Storm Lake: SIFF DocFest 2021 Review

Year: 2021

Runtime: 86 minutes

Directors: Beth Levinson, Jerry Risius

By Joan Amenn

As a supporter of the Seattle International Film Festival (siff.net), I was delighted to attend their inaugural “celebration of all things documentary,” DocFest this year. None of the films I saw affected me as deeply as “Storm Lake” (2021), the story of a family run newspaper in a small Midwestern American town.

The Cullens are a juggernaut of unwavering dedication to their beloved “Storm Lake Times.” Their ringleader, editor Art Cullen, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017. Given that those things aren’t exactly easy to come by, it’s no surprise that there is an atmosphere of quiet professionalism and eager curiosity buzzing in their little newsroom as they huddle over their computers. Directors Beth Levinson and Jerry Risius don’t try to lead us on a wild chase after the Times reporters as they break a huge scandal. Instead, we get a more devastating, more movingly intimate look at how the human relationships of family members and local business owners are affected by larger events such as the Democratic Primary of 2020 and the outbreak of COVID-19.

Iowa is an agricultural state and the town of Storm Lake is no different than many others in feeling the economic toll of corporate farming as small, family run farms are unable to compete in the marketplace. The newspaper business is similar as the film states early on that one in four newspapers have folded in the last fifteen years. The Cullens are determined not to become part of that statistic and “Storm Lake” is a tribute to their gritty singlemindedness but it is also a warning of what the US as a whole stands to lose if the slow extinction of local newspapers continues.

The pandemic took a brutal swipe at small businesses of all kinds and “The Storm Lake Times” was no exception. However, seeing Art Cullen and his brother John, who founded the paper in 1990, working with next generation staff reporter Tom, it is obvious that any talk of giving up their life of peripatetic pursuit of their town’s next story is greatly overexaggerated. The Democratic Primary brings a lot of excitement to the town of Storm Lake and the reporters are obviously energized and revel in all the orchestrated chaos, especially Art who never seems to be at a loss for words written or spoken.

This reviewer has dabbled in some small-town reporting and knows how frustrating and demoralizing it can be. However, I found a lot of comfort and inspiration in the words of the editorials from the Storm Lake Times that were included in this film. Directors Levinson and Risius keep the tone light but there was some real financial desperation facing the Cullen family as the Covid-19 shut down dragged on in 2020. They kept the faith and launched a successful fundraising campaign and are still fighting the good fight for the town of Storm Lake.

The same can’t be said for the approximately 65 million American citizens who live in news deserts where there are no local news sources, or only one, as the film says in its closing credits. The thought that if we had had more local newspapers informing citizens about the pandemic and the best ways to protect themselves instead of having to rely on social media, than perhaps so many might not have gotten sick is a haunting one. In any case, The Storm Lake Times and other papers like them deserve our support for all the town council public hearings and school board meetings we thought until the last election didn’t matter, because they always knew they do matter. As Art Cullen writes in one of his editorials, “Tyranny prevails wherever the press is not free.” He deserves another Pulitzer.

“Storm Lake” will be premiering on PBS channels on November 15th. Recommended.

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