‘Storm Lake’ Comes to Storm Lake


Charisma Mendez

Cast and crew outside the Vista 3 Theatre at the premiere of ‘Storm Lake’. (PBS)

Hannah Kramer and Blake McMillan

Cullens among the cast and crew at the foyer in the Storm Lake Vista 3 Theatre. (Hannah Kramer)

On Thursday, September 16, 2021, Vista 3 Theater hosted the premiere of the Storm Lake documentary. The Cullens and directors, Jerry Risius and Beth Levison, were in attendance. The piece follows Art Cullen and his family after his 2017 Pulitzer-win through the struggles and joys of running a true local newspaper.  

The documentary starts in early 2019 as Storm Lake gets visits from Democratic nominees for the 2020 presidential race. Art Cullen’s family follows the coverage of the race through the 2020 Iowa caucus; Storm Lake’s diverse population creating a unique angle to be covered at The Times by Cullen and his brother John, son Tom, wife Delores, and news pup Peach. Looming over the newspaper is the digital age, with the internet and television ready to destroy local newspapers like The Storm Lake Times.

To encapsulate the importance of small-town news was the main focal point of this documentary. Risius went on to say, “You want to stay true the story, and I think that’s what we did.” To highlight the key factors of what makes journalism an important pillar of this community is what Risius and Levison set out to do. To elaborate Levison said, “We have a real rule to sort of work by. Like, when Art says, ‘you know our motto is: if it didn’t happen in Buena Vista County, it didn’t happen’ – that became that focus in the film for us.” 

Directors Beth Levison and Jerry RIsius at the premiere of their documentary ‘Storm Lake’. (PBS, Charisma Mendez)

For Art Cullen, the film is emotional, “I’ve seen it three times and I still have the Kleenex at the ready,” he says. “I think the theme is that- honest journalism is the basic bedrock of democracy of an informed democracy.” Art’s son, Tom Cullen goes on to say how he feels about the film, “It’s very difficult to describe, watching it for the first time, it was almost surreal.”  

The director duo of Risius and Levison, both based in New York, decided to collaborate on this documentary in an unusual way. In a Q+A after the screening, Director Risius explained, “In April of 2017, I was reading as the Pulitzers were announced, they always say New York Times or Washington Post or some large coastal newspaper. But the headline was about a small Iowa town wins a Pulitzer.” From there, Risius contacted Levison to pitch doing a film on the paper.  

“‘I don’t know, Jerry, I’m really busy,’” she recounted. Despite Levison’s hesitance, Risius kept pushing. Levison said, “It was August 2018, Jerry reached out to me and said ‘You’ve got to read this editorial. It’s by that guy I was telling you

While cast and crew are being photographed, the Cullens’ English setter Peach sits at the premiere. Peach can often be found with Delores Cullen around town and at home. (Blake McMillan)

about.’ I read the op-ed and it basically made me cry. I thought, ‘There’s something here, let’s do it,’ and so we teamed up really quickly.”

“I’ve known the Cullen family since 2003, when I moved here. One of them was on my porch the first month I was living in Storm Lake, wanting to get to know me and my story,” Buena Vista University President Dr. Brian Lenzmeier said. “It’s really exciting to see not only the Cullens get recognition for a lifetime of commitment to covering Storm Lake, but to see small newspapers profiled here. It’s a really important part of our democracy.” 

Storm Lake is touring now. For a full list of dates where the film can be seen, go to the film’s website.