Best of the Fests: STORM LAKE

STORM LAKE followed by Q&A

Expired October 16, 2021 6:59 AM
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Dark clouds hang over the cornfields of Storm Lake, Iowa, which has seen its fair share of change 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. Migrant workers flock here—welcome and not—for their slice of the American Dream. The people of Storm Lake confront a changing community as global forces threaten their precarious existence.

Enter: 63-year-old Pulitzer-prize winner Art Cullen and his family-run newspaper, The Storm Lake Times. Day in and day out, the Cullen's deliver local news and biting editorials on a shoestring budget for their 3,000 readers. Come hell or pandemic, they’ll fight to preserve this town they call home. There’s simply too much at stake. 

Please stay tuned for a post-film Q&A with directors Beth Levison and Jerry Risius moderated by SOU Communication Professor Erik Palmer.

Director Beth Levison

Director Jerry Risius


I was drawn to this story as soon as I started reading about a fellow North Iowan—Art Cullen—who had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing in 2017. I grew up about an hour from Storm Lake on a hog farm in Buffalo Center, a small town of 1,000 people set amidst the vast Midwest prairie with cornfields stretching as far as the eye can see. If Art’s writing had earned him a Pulitzer, he must have something important to say. I started reading his paper and immediately felt in sync with its Iowan voice; this at a time when local perspectives are seldom heard.

Once I started to spend time with Art, I came to appreciate not only his own challenges as a newspaperman, but those of his tight-knit family. Unfortunately, my local newspaper, The Buffalo Center Tribune, went the way of many independent papers like it—once run by an enterprising local and a few staff writers, it’s now owned and operated by a large corporate consortium. The stories that make the fabric of the town are largely gone. It’s been a loss for me, my parents who still live there, and the Buffalo Center community.

Thankfully, the people of Storm Lake are more fortunate than so many communities around the country. Despite their struggles, they are connected by their biweekly paper, in part because hometown journalism is nothing short of a mission for all the Cullens - Art, Dolores, John, Tom and Mary. In production, when Beth Levison joined me as my directing partner, we both found ourselves inspired by the Cullens’ love for their town, and their commitment to keeping it alive while making it a more sustainable and inclusive place.

And, we cannot help but think that if a local newspaper can rally a town as diverse as Storm Lake around hard facts and the common good, there may be hope for all of us. We hope this film will help to ensure the survival of The Times, and local papers like it across the country that serve communities with their own challenges, achievements and concerns.

  • Year
  • Runtime
    85 minutes
  • Language
  • Country
    United States
  • Director
    Jerry Risius, Beth Levison
  • Producer
    Beth Levison
  • Executive Producer
    Katy Drake Bettner, Sam Bisbee, Pamela Tanner Boll, Sally Jo Fifer, Megan Gelstein, Lois Vossen, Jamie Wolf
  • Co-Producer
    Tegan Acton, Emma Pompetti
  • Cast
    Art Cullen, Dolores Cullen, John Cullen, Mary Cullen, Tom Cullen, Peach the Newshound
  • Cinematographer
    Director of Photography: Jerry Risius
  • Editor
    Rachel Shuman
  • Music
    Andrew Bird with Alan Hampton