The dark political arts of redistricting — a term that causes the eyes of most viewers and voters to glaze over — ensures the sustained rule of incumbents in American politics. So argues former film exec-turned-documaker Jeff Reichert in his talky but easily digestible “Gerrymandering.” Designed, like so many slickly made nonfiction films about topical issues, to entertain and serve as an organizing tool, pic studiously avoids partisanship as it explains the history and purpose of drawing up representatives’ districts. Evergreen subject will make for good ancillary sales after a token theatrical release to match midterm elections.
In essence, the aim of “gerrymandering” (named after 19th-century Massachusetts governor and founding father Elbridge Gerry, who used some creative redistricting to his political advantage) is to create the most favorable possible conditions in a district for an elected official’s re-election. Pic’s prelude includes clips of presidents from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama, plus a citation from Thomas Pynchon’s “Mason & Dixon,” alluding to the abuses of power that can stem from “drawing a line.”
Reichert structures his material on two parallel tracks: the unfolding saga of the 2008 California campaign for Prop. 11, which proposed to reform the state’s redistricting process; and a generalist overview of gerrymandering as it exists in three forms: racial, partisan and incumbent-driven.
California Common Cause director Kathay Feng leads the charge on Prop. 11, with considerable support from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. This segment is the film’s weakest, as it simply assembles bits and pieces of footage shot during the campaign up through the victorious post-election press conference, with comments by the determined Feng on the corrosive effects of gerrymandering on the Republic.
More effective is the film’s chain of examples of gerrymandering in practice, including how New York State Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries found his district redrawn by the incumbent so that he was no longer a resident, and could therefore not wage a campaign challenge. The notorious case of Democrats in the Texas legislature fleeing across the Oklahoma border to block a vote on redistricting (which would have favored the new majority GOP) is recounted with a nice sense of humor and detail.
The subject is plumbed in unexpected ways with a segment on software designer Chris Swain’s “The Redistricting Game,” in which the player can engage in map manipulations (based on party composition, racial profiles and voter behavior) to fit a pol’s ideal voter bloc. Schwarzenegger and others observe that as the process has become more refined with powerful computers and software, the legislatures have become extremely divided by stark ideological differences, erasing any centrist influence.
Vet redistricting technicians, such as the cynical-sounding Bill Cavala, doubt reform is possible under the current conditions, though the filmmakers intend to counter this school of thought. Dismayingly, the film concludes with blunt commands to “Know Your District,” “Fight the Maps” and “End Gerrymandering” — directed at an audience that, the filmmakers apparently assume, needs to be lectured.
Production credits are decent, with fine and funny visual effects by Brian Oakes and an annoying drum score.