from the Supreme Court in January of 2010, there was a lot of speculation about what it was going to really do. And we saw this Tea Party revolution happen inside the beltway in Washington, and we were interested in seeing how it was really going to play out in the rest of the country at the state level. That was one of the things that brought us to your beautiful state.

OMC: Why do you think Wisconsin wound up being such a political battleground at that time?

Tia Lessin: I think what we gathered was that Wisconsin was a test kitchen for this right wing playbook that Scott Walker was championing. It was a test kitchen for taking organized labor out because of the political process and eliminating collective bargaining rights in particular for public employee unions. No coincidence, public employee unions contribute significantly to the Democratic opponents of Gov. Walker and all these other right wing governors.

What they wanted to do is diminish the power of working people and to empower the corporations and the wealthiest, and Wisconsin was one place where that strategy succeeded. They got defeated in Ohio, but Wisconsin was a different story. So we went to your state to get an on-the-ground look at how this money was being deployed, who was deploying it and what the impact was.

OMC: When did you come to Wisconsin, and how long did you film here?

TL: We were there from the very earliest, just as the uprising began and people were flooding the state house. We filmed off and on over the course of a couple of years, through the recall and the signature collection and the campaign through June of 2012.

OMC: How long did this process take overall to put this film together, because I'd imagine following the journey of the effects of this Supreme Court ruling would take a while?

CD: It did, but one of the advantages we have as filmmakers and not as say television journalists is we can follow a story over the long term. We're also independent, so whatever it took until we felt like we had a picture that would bring some light to what we were interested in exploring. For us, it was a good, solid two years of shooting, and we edited right along side. Our last shoot was in Milwaukee, about two weeks after the 2012 Presidential election.

OMC: Do you think that the American system of democracy is broken right now?

CD: Well, I think some of the principal ideals are being corrupted; there's no doubt about it. These days, we see folks who, just a few years ago, would've been considered extremists or at least holding extremist political views, like Ted Cruz, are sitting in the hallowed halls of Washington D.C. and making claims that anybody who favors limiting the amount of money that can be spent by corporations or individuals on elections is tantamount to gutting the First Amendment. And that's just horse sh*t. That's nonsense. At some point in time, it's gotta stop.

Right now, one of the things that we've seen is an agenda at the state level to try and change the way elections are run, and it really fundamentally corrupts the idea that every person has the same amount of power as their neighbor. There's that one moment where Brian Cunningham, a corrections officer who's featured in our film, says at the end that it's that one moment in time when the guy who sleeps in a cardboard box on the highway has the same power as the guy living in a mansion at the end of the street: when you pull that curtain closed and cast your vote. This big money is very deliberately geared toward super-enfranchising wealthier people and disenfranchising average voters.

OMC: Has the film gotten a response from any of the Koch brothers or from members of the Republican party or Tea Party?

TL: Well, they don't really need to respond. They turn enough money around and they own so much of the airwaves. But we're reserving a seat for Charles and David Koch at each of our screenings. We're reserving seats for Scott Walker and his staff at our Wisconsin screenings, and we look forward to engaging in a conversation about this film and more importantly about what they're doing here.

OMC: Do you get worried that the film will only be seen by people who agree with you going in, that it will just be preaching to the choir?

TL: Well, there are a lot of people who agree with us. I think the majority of the American public is really, deeply troubled about the amount of money in our political system, and the majority of the American public wants to overturn Citizens United. So gosh, if the majority of American public agrees with us and sees this film, we're in good shape.

We also provide the voices of the Republicans around Wisconsin. Those people are not the typical suits you see out there, but they have really powerful things to say about how they felt betrayed by how the Kochs and billionaires and corporations are taking over their party. They're not only feeling betrayed, but they're doing something about it. They took the risk to speak out and to speak on camera, but they're not alone. I think there are a lot of people in the Republican party that just want this to stop.

And look, again though, this isn't about Republicans versus Democrats. This is about ordinary Americans and working people versus the billionaires.


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