Gerrymandering Director Jeff Reichert

by |
10/13/2010 4:00 AM |

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.