Film review by: Witney Seibold
In the 18th century, there was a Massachusetts politician named Eldrich Gerry (pronounced with a hard “g”), who was the first to redraw electoral district lines to suit his own political interests, and assure that he could win his district by making sure in contained all his supporters. Others looked at Gerry’s new strangely-shaped district, and laughed. It looked like a creature. According to one political cartoon, it looked like a salamander. People the country over started talking about the political corruption represented by this new, odd-looking “Gerrymander,” and a new political term was born. To this day, gerrymandering is still heavily in practice.
Jeff Reichert‘s new documentary, “Gerrymandering,” is a kind of shabby, low-budget affair that barely manages to stretch to its 78 minutes. It’s also, very clearly, a piece of cinematic agitprop that was transparently boosting for voter support on two ballot initiative in last week’s election, trying to bring down the practice of gerrymandering by taking redistricting power out of the hands of the politicians, and putting in into the hands of a league of unpaid citizens.
Yes, the United States is the only democracy in the world where the politicians themselves get to redraw their own districts. This may seem innocuous, but it happens so secretly and so insidiously, that many elections are decided no matter how you vote; the politicians can draw out your house and only your house if they feel they don’t already have your vote. Looking at some of the maps in “Gerrymandering” make it immediately clear what’s going on.
There’s also a powerful undercurrent of racism when it comes to redistricting. If you look at some of the U-shaped districts on display in the film, you’ll understand that minority neighborhoods are often being divided or just excised completely from certain local elections. It’s a sad fact of the U.S. that racism still exists in many forms, but I think that we shouldn’t allow politicians to express their bigotry and fears through this protracted electoral deck-stacking.
Thanks to the efforts of one Kathay Feng, head of a non-partisan citizen’s group, and her push to get proposition 20 passed and proposition 27 defeated, gerrymandering has been temporarily stymied in California. The film follows Feng and her alliances with some understanding politicians to make democracy a democracy again. It was odd to see so many vitriolic political opponents agreeing on something, all spearheaded by this polite and hard-working woman. Since gerrymandering is a non-partisan issue (every politician is guilty of doing it to some degree), it was nice to see some stalwart minds step forward to oppose it; it was one of the rare moments where I admired Arnold Schwarzenegger as a politician.
How is the film? Like I said, it’s very clearly agitprop, but it does bring up an important point. There’s not really enough material to fill a 78-minute film, and still keep it relevant and entertaining, so many portions feel suspiciously like padding. A lot of time is given to Kathay Feng and her crusade, and, since the election results are in as of this writing, she was successful. The ultimate message of the film is to know your district, and, if you’re outraged, to join that citizens’ coalition to help redraw districts in a fairer fashion.
This is a democracy after all, right?