BY LISA PERKINS
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Small increments.
That's how the rights of American citizens are being eroded, contend filmmakers who took to the stage Wednesday during the first panel discussion of this year's Traverse City Film Festival.
"Its a slow creep, bit-by-bit, they take away rights so that people don't really notice," said panel moderator and Film Festival founder Michael Moore.
"Big Brother on Film: Censorship, Government Spying and How the Koch Brothers Can Kill Your Film" included Academy Award-nominated producers and directors Carl Dean and Tia Lessin, Cullen Hoback and New Zealand filmmaker Slavko Martinov.
Hoback's film, "Terms and Conditions May Apply" examines the terms to which consumers are agreeing, and how much privacy is at stake when using online services.
"Anything we do in our digital lives becomes public with a legally binding contract," he said.
The irony, Moore said, is that while individuals have less privacy, corporations increasingly are concealing their information.
"None of this has happened in private, in fine print; it has all been right in front of our eyes. It is to benefit the super-enfranchised, the wealthiest Americans and disenfranchise people of average means and working class people," said Dean, filmmaker of "Trouble the Water" and "Citizen Koch."
Dean's and Lessin's latest film investigates how the immensely wealthy can influence the American political system, as witnessed by how the landmark U.S. Supreme Court's Citizen's United ruling changed how elections can be funded, they said.
"Citizen Koch" focuses on billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch and their impact on Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's standoff with state employees. The film lost funding from PBS when affiliate WNET feared the documentary would upset major contributor David Koch.
"We thought PBS — no better place to showcase our film, but a funny thing happened on the way to Sundance," said Lessin, who started a Kickstarter fundraising campaign to replace the PBS funding.
Martinov, whose film is titled "Propaganda," offered a personal anecdote of the effects of increased governmental surveillance. The footage, purportedly smuggled out of North Korea by defectors, had him labeled as a spy and communist by the New Zealand counter-terrorism unit.
"So when your spy unit is spying on you, it causes a lot of problems," he said.
Martinov and his fellow filmmakers, though, share a belief in the power of truth in documentaries.
"If you can't have integrity as a documentary filmmaker, what do you have?" Lessin said.