Trans artist and activist Kimberly Reed is in the middle of an amazing career. Her latest documentary “Dark Money” premiered to great acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and her latest opera “Today It Rains” will premiere next spring.
Although Reed didn’t realize it at the time, “Dark Money” was born on Jan. 10, 2010 when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in the Citizens United case.
“It just didn’t make any sense to me,” she says, “that corporations are people and money is speech and therefore corporations can give unlimited money to campaigns. I am very skeptical of slippery slope arguments, but you could just see how more and more money was going to be consolidated in the hands of fewer and fewer people who were richer and richer and that the voice of the everyday citizen was going to get drowned out. And that is what has happened.”
Like the majority of Americans, Reed was outraged by the decision, but she didn’t know how to make a film about such an abstract and complex issue. She then learned that her home state of Montana was leading the charge for campaign finance reform.
Reed started following Attorney General Steve Bullock as he defended Montana’s century-old campaign finance laws against Citizens United, first in the Montana Supreme Court (where he won) and then in the U.S. Supreme Court (where he lost).
As a filmmaker and as an activist, Reed was disappointed by his loss.
“I originally wanted the whole film to be about that court case, a kind of ‘Mr. Bullock Goes to Washington,’ but that didn’t happen. I ended up following the story for five years after that,” she says.
Tracking the investigations of intrepid journalist John S. Adams and other state officials and legislators, Reed began to fully understand the harmful impact of “dark money,” a new type of political fundraising that was launched in the wake of the Citizens United decision. As Adams explains in the movie, dark money organizations like the “Americans for Prosperity” and the “Club for Growth” raise money from anonymous donors and fund a variety of right-wing causes and candidates.
Reed says the impact of “dark money” is especially insidious in primary elections and ballot initiatives. Dark money funders focus on unseating incumbents and replacing them with opponents who are more financially and socially conservative.
“In primary elections, in safe districts, it’s not about Republican versus Democrat,” Reed says. “It’s about how far to the right they can push the Republican party. Repeat that again and again and you’re going to have a vastly polarized political system.”
“Dark Money” was Reed’s second cinematic excursion into her home state of Montana. The first was the autobiographical documentary “Prodigal Sons,” which followed Kimberly and her girlfriend Claire as they returned to Helena for Reed’s 20th high-school reunion. While Reed’s high-school classmates knew that the former football star had transitioned, she had not seen any of them in person since her graduation.
The award-winning “Prodigal Sons,” which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in 2008, also chronicles Reed’s stormy reunion with her estranged brother Marc, who was adopted by Reed’s parents the year before she was born. They ended up in the same grade when Marc was held back due to behavioral problems.
Marc’s issues with being adopted and with sibling rivalry were exacerbated after an automobile accident left him with severe brain injuries. Medications and several operations reduced his dangerous seizures but increased his violent mood swings. The movie captures several of his frightening outbursts, including one where he smashes a picture frame and another when he hurls transphobic insults at Reed.
While Marc’s medical issues remained unresolved, “Prodigal Sons” does contain a surprising revelation about his parentage. Shortly after the reunion, Marc learns that his birth mother was Rebecca Welles, daughter of legendary filmmaker Orson Welles and his second wife, screen goddess Rita Hayworth. While Rebecca died before she could meet Marc, the family does get to spend time in Croatia with Welles’ companion Oja Kadar.
As Reed notes, “Prodigal Sons” was an unusual and unexpected constellation of events that taught her a lot about the vagaries of documentary filmmaking. Making the movie also gave her fresh insights into her relationship with her family while she transitioned.
“Families can be very supportive and loving,” she says. “In my case, I was the one who was withholding. I wanted to go it alone, so I never really gave my family a chance to react.”
During the years she was filming “Dark Money,” Reed’s artistic life took an unexpected turn. Composer Laura Kaminsky and librettist Mark Campbell asked Reed if she wanted to make some films that would be part of an opera. Intrigued, Reed said yes.
The result was “As One,” a chamber opera for two voices and string quartet. In 15 songs, a mezzo-soprano (Hannah after) and a baritone (Hannah before) depict the experiences of its sole transgender protagonist as she endeavors to resolve the discord between herself and the outside world. As work on the opera progressed, Reed ended up working with Campbell on the libretto and several of the songs are based directly on her own experiences.
The award-winning piece has made operatic history for its subject matter and for it incredible popularity. Since its premiere in 2014, “As One” has become the most-produced modern opera in North America. According to Opera America it was performed 15 times and was number 14 on the list of most performed operas in the Unites States and Canada. It was the only new work to be included on the list and even beat out old warhorses “Turandot” and “The Barber of Seville.”
While her next film project is still under wraps, Reed and her operatic collaborators have already been commissioned by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to start work on their next opera.
Based on an original concept by Campbell, “Today It Rains” is a new chamber opera inspired by the life of bisexual artist Georgia O’Keefe. Reed is again creating new films to frame the action and is working with Campbell on the libretto.
The new opera envisions O’Keeffe’s personal journey on a life-changing train ride as she reexamines her tumultuous marriage with photographer Alfred Stieglitz, her artistic stasis, and her need for new inspiration to guide her work.
“Today It Rains” will premiere in March under the banner of American Opera Projects.
So how bleak in Reed’s opinion is the dark money phenomenon? She says it’s flooded into states facing ballot initiatives on a variety of progressive issues including unions, reproductive rights and LGBT issues.
“Because bigots don’t want to stand up and say they support discrimination against LGBT people, they hide behind dark money. It’s really maddening. The reason I find campaign finance reform so compelling is that it is the fundamental issue,” Reed says. “You can’t solve any other political problem without knowing where the money is coming from, where the influence is coming from, what you’re up against.”
According to Reed, the antidote is disclosure: enforcing existing laws and fighting to get new ones in place.
“What you see in our film, what you see happening across the country, is that states are calling for disclosure. You see it moving like marriage equality did. Pretty soon we’ll hit the tipping point.”