Filmmaking newcomer Jeff Reichert opens his first feature documentary this weekend, and the former film distribution exec is taking on a relatively little-known political ploy that seriously questions the widely held belief that America is a beacon of democratic values. "Gerrymandering," which opened Friday, October 15th in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berkeley and San Diego, spotlights a practice that many politicians may prefer their constituents not know.
Every ten years, both major parties collude to re-draw district lines. While ostensibly, district boundaries are re-configured to reflect population shifts, in practice the lines are drawn to maintain the power of entrenched incumbants. Is there potentially a political foe threatening a legislator's seat? Simply move the boundaries so that would-be competitor no longer lives in the district. Boundaries often have little in common with a community or neighborhood.
"We started shooting ['Gerrymandering'] on October 15, 2008, so we're now at our two year anniversary," said Reichert who left his job at Magnolia Pictures to take on the filmmaker role. "The great thing about documentaries is that it's never what is expected. You may go to a state thinking you will be covering something and then it turns out to be something entirely different. The frustrating part is financing..."
Though Reichert dabbled with some shorts during college, the art of cinema was always present even before he decided to pick up the camera again. His aunt, three-time Oscar nominee Julia Reichert (""The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant" - shared with filmmaking partner Steven Bognar) is an award-winning non-fiction filmmaker, though his plunge into documentary was not a direct result of his relative's influence.
"I didn't set out to just make films and decide on documentary films, this just came up," Reichert noted. "But in terms of editorial and cutting the film, Julia and Steve were absolutely crucial." Reichert said that early on, the filmmaking duo helped him shape the story and made suggestions on who to go after. After he collected his footage, they also made suggestions on edits.
"I got six pages of detailed notes down to the nitty gritty and I sometimes questioned some of their advice, but I'd investigate it and they were always right," said Reichert. "It was the details they gave me toward the end that I'm especially grateful for..."
Traveling to several states, Reichert nabbed some pretty heavy-hitters for interviews, including California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean among others.
"Most politicians benefit from re-districting if they're the ones in office," said Reichert. "Politicians don't want to talk about it because they don't want reform because it may hurt them." Reichert notes in his film that among the Western world's "advanced" democracies, America alone still allows its politicians to re-draw district boundaries not only for local and state offices, but also for federal congressional districts.
"Nobody wants to touch this, they don't want to give up power," Reichert told iW last week in New York with luggage in tow as he was about to embark on a whirlwind trip promoting his film. "You can't exactly shoot a Gerrymander. It happens in secret so it took us avwhile to figure out how to tackle this."