Reichert, former distributor at Magnolia and cofounder of beloved online film journal Reverse Shot, moves into filmmaking with a snappy documentary (opening October 15) about how districts are divvyed up to preserve political power.
Why, how, did redistricting reform become the subject of your first film?
Throughout most of my time working in distribution, I'd had the idea in my head that I wanted to make a move to filmmaking at some point. I think if you asked most of the people who know me well they would have expected a first film from me to run about four hours, feature long takes, temps mort, maybe a wurlitzer score. If I had to do it again, I'm not sure I would pick gerrymandering as a topic to lead off with—it was tremendously difficult to conceptualize and execute and I might have done it better a few films in. That said, more often than not our subjects pick us. Once I got past a base-level understanding of redistricting and started thinking about it in terms of this entire invisible world of shifting lines impacting representation and changing history, I became really obsessed with finding a way to tell that story.
How much did the census have to do with it?
I'd love to say we planned all along to have the film out right before the last election preceding the census, but to be totally honest, if we'd gotten the money to make the film sooner, we would have. Thank goodness for horrible financing conditions.
How much did you know about gerrymandering going into this?
Almost nothing. nd for the first few years of research, my thinking about it was really naive. I'd first heard of the term when that bunch of Texas Democrats fled the state in buses (while watching Catch Me If You Can, naturally) and hid out in a motel in Ardmore, Oklahoma and for a while the film was going to be mostly about that incident. It took a few years of really mulling the issues, reading deep into the scholarship—not just about redistricting specifically, but representation theory, democratic practice, demographics—before things clicked and I realized we couldn't make a movie about Texas and capture anything like the sweep and scope of the problem. Someone told me along the way that every state has a horror story, and it's totally true; we could have swapped out all of the stories in the film for a completely different set and still filled a feature with bizarre anecdotes and characters.
At the end of the film you direct viewers to a website, endgerrymandering.com, that suggests some concrete principles for redistricting reform, but briefly, I wonder if you can suggest what we ought to think of as constituting a good redistricting process, and a good district.
It's funny, the simple "action" cards from the last minute of the film have inspired more controversy than many of the arguments made in the preceding 76 minutes. Some folks are mad about being "hectored," others want me to spell out exactly how you fix the system down to the details. What we've actually laid out in those cards—"There is no silver bullet." "Know your district." "Fight the Maps." "End Gerrymandering."—is about as robust a prescription I felt comfortable making in a film dealing with an issue in which there is literally no solution. There will never be a plan that satisfies everyone and there will never be a process that everyone feels included in. But that's actually ok. There's a certain degree of messiness we should embrace in democracy—we chose to have this system so we could have the freedom to be messy.
That said, there are a few things we can do to make the whole machine run a little more smoothly. First: get more people involved. "Know your district" isn't just some platitude that'd look good on a T-shirt; I believe that if every viewer left the theater and used the tool at endgerrymandering.com to see the contours of their assembly district, they'd have a hell of a lot of questions. And if they knew when and where they could go testify about ways in which the maps don't accurately reflect their personal experience of "community," I'd hope they'd take that opportunity. We made the film mostly about local stories in small districts for this reason—so that we could inspire folks to feel this is something tangible, something that affects them, something that is likely happening where they live.
Second: get the politicians out of the mapping process. If politicians want to have input, let them testify at public hearings—just because they've been elected to government doesn't mean they're no longer citizens like the rest of us. Remove them and I'm fine with a number of possible remedies—special masters, retired judges, independent commissions, administrative services agencies. Let each state look to their own traditions, priorities and specificities and decide what they'd like best.
People might not always feel like they live in a "good" district in terms of the representation they're receiving, but if they're more involved in the product and the politicians are put on the same playing field, at least they'll feel the maps were arrived at by something like a fair process. I think that could go a long way towards rebuilding trust in our democratic institutions.
The film is avowedly nonpartisan in its choice of talking heads and case studies—I can see why, hopefully it'll inspire more active citizenship across the political spectrum. But are there any political conclusions we ought to draw from the subject? Surely a system designed to preserve power will have some demographic consequences. Would you venture to say that the cost of gerrymandering is, in the aggregate, higher for any one group of voters than others?
I think minority communities usually bear the brunt of the negative effects of gerrymandering. There are certain protections in place via the Voting Rights Act, but those standards really only help communities of such a size that they could control the destiny of a Congressional district. I worry more about small, emergent communities—those that are large enough that they could influence the representation in a district, but not large enough that they could elect the candidate of their choice without help. Those communities—Asian-American, Latino, especially—are often carved into pieces so that incumbents can protect themselves.
This is perhaps a somewhat disingenuous question, but: Watching Arnold Schwarzenegger, who with his money and connections was able to organize a recall vote to have himself installed as Governor of California, talk about the necessity for more democracy while stumping for the Prop 11 redistricting reform recommendation, I wondered, is it possible the Founding Fathers were on to something with their distrust of a pure democracy? We see, in the Yes on Prop 11 ad, that the California Chamber of Commerce was in favor of redistricting reform—presumably because more competitive races means more opportunities for the wealthy to buy influence (especially now, post-Citizens United). Is gerrymandering one way of insulating government from an electorate that's often irrationally mistrusful of it?
Direct democracy is kind of a scary thing! Imagine if every American citizen had to vote on every piece of legislation put into the Congress. It'd be a disaster. There's a certain elegance to our system now, but I think that particular elegance belies a host of inequities roiling under the surface. Our system is the product of very specific historical circumstances but our current historical circumstance is extremely different from that earlier moment. Our democracy needs a tune up, and updating redistricting is a good place to start. Maybe if we get that done, we can think about moving on to other democratic models entirely.
It's funny you mention Citizens United—everywhere I've travelled with the film, audiences have been imploring me to make a campaign finance reform movie. (One woman even gave me her card so she could PA...) I think once you tackle redistricting, you have to do campaign finance as well—both are very involved in maintaining legislatures that are not responsive to the will of the voter. If the voter feels outside of the process, that breeds apathy, lowers participation and the powers that be are even further emboldened. I'm thinking of ways to get a film out of this idea now.
"Our democracy needs a tune-up": one thing I like about your film is its argument for the imperfection of the systems put into place by the Founders—it seems an implicit response to a current attitude in American politics, embodied by judicial "Originalism" and "Take Back Our Country" Tea Party rallies, that the only path to salvation leads backwards.
Anyone who thinks the Founding Fathers just nailed it and pulled a perfect system out of the box is either poorly educated, willfully naive, or both. The system will always be imperfect, people will always be dissatisfied—that's the dark flipside of what democracy is about. But, just because we can't realistically hope to achieve a perfect system doesn't mean we shouldn't strive towards one.