Tribeca Review: Gerrymandering
t the most basic level, Gerrymandering is a documentary about drawing lines, the way every corner of the country is split up into districts and jurisdictions and zones in order to pick the people who represent them, whether on the school board or in the national House of Representatives. To even the most devoted of political nuts that probably sounds deathly dull, but first-time documentarian Jeff Reichert has made a funny, entertaining and, in its own way, deeply patriotic film about both the ways in which the American government systematically fails us, and how simple it can be to fix it.
The zippy "Schoolhouse Rock"-inspired opening of the film does a better job of explaining gerrymandering than I possibly could, but I guess I can try. The word, a funny portmanteau originating from a particularly unscrupulous 19th-century Massachusetts governor, is the process of politicians and legislators redrawing district lines to suit their own interests. With the arrival of the Census every 10 years lines must be redrawn so that each district has equal population, but complicating factors like ethnicities and political parties mean that everyone up for re-election wants to mess with the line. From Barack Obama completely altering his Chicago district so that he represented white liberals to a Brooklyn assemblyman being zoned out of his own neighborhood by the competition, Reichert's film documents the silly but deeply significant ways that invisible lines can completely shape who governs our country, and how our voices can or cannot be heard as a result.
Bouncing all over the country (illustrated with snappy maps and occasional animation) and interviewing dozens of subjects, the film's single through line follows efforts in 2008 to pass California Proposition 11, which would take redistricting power away from politicians themselves and assign a panel of ordinary citizens to the job. Activist Cathay Feng teams up with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to promote the bill, and the two make a stirring and frequently hilarious pair--Feng with her earnest pronouncements about making government work better and Schwarzenegger with his limitless movie references. By stepping behind a policy that's so clearly just, and by being his somewhat goofy and charming self, Schwarzenegger has never seemed more appealing.
It's hard to keep track of all the other plot threads in the film, and a few, like a stop over in post-Katrina New Orleans, go nowhere. But Reichert's eye for the human story makes most of them memorable, from a visit to a very devoted local representative in one of Florida's few competitive districts (the armadillo race at the Swamp Cabbage Festival is worth the ticket alone) to a clever and concise explanation of what happened in 2003, when every Democrat in the Texas House of Representatives fled the state rather than be forced to participate in a redistricting vote that they considered to be gerrymandering. With the help of a well-selected Daily Show clip and a re-enactment of the Democrats' stop at an Oklahoma Holiday Inn, Reichert allows the audience to build for itself a picture of adult politicians acting like complete children, but in the service of a somewhat reasonable cause.
Despite the brief appearance of Jon Stewart and a few instances where there's no choice but to laugh at the callow antics of our elected leaders, Gerrymandering possesses a persuasive and endearing earnestness, a belief in the power to fix the system simply by starting from the ground level. Because every district is different and gerrymandering so hard to stop, the message at the end is a simple one: participate. Know your district, know your representatives, know how to notice if this year's Census results place you in a new district for apparently no reason. In an era of "Yes we can" and the new sincerity, it's a motivating message, and Reichert's engaging and thoughtful documentary makes gerrymandering seem like one of those big-picture problems that any of us
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