‘Storm Lake’ documentary chronicles the Cullen family’s commitment to community journalism

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Jerry Risius walked backwards through unfamiliar streets in Monrovia, Liberia, pointing a camera aimed at globe-trotting chef Anthony Bourdain. The director of photography for Buffalo Center, Iowa, heard a voice shout, “Hey, Jerry!

Surprised to hear the noise of an old friend, it was one of those moments when Bourdain’s field director understood the small world we inhabit.

As a freelance cinematographer, Risius’s work primarily records stories about the lives of other people. The documentary “Storm Lake” is what he calls his first farm-to-fork production. The germ of the idea came to him in 2017 when he read in the New York Times that the Storm Lake Times, a newspaper in northwest Iowa, had won a Pulitzer Prize.

“My eyes went out of my head,” Risius said. “You never see a newspaper in a small town in northern Iowa winning a Pulitzer!”

Soon after, Risius went to the Buffalo Center to see his parents, Luverne and Arlene Risius. He hasn’t lived at Buffalo Center since he left in the 1980s to go to college. But it will always be at home.

Risius studied anthropology at the University of Iowa. After graduation, he joined the Peace Corps in 1985, drawn by his campaign promise “the hardest job you’ll ever love”. He first saw the ocean when he flew to his posting to South America, where he lived for three years.

“The whole world has opened up,” Risius said.

Jerry Risius films Art Cullen for the documentary "Storm Lake."

In 2017, when he was planning to visit his parents, he called Art Cullen, whose family owns the Storm Lake Times, to ask if he could spend an afternoon at the newspaper. He said he would like to shoot footage and present the idea of ​​the story as a possible documentary.

That day, he filmed the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist taking a wad of his papers to a local cafe, where he also picked up seven dollar bills left in an “honor mug” from those who paid. single copies of the Storm Lake Times.

And that’s the stuff of the movie. The daily life of a journalist and his family trying to stay in business as market forces create a headwind of Derecho-force.

Risius himself discovered market forces as a young farm boy who earned $ 14,000 one year on pigs and lost $ 15,000 the following year. The work he did was the same, but forces beyond his control caused him to lose money. It is this depth of understanding that Risius brings to the project that gives its documentary authenticity.

The gestation lasted about four years. The images captured on this first trip to Storm Lake were enough to create a “character reel” that gave him access to potential backers for the project. Although well received, they needed to know who was on the cinemaphotographer team.

This is where co-director Levison comes in. They were colleagues who taught at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Since her job was to teach “pitching, salary writing, budgeting, planning, fundraising, licensing, field production, post preparation, and all technical and general skills relating to film production, “she would be suitable for the post.

At first, the Emmy and Peabody-winning independent producer didn’t take a bite out of the project. Then, in July 2018, Levison read a New York Times column about Cullen titled “In My Town We Need Immigrants.” The Storm Lake editor wrote about what immigrants are bringing to rural communities as an antidote when the US government kept the children of asylum seekers in cages.

The column, written by Iowa reporter Cullen, was a dog bite moment. This contradicted the myth that everyone who lives in a predominantly white rural America hates people who are unlike them. Levison was captivated.

And those who watch “Storm Lake” are too.

Residents of Iowa will be able to view the documentary in September and on public television’s “Independent Lens” in November. The Iowa premiere will take place in Storm Lake in mid-September, followed by a screening at the Pearson Lakes Art Center in Okoboji on September 20 to benefit the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation. To date, the film has had limited availability through a small number of online film festivals. One sold the documentary “Storm Lake”. On June 28, the prestigious DOCS festival of the American Film Institute named “Storm Lake”, directed by Jerry Risius and Beth Levison, as the festival’s audience award for best feature film.

For Risius’ farm-to-table film, the harvest looks good. The accolades for the film appeared on June 28 in The Hollywood Reporter.

“Storm Lake” is the story of a small town, of a small newspaper, in a small world.

Julie Gammack is a former columnist and business coach for Des Moines Register. She and her husband, Richard Gilbert, live in Iowa and Punta Gorda, Florida. Contact her at [email protected] https://okobojiwritersretreat.com

Julie gammack


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