- Arnold Schwarzenegger, the hero of Gerrymandering. (Photo: Gary Griffin)
Jeff Reichert first heard about congressional redistricting in 2003, when some 50 Democratic representatives in Texas walked out and holed up in Oklahoma to oppose Republican gerrymandering — the redrawing of districts to gain, in this case, seats in the House. "At the time, it seemed like an interesting local anecdote, with local color to it," says Reichert, a publicity manager at Magnolia Pictures at the time. But he didn't think much of it.
Years later, though, he had the idea to shoot a documentary about gerrymandering, "and then it became an obsession," he says. "Here's this thing, this big elephant in the room nobody talks about." In 2008, he gave two weeks' notice and began filming, but was faced with the following challenge: "How do you make film about it? You can't shoot a gerrymander."
We all know what a map of United States looks like, but "if you start to draw in all of the congressional districts, it looks very different," says Reichert, who also founded Reverse Shot, a website of film criticism. And while this might be interesting to political strategists, he adds, "if we just made a movie about all of the ways redistricting works ... that would be really boring." Needing the "juicy stuff of redistricting, where the drama is," he found the perfect storyline: California's Proposition 11, put to voters in 2008, which would establish an independent commission for drawing electoral boundaries.
That campaign, supported by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, provides the narrative backbone of Gerrymandering, a documentary that accomplishes exactly what Reichert had hoped: to make a dry subject somehow interesting and even, at times, suspenseful. (Of course, you can always Google "Prop 11" to find out how the film ends, but why spoil the fun?)
While other supporters appear in the film, Schwarzenegger is the film's most unlikely protagonist. "I'm a very liberal guy — or progressive, since that seems to be the word that's more appropriate to use these days," says Reichert. "What's interesting to me about Schwarzenegger is ... that he's a movie star, and he's the last person you'd expect to be a part of this unknown policy issue."
And while President Obama isn't exactly an antagonist in the film, he doesn't come across particularly well, either, given how he redrew his Illinois district in 2001. "It's not because we wanted to make Obama some kind of villain," he says. "With Obama, we wanted to show [that] this is far things can go with a quirky redistricting plan."
Reichert is now thinking about how to follow up his debut film, which opens today at the West End Cinema. Some fans of Gerrymandering have suggested a film about an even tougher subject to dramatize: campaign finance reform. And wouldn't you know it? "I'm kind of getting excited about that," he says.