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by Jay Seaver

"Basic civics, done in a more or less civil fashion."
3 stars

Disdain for the technique of redrawing voting districts in strange ways for political gain ("gerrymandering") doesn't unite America's political parties, so much as alternate between them as convenient. Because of this, "Gerrymandering"-the-movie actually has a better chance than many politically-oriented documentaries to interest a large audience. How much new information that audience will receive is the question.

The term "gerrymandering" comes from Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry (whose name, as footage of President Kennedy and some Massachusetts schoolkids remind us, was pronounced with a hard G), famously called out in an 1812 Boston Gazette editorial cartoon for creating a salamander-shaped district to benefit his Democratic Republican party. It pervades American politics, as districts at the national, state, and local level are redrawn every ten years, with very few safeties to prevent those in power from influencing the process to their own benefit. As we see in an opening montage, Presidents from both parties (from Kennedy to Reagan to Obama) have decried the process, although few politicians actually do anything about it, as it may benefit them the next time around.

Filmmaker Jeff Reichert frames his movie in part by following a group attempting to do something about it, most notably Kathay Feng of Common Cause. In 2008, they put an initiative on the California ballot that would place the job of redistricting in the hands of an independent commission, and though they have the support of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, most career politicians oppose them. The film also covers the Texas state legislature's walkout in 2006, where Democratic representatives left the state in an effort to kill a Republican attempt to redistrict the state to its own advantage. They aren't necessarily the easiest things to make into a movie - the Texas segments are all done after the fact, and the last four weeks of a ballot initiative mainly consist of working phones and making rote speeches.

Both storylines are still interesting, in their way - Texas for the utter strangeness of the tactic, California for Feng's passion and Schwarzenegger's still-impressive screen presence - but this is much less a storytelling documentary than an informational one. Reichert and company spend most of their time on interview segments and narrated graphics, explaining history and demonstrating how either bunching up or dividing groups of similar voters can reduce their influence. Some examples are given, ranging from how a district containing a prison can skew voter influence to the apparently petty case of a line being redrawn to move a potentially strong rival to another district. The plentiful examples are well-related, and the cast of characters that the filmmakers assemble are good, distinct storytellers.

Reichert does occasionally fall a bit short on explaining broader concepts, though. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is mentioned, along with the implication that it actually requires some amount of gerrymandering, but this does not prove a springboard for debate, even though the movie seems to contradict itself, apparently depicting districts created to make minority representation easier as a positive thing when most of the running time depicts this sort of outcome-oriented districting as negative. At the end, proportional representation is described as an alternative, but the film spends very little time on the details of such a

That a relatively short documentary leaves the audience with a little to research or discus is not necessarily a fault. Still, this could have gone deeper; aside from a few specific examples, I'm not sure that this film tells me anything I didn't learn in my junior-high civics classes. That may be where this film has the most potential - as a teaching aid in schools or other places where people might need to learn the ins and outs of American government.

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originally posted: 11/11/10 11:16:17
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This film is listed in our political documentary series. For more in the Political Documentary series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.

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