By Elias Savada.
A light yet cautionary examination of a tight-knit, eponymous community in Iowa, and how one family has provided an important lifeline via its journal to area folks. And how their readers support it back.”
Times have been tough for everyone, especially for those in the news business. Even before Covid shredded the economy, small town news was dying from the changes in rural economics, industry consolidation, and shifting demographics. And just because The Storm Lake Times, a biweekly printed forum in Buena Vista county, Iowa, won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing (“fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests”) in 2017, the odds remain high that it might tumble into the same print graveyard where almost 2,000 suburban and rural newspapers have found themselves over the last two decades. Big ugly corporate conglomerates and hedge funds have all too often bought out these small-office operations and shuttered them. The internet, and its feed of free information, hasn’t helped.
In case you missed it, one of four newspapers has closed over the past 15 years. One of those was a daily I delivered as a youngster on my trusty Schwinn bicycle; another The Montgomery (County, Maryland) Gazette ran my friends’ beer column. The final edition (June 17, 2015) of this weekly is one of the dozen or so that highlight a brief necrology portion of the film.
The mourning continues, and Storm Lake might have easily been a damning obituary. But there’s pluck afoot, and this documentary is a light yet cautionary examination of a tight-knit, eponymous community in Iowa, and how the Cullen family has provided an important lifeline via its journal to area folks. And how their readers support it back.
This spit of a city in the northwestern part of the state, covering barely 5 square miles and 10,000+ (official) residents, has plenty of stories to tell. Jerry Risius, a journalist and cinematographer who directed this film with Beth Levison, grew up on a hog farm a couple hours up the road, and it was Art Cullen’s fierce mission to serve up this ever-diversifying part of the world that brought him to the newsman’s doorstep.
Art – he’s the one that looks like Mark Twain – is the plain-talking, cigarette-smoking editor. Wife Delores has a wonderful knack for capturing just the right photograph, while their son Tom is the steadfast reporter, Art’s sister-in-law, Mary Cullen, does recipe features. Art’s brother, John, who founded the paper in 1990, remains the publisher. He’s a happy camper when any of the paper’s bills get paid. There’s even Peach, the paper’s newshound, contributing to the action. Some Cullens are absent – Tom’s siblings Joe, Clare, and Kieran – except for a brief appearance on a holiday greeting card.
Risius and Levinson let the family and the staff do the heavy lifting, watching as they go about their routines. Some of Art’s eloquently written editorials are folksily self-read on the soundtrack, which also has a light, uplifting tilt courtesy of music by Andrew Bird and Alan Hampton.
It’s a brave journey, for the filmmakers and the Cullens, one that began before the pandemic arrived on our shores. It started with the paper’s birth over three decades ago, but expertly dissects this mom-and-pop, nickel-and-dime operation, with the writing staff covering local events from council meetings to court hearings to the high school’s Tornadoes sports teams to a local contestant on the Tengo Talento, Mucho Talento Spanish language reality tv series. And, of course, the county fair.
Most of the time the world doesn’t think about what’s happening in this midwestern state, one driven by manufacturing, especially food processing, with Tysons Foods the largest employee in this part of the world and egg supplier Rembrandt Enterprises a close second. A good portion of those workers are immigrant laborers toiling away at the meat processing plant here. National news covers this area when the undocumented immigrants are rounded up and deported, or because many of them caught the virus,
Every four years, the Hawkeye State caters to presidential contenders, and Storm Lake touches on some of those politicians who are able to find the area on a map. Some of those high office contenders make it to Storm Lake early in the race; others show up at the hour mark, when you’ll get a taste of the state’s muddled Presidential Caucus, which carries the first half of the film’s third chapter. When Jill Biden appears, she’s billed as Second Lady of the United States. She’s been promoted since then.
Some lowlights are expected, especially when Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley sidesteps the issues of partisan politics and undocumented immigrants during an extemporaneous townhall gathering covered by Tom Cullen.
Immigration, racism, and political partisanship all play into the film’s view of small-town life, and Storm Lake is quite the melting pot. Glimpses of immigrant struggles, especially undocumented ones, showcase for Art that this country has many misguided principles.
After Art, considered the voice of the Democrats in the area, won the Pulitzer, many conservative business owners rethought placing advertisements. Probably more so after the editor’s thoughtful essays took an antagonistic approach toward the then USA’s commander-in-chief.
No doubt, the filmmakers had to make a sharp turn as Covid arrived. The up-close footage swivels to Zoomed in material as the film nears its close, reflecting on the emptiness of the streets as much as the shakiness of the paper’s future. Briefly touching on how those meatpacking plants are, with deference to Pete Seeger, waist-deep in the virus’s big muddy, with the big fool in Washington DC (and his lesser compatriot in crime, Iowa Governor Jim Reynolds) pushing on the Big Lie. All you need to see how bad the situation was are Tom Cullen’s headlines, as Storm Lake becoming one of the hottest spots in the country.
“You can change the world through journalism,” Art comments late in Storm Lake. There’s no finer way of showing that than with a contemplative look at the lovely, old-fashion small town essence courtesy of Risius and Levison. Here’s to a brighter future!
The film world premiered at the 24th Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival on June 2nd. It has been set in several other fests, including AFI DOCS.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).