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Movie Review: Gerrymandering

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Photo courtesy Green Film Company.
In American politics, it may well be that the thinnest of lines truly divide us the most. Beyond race, wealth, or denomination (although certainly encompassing all of these), political voting districts hold an absolutely distinct and direct power in being able to outline and define our governmental landscape. Districts, and the highly debated practice of redistricting, have for years been largely responsible for the election of officials that, frankly, may have otherwise had no business being in office. Gerrymandering, the new documentary that focuses on the unfair and advantageous side of redistricting (a process called, you guessed it, gerrymandering), attempts to take this complex problem and not only make it understandable, but also palatable.

The film, which features plenty of heavy politicos from beginning to end, opens with a poli-sci School House Rock homage before jettisoning off into political parts unknown by those of us without a subscription to The Economist. And while there is only the long of it, a short summary could be composed thusly: redistricting is the process of redrawing local and state voting districts following a census; gerrymandering is using this process for one’s own gain - most commonly by drawing odd-shaped districts that only include the types of people most likely to vote for a specific political candidate. The result is a hodgepodge system of insured incumbents with little chance of losing their reelection, simply because of the voter base at their feet.

Throughout Gerrymandering, filmmaker Jeff Reichert attempts (and rightfully so) to lambaste the political process that allows for our elected representatives to draw their own boundaries. The film very smartly peeks open the heavy lid of political dullness to show moviegoers the utopian process in Iowa and abroad, where those in office have no say in the matter. Meanwhile, Reichert also balances the broken California system, and focuses on a specific proposition aimed at setting up a non-partisan committee to focus on redrawing our state. And this, frankly, is where things get muddled.

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Despite the heavy and seemingly drab subject matter, gerrymandering itself is a very important part of our political landscape that absolutely should be recognized and understood by everyone, and Gerrymandering the film does a superb job of delivering the needed information eloquently and with a degree of enchantment that keeps the audience engaged. However, it lacks a clear message. That is to say, the film is very clear that it is against gerrymandering, it just doesn’t seem to know how it wants to fight back or where its base of power should come from. One moment we’re laughing with two geeky white guys in a NASA-like room who control the boundaries for Iowa, and then next we’re told to focus on California’s committee system as a model for future states to enact. Meanwhile, big-named politicians are rolled out for soundbites about how mapping by those not deeply embedded in the political process would be a mistake. Furthermore, Reichert takes aim primarily at Republicans, but also turns his daggeringly-sharp lens against Obama, making a case of gerrymandering in Chicago that helped to get him elected. Which is it? Does Reichert hope to wake up everyone by shaking any political base he can find?

Again, it must be stressed that Gerrymandering is a well-thought-out film that finely details and intricate subject and addresses a specific need, but it does very little to actually coalesce into a motivational film. Rather, the imbalance of information to call-to-action leaves the audience slightly pandered to (there’s something for everyone to hate!), and no more angry as a result.

Gerrymandering opens in select theaters October 15th.