By not further commenting on its role to pull out of Tia Lessin and Carl Deal's documentary "Citizen Koch," ITVS, the prominent independent documentary funding organization, is shooting itself in the foot—and potentially alienating filmmakers. When I reached out to ITVS for further comment on Jane Mayer's New Yorker story, which suggests that the film was suppressed because of conservative billionaire David Koch's support of PBS, they refused to comment further.
"At this point, we’re not going to make a statement or conduct any interviews," ITVS's marketing and communications director wrote to me via email.
Is silence an admission of guilt?
The New Yorker story is fairly damning, particularly in quotes from an unnamed television producer, who alleges that ITVS executives “didn’t want it ["Citizen Koch"] to get to higher levels at PBS… They were trying to hide things. They didn’t want ITVS’s name connected to it at Sundance. They were afraid of two things—that PBS would catch wind of it, and that Lessin and Deal would go to the press and say that PBS didn’t want them talking about David Koch.”
I saw "Citizen Koch" at Sundance, where I reviewed it for Screen Daily. And frankly, I was disappointed by it, and wouldn't blame ITVS for wanting the filmmakers to retain their original title, "Citizen Corp," which is a better reflection of the film's actual content. Or even cut and run from the project altogether.
As I wrote, "Despite its name, Citizen Koch is not a Koch And Me-like takedown of David and Charles Koch, the billionaire industrialists who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to influence American politics. Rather, this activist documentary from Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, directors of the Oscar-nominated Trouble The Water, focuses on the battles that took place in Wisconsin, in 2011 and 2012, between Koch supported governor Scott Walker and the Democratic-backed unions and public workers whose collective bargaining rights he successfully stripped."
But based on the Mayer piece, it appears that ITVS's basis for pressuring the filmmakers wasn't aesthetically-driven, but was, in fact, due to pressures from Koch's donations to New York's public broadcaster, WNET.
According to notes taken by Lessin and Deal, ITVS senior series producer Lois Vossen warned Lessin and Deal that the title “Citizen Koch” was “extraordinarily problematic.” She told Lessin and Deal that the new title would make it exceedingly hard for her to champion the film at PBS, saying, “I would say I feel as though I would have both hands tied behind my back, and probably duct tape over my mouth.”
Vossen added, “I think you understand why it’s problematic. . . . We live in a world where we have to be aware that people with power have power."
By avoiding the press, Vossen isn't doing herself or ITVS any favors. Filmmakers should demand a frank and public airing of what went on at ITVS over the film, and whether such outside forces will effect the organization's support for other such films in the future.
As Lessin and Deal said in a statement: "Documentary filmmaking is the nexus of art and journalism, and we hope that Mayer’s expose informs honest conversations within and outside public television and the independent filmmaking community about the role and importance of public financing for public arts institutions and encourages people to take a stand against any kind of censorship – direct, or indirect."