Mark Hall lives in Austin, TX and practiced law for 25 years.  But even as a child he was fascinated by film making and recalls trying his hand with an 8mm camera back then.  So when he hung out his law shingle in Austin 20 years ago, he also joined the Austin Film Society.  He produced his first documentary in 2010 and put his law license on an inactive status in 2014.

After 25 years of practicing law, I was ready to take a break,” he says.

He began work on his film, Killing Ed, in early 2011.  The film explores the controversial Gulen charter school movement.

Mark will show his film at Washington County school in Chatom on April 29 at 6:15 p.m.  This is fitting since a lot of the controversy about the Woodland Prep charter scheduled to open in Washington County this year involves Soner Tarim of Dallas, who is connected to the Gulen movement.

Here is a fascinating exchange I had with Mark:

What prompted you to pick this topic for Killing Ed?

I was serving on the board of Austin Sister Cities International when our board was approached by the mayor to establish a sister city in Turkey. The mayor had taken an all-expense paid 10 day trip to Turkey (with 9 other influential members of the Austin community) with an unknown group called the “Institute of Interfaith Dialog” in Houston. When he returned he made it clear we needed to establish a sister city with Antalya, Turkey.

I was chosen to conduct the due diligence on the application for this municipal agreement since I was an attorney.  I thought it would take two weeks.  Instead, after 18 months of talking with Turkish journalists, State Department desk officers, members of the local Turkish community and looking at documents, I had not found one person who recommended that we create this relationship with the Institute of Interfaith Dialog (now called the Dialogue Foundation of the Southwest).

Our board learned this organization was a front for a transnational religious cult headed by an imam named Fethullah Gülen. We voted down the application unanimously on three occasions.  In spite of our unanimous objections, the mayor worked to have the agreement approved by City Council without informing us. It was quite a shock – and showed the corrosive influence of followers of Fethullah Gülen who will do whatever it takes to achieve their objectives.

After this, I started getting phone calls from a reporter at the New York Times. She told me that not only were the Gülenists focused on the purchase of influence in American politics (as we’d seen in Austin) but were actively building tax-payer financed charter schools all over Texas. She was preparing an investigative piece on the growth of these schools. I decided that my production company should start filming around the issue of charter schools and the mysterious group that was rapidly building the largest chain of such schools in Texas and the USA.

How long did this project take?

We started shooting in March of 2011. Principal photography was finished in mid-2015. We spent 2015 editing the film (which took nearly a year). Music for the film was added in early 2016. We premiered “Killing Ed” at a theater in New York City in late March 2016.

I never expected that there would be a coup attempt by the Gülen Movement in Turkey in July 2016. It was quite a shock. Given what we saw on television and the Internet, I made the decision to edit the film a bit in August 2016 – adding new footage about the coup and the failure of a US governmental and political response to this violent event. What people will see at the screening in Alabama is this “epilogue” version of “Killing Ed” which I think of as its final and best cut.

How much research did you do? 

I was very fortunate early on to meet Sharon Higgins from Oakland, CA.  She is a brilliant researcher who would play a key role in the film – she explains a lot of the misdealings of the Gülen Movement and the problems of charter schools in general.  She was kind enough to share a lot of data.  Diane Ravitch – who was once a supporter of charter schools – was a big help. Her book “Reign of Error” helped me understand the terrible consequences we face as a nation should charter schools replace our traditional public schools with privately managed ones. The Texas Secretary of State’s incorporation documents helped piece together how the various Gülen schools, businesses and non-profits were linked together by various members of the cult.  It took a long time to piece this story together. The U.S. media has not done a good job of reporting on the Gülen Movement.

Did you encounter any problems on a subject this sensitive?

Lots of problems. First of all, the Gülen Movement is a relatively secret organization. Their members do not like to be interviewed unless they control the setting and the message. We tried for almost a year to interview Soner Tarim, the high-ranking Gülenist who started the “Harmony” charter school chain in Texas. After emails and certified letters, it was clear we would not be allowed to talk to him. As shown in “Killing Ed”, we decided to go to the Harmony headquarters in Houston to confront him. But no one knew where he was or when he might show up. Instead, a PR person came to try and decide if we were ‘friend or foe’ and how to deal with us.

This was common with the Gülen movement – even though you are very interested in hearing their perspective they are evasive. And it is often a mistruth or a highly ‘massaged’ PR version of the truth. We also encountered situations where my camera operator had a laser aimed at his camera’s lens to incur temporary blindness, threats of arrest for criminal trespass (even though we were on public easements), threats of lawsuits to shut down the production of the film, and other problems. I learned that it is very difficult to make a film when the main elements of the film strive so hard to avoid being seen for what they really are: a cult group that apparently is making hundreds of millions of dollars from school taxes in the USA.

One of the most frustrating problems to me personally was trying to show “Killing Ed” at any of the Texas film festivals. We entered the film at all of them in the state – from very small to the largest.  No such luck.  Even though I’ve won awards for my work at film festivals here and abroad.  An expose on an Islamist cult, along with criticism of the charter school movement, was just too much ‘truth’ for the current culture in Texas.  It’s one reason the Huffington Post called “Killing Ed” ‘the film Texas doesn’t want you to see.”

What surprises did you come across?

One of the oddest surprises I found was the fact that the conservative Christian politicians who run the state of Texas were so beholden to the theory of “‘education reform” that they were allowing an Islamist group like the Gülen Movement grow unimpeded in the state. The most powerful politicians know all about the problems of this antidemocratic cult (that now operates 62 charter schools in Texas), but don’t want confront it. They most certainly would not agree with the teachings of Fethullah Gülen but they look the other way – I guess there is too much money from charter school organizations and lobbyists for them to change their mind..

Other surprises along the way were just how many Gülen-related businesses and non-profits operate from the funds generated by the Gülen charter schools in the USA.  It’s a huge web of interconnected and secretive dealings that seem to be designed to extract funds from any source possible – including tax dollars for “real” public schools. I also found the numerous state, local and national politicians who had sold their influence to the Gülen cult to be a surprise and most troubling.  Some of this is portrayed in the film.  I didn’t realize just how corrupt our nation has become.

How has the movie been received?

It’s been well-received in states that are actively dealing with the Gülen Movement and charter schools. Although we have not officially released the film in Turkey, “Killing Ed” has been in the news there – especially since the July 2016 coup attempt, attributed to the Gülen Movement.  Sadly, I feel that my home state of Texas has not really gotten the message about the destructiveness of the path it has taken with charter schools and its wide approval of the Gülen cult.  We’ve shown the film a number of times in Texas but the local media has basically ignored the film and its message.

How many showings?  How many states have you been to?

“Killing Ed” has been screened in theaters and public auditoriums 32 times since March 2016. It’s been shown in Hong Kong, Turkey and Germany as well as North America. The largest screening was in Los Angeles where over 900 people watched the film.  Hard to estimate how many people have seen the film since it is now distributed to educational institutions around the country as well as via DVD and On Demand streaming video around the world. I believe Alabama is the 11th state in which we’ve shown the film.

What did you learn?

After all the work on “Killing Ed,” I have learned that our nation has huge problems we – meaning each and every one of us living here – need to correct.  We need to confront our political leaders about why they would accept campaign donations from a foreign cult group with ties to Islamism.  Why would they publicly support a cult that infiltrated the police, judiciary and media in their home country with designs on overthrowing the elected government there.  We need to scrutinized the incredible tales told by “education reform” advocates and the billionaires that support them – and slow down the growth of the schools they open.  We need to focus on our local schools and be involved in our local school boards.  And we need to hold our national law enforcement and intelligence agencies accountable for supporting groups like the Gülen Movement in our country and elsewhere. The USA is a big ship – it will take a lot to turn it around. But starting locally and regionally I think we can do it.  I remain hopeful.

Editor’s note: Both the Woodland Prep charter in Washington County and the LEAD Academy charter in Montgomery have management agreements with Soner Tarim’s Unity School Services of Texas.