Dir: Jeff Reichert. US. 2010. 77mins
The title is an American term for political redistricting, named for Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, who redrew his state’s electoral boundaries in 1812 to ensure his own reelection, and the resulting district shapes that some likened to those of salamanders. According to Reichert’s snappy, engaging documentary, the US is the only country in the West where it is done for political reasons.
Television is the natural home for the film, even though it is cinematic - in the best way - all the way through.
Depending on which party is in power, both Democrats and Republicans have been guilty of carving up of cities and states in order to preserve seats in state legislatures and the US Congress. “Enemy” politicians are frequently fingered to be voted out of office, or “boxed out.” According to former California Senator and Governor Pete Wilson, “Democrats and Republicans agree on one thing: their own survival.” This is why, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger says contemptuously, “The legislators pick the voters rather than the voters picking the legislators.”
Schwarzenegger is a recurring presence in the film, which Reichert anchors in the 2008 vote on California’s Proposition 11, which the governor supported. It would ostensibly end gerrymandering, creating instead of legislators a bipartisan commission to decide on alterations in voting districts. The film covers nine states in total, each with a different redistricting story, but keeps coming back to California in the form of a countdown to election day.
At one point, Schwarzenegger compares an election to “a suspense movie,” a comment that elicits chuckles from the audience (indeed, the film is laced with humor, often unintentional), and Reichert’s strategy succeeds in holding one’s attention the way a good thriller does. The other main spokesperson for Proposition 11- the movie makes no claims to be neutral- is Kathy Feng, Executive Director of California Common Cause, an advocacy group. She is compelling, especially because her own district had been hacked up to divide the Asian-American vote.
Reichert, co-founder of the intellectual movie journal Reverse Shot and a former distribution executive, keeps the film moving, with the help of editor Pollard. The director uses maps, animation, black-and-white archive footage, and colour scenes of his interview subjects, who are filmed at a variety of angles in shots of differing compositions to keep Gerrymandering from being a static, television-type doc. David Wingo’s alluring music, much of which is revisionist patriotic songs as if performed by hip contemporary musicians, also keeps the viewer from straying.
Reichert’s position against gerrymandering is clear from the outset; there is little attempt at that elusive thing called “balance,” and the fight against redistricting is couched in a struggle to preserve democracy. His stance might limit spectatorship to the converted in the US, even if the issue is bipartisan, though it could appeal to viewers in foreign markets, especially English-language ones, since the concept is so alien to their systems that it’s almost exotic. Television is the natural home for the film, even though it is cinematic - in the best way - all the way through.
One of the strangest examples of redistricting in the film is the Republican attempt to gerrymander Texas in 2005, with the aid of arch-conservative U.S. Congressman Tom DeLay. Fifty-two Democratic representatives fled across the state line to Ardmore, Oklahoma in order to prevent a vote to pass a law slicing the state up to Republican advantage. They were followed by the Texas Rangers, who in turn were sent home by the Oklahoma authorities.
Another is Barack Obama’s participation in gerrymandering part of Chicago to add wealthy white liberals to the mostly black South Side residents he represented in the State Senate; the move resulted in his election to the U.S. Senate. Speaking of the inherent urge to survive on the state level, one professor says, “Each legislator thinks he will move up the ladder to become president.” Well, one fellow in Illinois did just that.
Production company: Green Film Company
International sales: Green Film Company, +1 212 337-3099
Executive producers: Bill Mundell, Larry Abramson, DJ Martin
Producers: Dan O’Meara, Chris Romano, Jeff Reichert
Screenplay: Jeff Reichert
Cinematography: Gary Griffin
Editor: Sam Pollard
Music: David Wingo
Main cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Howard Dean, Gray Davis, Ed Rollins