In his film, "Gerrymandering" - available in its entirety at the bottom of this page courtesy of SnagFilms - filmmaker Jeff Reichert explores the secret deals that go down to define and redefine the nation's congressional districts.
Director: Jeff Reichert
Subjects: Dave Aronberg, Ben Barnes, Gray Davis
The full film, "Gerrymandering" is available free on SnagFilms (and at the end of this article). This interview with Jeff is part of a new series of SnagFilm filmmaker profiles that will be featured weekly on indieWIRE.
The really short synopsis of the film?
Gerrymandering is about the greatest, most widespread and most completely unrecognized election scam ever perpetrated on the American voter.
Okay, a little bit more?
The film is about redistricting battles: how the lines that determine who represents us in our state legislatures and Congress are drawn; who draws them; what interests are at stake; and the implications for the average American voter. The U.S. is the only advanced democracy where politicians get to directly participate in the redistricting process--they get to essentially choose the voters they want to have vote for them. This leads to all sorts of absurd manipulations of our politics, but, except in certain cases, these techniques are considered perfectly legal by the courts.
We shot the film in a bunch of states across the country with an eye towards finding unbelievable regional tales of redistricting gone bad. Our states were all carefully chosen to balance one another out--our goal was to use a focus on this arcane, highly specific process to produce an overall portrait of of American politics that would try to address a bit of how our democracy has evolved over time, how it’s still evolving, how malleable and fragile it is. Even though our subject is one of the so-called “dark arts” of politics, I think the film as a whole is a largely affectionate portrait of one massive, awful, great, messy, weird place.
Reichert's long history with the moving image...
I basically grew up in a movie theater (my parents ran a small art house in South Jersey) and I’ve been working in and around film for well over a decade. I’ve done a lot of work in theatrical distribution; before making "Gerrymandering," I’d spent the previous six years running the PR & Marketing department for Magnolia Pictures where I released films like "Man on Wire," "No End in Sight," "Jesus Camp" and "Enron," and I still regularly collaborate with individual filmmakers looking to do DIY distribution. I’m getting ready to open the amazing "Bombay Beach" with filmmaker Alma Har’el as I write this.
In 2002/2003 I co-founded the film journal Reverse Shot, which I still co-edit with Michael Koresky. Through all of this work, I’ve wanted to make films. It seemed a natural extension of all the other things I was doing (especially the critical writing), and I’ve always loved the creative process--how you can conjure an idea out of thin air, and, if circumstances are right, and you work hard enough, you can catch it, shape it and put it up on a screen for others to experience. There’s something akin to magic in it, I think, and I don’t know that I’ve had many more top-to-bottom exhilarating experiences than making "Gerrymandering." At the same time, taking up filmmaking is the most horrible, ill-advised, exhausting thing one could do for oneself, but those stories are for a different Q&A.
On coming to redestricting as a topic for a film...
I was never a particularly political person up until the beginning of Iraq War II. That was the first time where I really felt a slippage where the people in government seemed to be acting completely independently of the public that they purported to represent. It’s a shocking, uncomfortable realization, and it’s made me pay close attention to politics ever since. I wish I could say I felt that this disconnect has evaporated in the intervening decade.
A little later that year, I started reading crazy stories about how over fifty Texas legislators had fled to Oklahoma and were hiding out in a Holiday Inn. They’d left to prevent a vote on a controversial partisan redistricting plan that had been rammed through the legislature by Tom Delay. I had no idea what redistricting was at the time, but the more I read about it, the more it seemed completely bonkers that this kind of manipulation was something that happened in America. Crazy as it was, I still chalked it up to the wackiness of Texas politics and tucked it away.
It wasn’t until a few years later, when I read articles that took a more national look at the question, that I realized that there is an entire invisible network of lines that affects the votes of every single American and can be manipulated to determine the outcomes of elections for decades. At that point, I knew there was a movie there.
The challenges of making a good film about a complicated subject...
There were two main challenges that kind of dovetailed with each other: the first was taking what is essentially an inert, undramatic cartographic procedure that very few people understand and breathing some life into it, making it cinematic. I think we came up with a lot of fun strategies to do this, but it was tough, and I don’t feel like I quite had a handle on it until well after we started shooting. I owe my much more experienced crew and producers for their support while I learned on the job.
At the same time as we needed to make a film that’s clear and engaging, this particular subject has a kind of irreducible complexity about it that I wanted to try to capture rather than distill; there are few clear heroes and villains here, and, as we say in the film, “any given redistricting plan is going to look like a gerrymander to someone”, and given that, it’s tough to build a clean narrative.
There’s a version of this documentary that we could have made that would have been more sensationalistic, much more obviously enraged, but I think that film would have elided the interesting stuff that kept me up at night obsessing about redistricting. The balance was important.
Why is it important to watch?
I think the more even-handed tone we struck in the film has paid dividends for viewers thus far, and will continue to do so for the Snag audience. It’s one thing to have your outrage manufactured and performed in front of you on-screen, another to be presented with a large array of information that often contradicts itself, and in some cases runs counter to your own political beliefs (many viewers of the film squirm uncomfortably while watching our sequence that covers President Obama’s manipulation of redistricting to advance his political career). We wanted to let audiences decide where to go with the information we collected.
This is not to say that the film doesn’t have a perspective--it does, and we came down pretty solidly on the side of trying to reform how we redistrict, but we were very careful avoid proscribing a simple solution because there simply isn’t one. That shouldn’t make people depressed, it should make them excited--democracy is, for me, all about the struggle, the debate, and here is an area where the citizens of each state have the potential to come together and invent a unique solution that works best for their particular needs. In California in 2010, a campaign working to create an independent commission to do their state’s redistricting sent out 660,000 copies of the film to voters right before the election and passed their initiative, which had failed five time before, by a massive margin. I think that’s inspiring.
On the stylistic inspirations...
Early on as we started cutting, my editor, Sam Pollard, suggested I take a look at Preston Sturges’s "The Great McGinty," and I think that film’s blend of politics and absurdity definitely helped us hone in on the dark humor inherent in many of the stories we captured. We stole a few cuts directly from Alain Resnais’s "Last Year at Marienbad" and his "Night and Fog" heavily informed the feel of a sequence we shot in Louisiana. Harun Farocki’s "In Comparison" and Errol Morris’s "Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control" are both films that do a great job of weaving complex ideas out of placing elements side-by-side and not trying terribly hard to force meanings, which was a goal of ours. We tried to copy some typographic elements from Godard’s "Week End" and though that didn’t quite work out, some of the influence crept in to how used text and graphics. I’m sure we talked about plenty of others both while shooting and editing.
I thought you said making films was terrible...
There are two long-format projects I’m working on that will hopefully shoot next year. The first is "Remote Area Medical," which we recently received a Sundance DFP grant for, which will be a veritè look at a weekend-long free pop-up medical clinic in Appalachia. The film will begin when the medical team (all volunteers who fly themselves in from around the country) arrives, and end when the makeshift hospital is dismantled. We’re going to put four-five sound/camera crews on the ground (applicants welcome!) and just see how it all unfolds.
The other is a neurological horror story called "The Itch," which will involve fiction and non-fiction elements and look at all the myriad ways in which the brain can go awry. The focus will be on one true-life, very scary, very gory tale, and will incorporate all sorts of cutting edge neuroscience. Both films are in collaboration with my wife, Farihah Zaman, and "The Itch" is being produced by Andy Fierberg.
On the shorter side, Reverse Shot’s two video interview series continue with regular installments and we’re planning follow-ups to "New York/New York," our initial foray into the nebulous world of the “video essay”, which we premiered at this summer’s Edinburgh Film Festival. The next piece is set to go live concurrently with our See It Big series at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens next week.