Storm Lake

Pulitzer Prize winner Art Cullen and his family deliver the news to their Iowan farming community through their biweekly paper, The Storm Lake Times—come hell or pandemic.

Series
Independent Lens
Premiere Date
November 15, 2021
Funding Initiative
Open Call
Director

Jerry Risius

Risius brings over 25 years experience as DP on such projects as Generation Wealth (Sundance 2018) and The Devil Came on Horseback (Sundance 2007), and as Field Producer/DP on Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations and Parts Unknown. He grew up on a hog farm outside Buffalo Center, Iowa, and knows this northwest corner of the state as few do.

Producer/Co-Director

Beth Levison

Levison is an Emmy and Peabody-winning independent producer in NYC. Her most recently produced film, WOMEN IN BLUE, about gender, race and violence in America through the eyes of female police officers with the Minneapolis Police Department, is being shown as a “Work in Progress” at AFI DOCS 2020. That film will broadcast on Independent Lens in 2021. MADE IN BOISE, Show more premiered at AFI DOCS 2019, was the series opener of Independent Lens’ 2019/2020 season, and is currently available internationally. Previously produced projects include the Emmy-nominated Personal Statement (PBS 2018) and 32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide (HBO 2017). Levison is a co-founder of the Documentary Producers Alliance, faculty with SVA’s MFA program in Social Documentary Film, and a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Show less

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The Film

Storm Lake, Iowa, has seen its fair share of changes in the 40 years since Big Agriculture came to town. Farmers blow their life savings on new equipment they hope will keep their livelihoods intact while migrant workers flock here, welcome and not, to achieve the American Dream. Corporate, political, and environmental forces—and even a global pandemic—threaten to overwhelm the already precarious existence of those in Storm Lake. 

Enter: 63-year-old Art Cullen, an old-school journalist who has dedicated his life to his family’s biweekly newspaper The Storm Lake Times. In 2017, Art challenges powerful corporate interests and local county officials about the pollution of local waterways that wins him a Pulitzer. While he has the power to change minds and rally votes, his pugnacious voice makes waves; disgruntled residents don’t always agree with his point of view and have been known to write him and his paper off entirely.

Nearly 2,000 local papers have shuttered in the last 20 years, a crisis accelerated by COVID-19. The stakes have been especially high for the Cullen family; they comprise half The Times’ 10-person team. Art’s 27-year-old son Tom is lead reporter, his wife Dolores the photographer and culture reporter, his older brother John the publisher, and John’s wife Mary the food columnist. Against tight deadlines and slimmer margins, the Cullens doggedly report on their town, and wonder how the paper will survive as readers—with a preference for their social media feeds—cease to support journalism like they used to. 

By 2020, things start to take a dire turn. In May, Storm Lake becomes the COVID-19 epicenter in the state. The public health catastrophe poses an existential crisis for The Times as ad revenue and newspaper sales suffer a serious blow. And yet, the need for The Times is more vital than ever as credible journalism is under siege and democracy hangs by a thread. Despite the setbacks, the financial losses, and even quarantine, the Cullens continue to deliver the news. There’s simply too much at stake not to.

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