A Chicago filmmaker received the award for best documentary at a Missouri film festival this month, but that triumph is the least interesting part of the story she came home to tell. The day before the festival was to begin, the Missouri state government, which had underwritten the festival with a grant of nearly $100,000 in federal stimulus funds, asked for its money back.
The Show Me Social Justice International Film Festival went on because—well, it had no choice but to go on. Warrensburg, a college town of about 15,000 an hour east of Kansas City, was rigged and ready for action. Filmmakers were already rolling into town.
The Missouri Valley Community Action Agency, sponsor of the film festival, didn't know what hit it. There wasn't a cloud on the horizon until Tuesday, September 7, three days before the festival opened, when the Republican lieutenant governor of Missouri, Peter Kinder, tweeted, "We got this instead of roads, bridges?" What followed was a thunderstorm by a couple of organizations that hadn't existed just a few months earlier—United for Missouri and the fiercely local and grassroots Johnson County Patriots of the Republic.
Local legislators and bureaucrats in Jefferson City, the state capital, were inundated with a flash flood of tweets, blogs, e-mails, and old-fashioned telephone calls. The legislators made inquiries, and on Thursday the state caved. The director of the family support division of the Department of Social Services called Pam LaFrenz, executive director of the sponsoring agency, and revoked the grant.
State rep Denny Hoskins, a Warrensburg Republican, issued a statement taking credit for rescuing the taxpayers' money. "A better use of this social service funding," he asserted, "would be to provide for local families that are in need, instead of creating a red carpet film festival with questionable ethics."
The festival started the next day, which is when the Chicago filmmaker, Ky Dickens, reached Warrensburg. She saw cards and posters all over the University of Central Missouri touting the festival and her movie, Fish Out of Water. (Its producer is also the Reader's marketing director, Kristen Kaza.) The screening was Saturday night, and earlier in the day there'd be a panel discussion on "the misinterpretation of homosexuality and the Bible"—the subject of her film. But all that was secondary to what the state had just done.
The sudden notoriety didn't help the festival. LaFrenz says the films drew only about 150 people in all. According to Dickens, the audiences at her events were "not at all what they were originally expecting."
The question Dickens isn't sure how to answer is how personally to take what happened. On September 1 the Warrensburg Daily Star-Journal published a short, friendly story headlined, "Filmmaker to cover gays, Bible for UCM art series." Did this set off tremors? Lieutenant Governor Kinder was retweeting a lot of United for Missouri tweets, including the one that disparaged the "liberal film festival." Was "liberal" code for "not our sort of people"?
From the vantage point of Chicago, 400 miles away, the answer might seem self-evident. But Dickens hesitates to reach that conclusion, and so do I.
I've spent a lot of time on the phone with the leader of the Johnson County Patriots of the Republic, Jeff Merrick, a Warrensburg Baptist pastor. He insists the content of the films in the festival isn't what made him mad. Warrensburg's a college town, he reminded me. "We've got left and right—if that's what you're driving at? We've got plenty of liberal views. It's not like we're some kind of tucked-away little village that has never heard of these issues. It has nothing to do with that. We didn't go out and protest the film festival. We didn't care if the festival went on—and it did. It's just an improper use of ARRA money."
That's ARRA as in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, aka the federal stimulus program.
It's hard to say what triggered the uprising. Representative Hoskins heard that someone from the festival spoke to the Rotary Club that Tuesday and some Rotarians didn't like what they heard. Merrick tells me a local woman he wouldn't identify spotted a billboard for the festival that mentioned ARRA funding and reported it to United for Missouri, a three-month-old foe of the "Owebama administration" that's run by former Republican legislator Carl Bearden and is committed to "mobilizing citizens" around and against federal economic policy. Bearden gave Merrick a heads up.
Merrick thinks the festival must have done a pretty poor job promoting itself, Bearden's alert being the first he'd heard of it. Then again, LaFrenz, who's based in Marshall, two counties over, and festival organizer Jeremy Mikolajczak, who's director of the University of Central Missouri art gallery and invited Ky Dickens to speak on campus, had never heard of Merrick or his Patriots of the Republic. Everyone these days lives in his or her own reality.
The world as Merrick understands it is described in no uncertain terms on the Patriots' website. "We are dumbfounded," it explains, "as to why some citizens of this free nation would surrender our liberty to the Federal Government, while others would lead us into bondage under socialism, Marxism, and communism. Sadly, these people have had a large measure of success …
"The primary concern for all Americans should be the restraint of our elected leaders under the enumerated powers specified in the Constitution.… Some of our elected representatives treat us like children. Far too many of our politicians insult us in town hall meetings. They dismiss us by refusing to respond to our questions, through the rudeness of their office personnel, and by giving us meaningless responses that answer none of our concerns. All of these actions make it clear that they no longer take us, the people, seriously."
The stimulus grant was one of those things governments do heedless of the people. "We've got families here that are hurting in Missouri who need that money much worse than we need a film festival," Merrick told me. "In our church right now there's a woman who just had her electricity cut off. I think you'd have a hard time convincing her that the hundred thousand dollars is a wise investment in the film festival."
Or as he put it in a letter that he says went unprinted by the Daily Star-Journal, "It is hard to imagine that the Family Support Division has such an excess of funding that they can afford to sponsor 'Red Carpet Events' and film festivals. While Missouri families are hurting, Family Support Division funds were going to be used to host an event where the menu is 'Pan Seared Salmon-serviced with a … fresh herb orzo pasta salad and a fresh mango salsa … ultimate chocolate cake with a Baileys Irish liquor sauce or Slow Roasted Prime Rib (21 day aged prime beef) … 10 oz. cut, served with baby parmesan potatoes and steamed asparagus … ' Someone at DSS must have a better plan for using federal money … "
Merrick was quoting from the program's grandiose description of the dinner at a Warrensburg restaurant for vendors and sponsors—the festival's local underwriters. Hoskins weighed in too. "How would salmon and prime rib dinners at this event help low-income families improve their situation, feed hungry children or the elderly, or help the handicapped?" he wondered publicly.
"Beef and fish was what it was," says LaFrenz. "Maybe if you never had it, it seems elitist."
The blows didn't all fall on the festival. At the Show Me Progress blog, Michael Bersin, a professor of music at Central Missouri, charted the antics of the opposition under the heading "Suppose you held a film festival and right wingnuts didn't want anyone to attend." Jack Miles, editor of the Daily Star-Journal, accused Hoskins and Kinder of "selective scrutiny" of public expenditures, pointing out that Kinder had never had a problem with spending millions of the taxpayers' dollars to support his favorite event, the annual Tour of Missouri bicycle race, which the Democratic governor eventually canceled. As for the "questionable ethics" Hoskins managed to perceive in the film festival, Miles wondered what they were. Everything it did, Miles wrote, was done "in good faith, with permission and transparently." In which case, "how ethical, how irresponsible, how plain dumb, really, is it that after months of planning by Missouri Valley, Social Services yanked festival funding less than 17 hours before the event started?"
There are signs that the "how plain dumb" question dawned on Hoskins himself. A first-term legislator with baggage—soon after winning his seat by 122 votes he admitted to owing $16,000 in back property taxes—he's in a tough reelection battle, and if it's one thing to solidify your base, it's another to piss off everyone else in your hometown. And I don't mean just the liberals at the university—the chamber of commerce was also behind the film festival. The Monday after the festival it apparently occurred to him that he owed LaFrenz a call. "He assured me it was not his mission to damage community actions," she told me.
LaFrenz's agency covers a seven-county area, and it's been writing applications and receiving grants from the Department of Social Services for 40 years. Last year DSS passed along more than $849,000 in federal stimulus funds to the agency to support 16 different projects—the festival was just one of them. So how was it that despite Missouri Valley's vast experience and expertise, when it came to asking for money for the film festival it somehow didn't do it right? "The entire scope of the project was not permissible," says Scott Rowson, a DSS spokesman. "It's rare that we run into a situation where this has to happen."
Did DSS really have to do what it did? Or did a few noisy Tea Party types make DSS so weak in the knees they buckled—followed by DSS blaming the victim? Hoskins faxed me a copy of the agency's grant application, and the truth is he has a point.
When granters and grantees deal with each other for generations, I suppose a certain nonchalance can enter the relationship. A year ago, Missouri Valley had a novel and exciting project in mind—a film festival—and it asked the state for a grant to pay for it. There were forms to fill out, protocols to observe, and directions from Washington to respect, and one thing Washington definitely wanted to see local agencies dealing with was "the central causes of poverty."
Missouri Valley had it covered. "What is the expected outcome (change in the problem)?" the application asked. And the agency answered, "The outcome will be that a social and economic justice film festival is held in Missouri to educate the general public and create awareness of the real picture of poverty in Missouri."
"What is the strategy implementation plan?" asked the application. (To you and me, that's the timetable.) Missouri Valley laid out every step it intended to take up through September, when "The Show Me Social and Economic Justice Film Festival is held to create a focus and awareness of poverty in Missouri."
As much as I enjoyed Fish Out of Water's parsing of Holy Scripture, there's not a frame of the Chicago-made documentary that pays any mind to poverty in Missouri. The film festival might have been a brilliant attempt to bring jobs, visitors, and vitality to the seven-county area. It might have been as creative a use of stimulus funds as you'll find. But local poverty was not what it was about.
So when Merrick and Hoskins and their friends demanded an explanation, DSS had an easy time throwing the film festival off the back of the truck. It wasn't personal. "I think the relationship will be fine," says Scott Rowsen. "We value it as much as they do." But in the crunch DSS abandoned the festival with nothing that remotely resembled due process.
I wish Ky Dickens had taken her camera along to document her week in Warrensburg for the light it might shed on this age we live in. And perhaps Merrick should invite the organizers of the festival to join the Johnson County Patriots of the Republic. Now they've had a taste of politicians treating them like children.