Netroots Highlights Best of New Activist Documentaries

Films tell stories of the Dream Act, new American poverty, and how money in politics corrupts forever.

Just how much influence does corporate money have on the Supreme Court? (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Jun 26, 2013· 2 MIN READ
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

The eighth annual Netroots Nation confab last week in San Jose brought together several thousand activists and gave them lots to rally around, be it progressive-cause politics, the environment, LGBT or workers’ rights.

A dozen political candidates running for office turned out for meet and greets, as did a trio of familiar Netroots’ progressive regulars—namely Howard Dean, Barney Frank, and Nancy Pelosi. Packed rooms listened to panels like “Mega-Millions 2012: Discoveries in Online Fundraising” (led by the Internet brain core behind President Obama’s last web campaign), “Science Under the Rug: How Government and Industry Hide Research” and “Reclaiming Family Values from the Right.”

Heavy keynote sessions, which focused on how to build a movement to prevent more gun violence and passing some kind of comprehensive immigration reform, were balanced by batting practice at the nearby AAA baseball stadium and food-truck gorging.

Given my predilection for documentary films, this year’s Silicon Valley meeting (next summer Netroots moves to Detroit) was highlighted by screenings and sneaks of activist documentaries. Some are already out there, others coming soon. Pay close attention to these five.

1) American Winter—Directed by Joe and Harry Gantz (HBO’s Taxicab Confessions), follows the personal stories of Oregon families struggling in the aftermath of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Filmed over two years, the documentary presents an intimate snapshot of the state of our economy—bad to horrible—as it is playing out in the lives of eight American families. The film draws attention to the all-to-real consequences of rising poverty and wealth inequality in America today, the impact of cuts to social services, and the fracturing of...the American Dream. Though set in Oregon, the subject is relevant in each of the 50 states.

2) Citizen Koch—Directed by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal (Troubled Waters), this documentary is a deep look into the affairs of the right-wing Koch brothers. Set against the Supreme Court’s controversial decision in Citizens United and the rise of the Tea Party and Occupy movements, the film explores the consequences for democracy when private interests determine who is elected to deliver public good.

3) Unequal Justice, The Relentless Rise of the 1% Court—Produced by Alliance for Justice and hosted by The Nation’s editor, Katrina vanden Heuvel, this film explores the growing pro-corporate bias in key Supreme Court decisions and their real-world impact on ordinary Americans. Steadily and relentlessly, the Court has been transformed into an institution that frequently serves the interests of the wealthiest one percent. Taking judicial activism to new levels, these justices have rendered a series of pivotal cases to fundamentally change the balance of power in American society, favoring business interests and limiting access to legal remedies for everyone else.

4) Documented—Directed by Maximiliano Nealon and Andres Llorente, the film, which follows the lives of four young first-generation Americans pushing hard to pass the Dream Act, highlights the hard fact that 65,000 high school students who have grown up in the United States, born to undocumented parents, are prevented from going to college. The Dream Act, a 2009 bipartisan legislation, attempts to correct this injustice, and will be voted on again this summer. Watch the trailer here; free downloads are available via iTunes.

5) Pay 2 Play, Democracy's High Stakes—From director John Wellington Ellis (Free For All) and executive producer Holly Mosher (Vanishing of the Bees), the film explores the absurd heights of political corruption in Ohio, as a bad role model for what’s going on across the nation. Citing the board game Monopoly as an indicting lesson of how we grow up to play the game (money rules, the player with the most real estate, hotels, etc., is the winner!), Pay 2 Play shows that when it comes to representing the will of the American people, there are boundaries beyond the ballot box.