One of the first, and most striking images that you see in Kimberly Reed’s documentary Dark Money is of The Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana. It’s as impressive to the eye as the rest of the glorious countryside but look closer, and you discover that this half mile wide lake is a former open-pit mine filled with 40 billion gallons of acidic water and heavy metals. In other words, this is toxic waste sitting adjacent to a thriving town, in the middle of some of the most glorious countryside on earth.
The Pit is the result of mining from over a hundred years ago. “Once they had mined it for all it was worth, they picked up and left,” Kimberly Reed tells us about the mining companies. “And of course, now, it’s in danger of spilling over and it will unless they do something to remediate it. But now, of course, it’s full of just completely nauseous metals and completely toxic. It kills birds that land in it.”
This opening sequence certainly gets our attention, especially in Australia where mining has made billionaires, and provided short term employment, but what of this mined land’s future?
The Berkeley Pit is a microcosm of the bigger issues at play in the documentary; mining and the environment are not what Dark Money is about directly – the threat of corporate interests on democracy is the real issue here.
“What really attracted me was the characters. For me, it’s always about the characters,” says Reed.
The characters are mainly Montanans, who push back on legislation which allows for corporate funding in politics – something else, we are all too aware of in Australia.
“The characters in the film are from a broad range of political affiliation,” Reed continues. “I want to say that a major motivation for me, was just a sense of injustice. The sense that we set up our democracy to play by these rules and some people who see a political gain in skirting those rules take advantage of them. And take advantage of people who aren’t necessarily paying attention. To watch people take advantage of this political power was pretty enraging. It’s that deep sense of injustice about how a democracy is supposed to work and then coming upon this story where people are intentionally thwarting that.”
Kimberly Reed’s debut film, Prodigal Sons, was released in 2008, and Dark Money is only her second film. What has she been doing in the meantime?
“I’ve been involved in opera, and have been lucky enough to be involved in the opera that has been produced more than any other since its debut in 2014, As One. That was another form of storytelling. For me, it’s all about telling stories that connect to audiences.
“I started Dark Money soon after Prodigal Sons. It took longer than I thought it was going to take, frankly. Which sometimes happens with these things, but we basically just got onto this story that I soon realised was enormous and wanted to do it right. It felt like we had to take it all the way to the end of this resolution, which you see in the trial at the end of the film, so that was really a resolution that you couldn’t really write if you wrote a real fiction piece.”
“You never know where documentaries are going to go. I think that’s actually a really good thing. Makes it hard to plan and fund.”
We won’t go into spoiler territory, but we can disclose that Dark Money explores multiple issues, from the dearth of investigative journalism to various parallels to both Brexit and the current, divisive issues impacting Australia, all tracked to undisclosed corporate interests that are funding political candidates and ultimately, influencing decisions.
“I could be talking about Montana, I could be talking about Washington DC at a federal level, or I could be talking about the UK or Australia,” says Reed about the takeaway from her film.
“Democracy is supposed to depend upon free and fair elections,” she concludes. “When you have corporate or extremely wealthy interests, when you have those influences on democracy, it thwarts democratic ideals. It outweighs the influence of the individual and just by definition, democracy.”