The Hammer and the Nailing
What's bad news for Tom DeLay is good news for Mark Birnbaum and Jim Schermbeck, the Dallas-based documentary filmmakers whose movie about Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle's investigation into the doings of DeLay's Texans for a Republican Majority political action committee (TRMPAC) has found a distributor. The Observer first wrote about Birnbaum and Schermbeck's doc The Big Buy last August, when a rough cut screened at the Dallas Video Festival. At the time, the filmmakers worried no one would ever see their movie; certainly, no one wanted to finance it, which meant they paid for three years' worth of work out of their own pockets.
But on September 28, an Austin grand jury indicted the now-former U.S. House Majority Leader on a charge of criminally conspiring to illegally use about $200,000 of TRMPAC's corporate-donated dough to help Republicans take the Texas House, leading to the redistricting of the state and the loss of five Democratic seats. Then, a few days later, a different grand jury indicted DeLay on charges of money-laundering stemming from the same investigation. One conspiracy charge was dismissed by state district Judge Pat Priest in December—but at this very moment, Earle's in the Texas 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin trying to get a ruling that would overturn the decision that essentially left one of the money-laundering charges intact. A decision isn't expected on today's appeal for about another month. In the meantime, DeLay is trying to get re-elected to Congress, with the indictment hanging over his head like a bad hairpiece.
And all of this sits just fine with Birnbaum and Schermbeck, who have found a distributor in Brave New Films, the company run by documentarian-cum-provocateur Robert Greenwald, who's responsible for such films as Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism and Uncovered: The War on Iraq. In conjunction with Brave New Films, Birnbaum and Schermbeck have set up a Web site through which you can pre-order DVDs of The Big Buy, which has been updated since its August 2005 screening, and watch the trailer.
Right now, Birnbaum says, a world premiere is scheduled to take place May 5 in Houston at the Angelika Film Center. Eleven days later, the DVD will go on sale, with Brave New Films hosting "house parties" across the country to garner attention for and interest in The Big Buy. (Right now, in fact, the filmmakers are finishing work on their DVD extras.) Screenings in Dallas, Los Angeles and New York are also in the works, and there are plans for The Big Buy to get a regular theatrical run in Austin when DeLay goes to trial, likely in late July.
"This is a doc-maker's dream, to start out on a story three years ago about Texas politics with a conclusion no one of us expected," Birnbaum says. "Last summer I was sure DeLay wasn't gonna be indicted, as did many other people, or else Ronnie would have done it by then, so it's your dream to put your treasure and sweat into a project and then, with the turn of events have, it move to center stage for the nation...The timing turns out to be pretty fortuitous for us. I don't wanna trade on DeLay's problems, but that's how it worked out, and through the summer there will be continuing interest in this."
And there is still the possibility Birnbaum and Schermbeck might get subpoenaed in the matter: Six months ago, J.D. Pauerstein, attorney for the similarly indicted Jim Ellis, the executive director of DeLay's Americans for a Republican Majority political action committee, sent a letter informing them he wanted to see their raw footage. "He wants to see what Ronnie said on camera that didn't end up in the film," Birnbaum says, referring to a court filing that mentions the movie by name.
As Schermbeck puts it, with some understatement, "These are exciting times." —Robert Wilonsky