In the few months since Gerrymandering premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, "Jeff Reichert Gerrymandering" has rocketed to the top of my most frequently Googled phrases. I'm not proud of this fact, but like all filmmakers I am a nervous parent: we anxiously scan for any sign of our offspring's success or failure out in the world at large. Happily, the bulk of the response has been positive (with some caveats, many of which I can agree with -- no film is perfect), suggesting that our small filmmaking team managed to do what so many along the way said would be impossible: take an unknown, unfilmable subject and make it into a feature film worth watching. Bonus points for ending up, in the words of New York magazine, "surprisingly bipartisan."
Not long after Tribeca, my daily searching led me for the first (and last) time over to Breitbart's Big Hollywood blog, where "Joe Bendel" had posted a festival roundup called "Plenty for Conservatives to Love and Loath [sic] at Tribeca '10" that included my film. His reaction was rather strong:
Jeff Reichert's Gerrymandering was also pretty naked in its overt partisanship, notwithstanding occasional fig-leaves of bipartisanship (like a three second expository sound bite from John Fund). Throughout the film, he claims gerrymandering is practiced by both parties, but only presents Democrat [sic] politicians as the victims...[Gerrymandering] is clearly far more preoccupied with demonizing Tom DeLay.
Bendel goes on, noting in particular the film's overall dullness and tone-deafness. I can't argue with anyone who finds Gerrymandering boring -- as they say, to each their own. However, the charges of lefty partisanship seemed misguided; the movie we made criticizes Barack Obama for tailoring himself a State Senate district, Nancy Pelosi for opposing redistricting reform in California, the Democratic party for using black voters to "sandbag" white Democratic districts in the South, and opens with a clip of Ronald Reagan decrying Democratic gerrymanders! (The last, admittedly, a calculated decision meant to tweak the expectations of the largely liberal documentary audience.) Tom DeLay is mentioned, at most, a few times over the course of one short sequence in the middle of the movie; Bendel's fixation serves as proof positive that there's a certain breed of conservative that can dish it, but definitely can't take it.
Immediately after reading his post, I began planning an outraged response that would level his cretinous assessment and prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that my film was that rarest of rarities: a nonpartisan political documentary.
A few minutes passed, I calmed down, and just let it go. (Filmmakers publicly fighting with their reviewers are, in most cases, about as appealing to audiences as wailing infants.) I dredge up Bendel now as a recent round of review searching turned up further charges of partisanship, only this time they came from the left. From a post entitled "Conservative Screed":
I was very disappointed in the film, which amount [sic] to a very one-sided, conservative perspective of the redistricting process. The film had an agenda: conservative ideas are good, liberal ideas are bad.
This from an audience member at the Seattle Film Festival where we screened to sold-out audiences over Memorial Day weekend. The reaction from the very liberal crowd (at least so I assume -- many heads nodded in assent along with our opening epigraph from Thomas Pynchon) felt terrific -- they laughed at the right places, asked good, challenging questions during the Q&A, and wanted to know how they might reform the process in their state. Yet, someone in that audience had a completely opposite political reaction to Joe Bendel. The film was the same, so what happened?
What makes these critiques interesting, and worth noting here, is how directly they speak to a fundamental quality of the redistricting process. Any given redistricting plan will look like a gerrymander to someone; there is literally no way to please every constituent within a given piece of geography. Put another way, there is no district in which all of the citizens will have voted for the winner of a given election. This reality of democracy riddled with disgruntled voters is certainly not what we learned in civics.
Redistricting shows how the idea of fairness is malleable, how democracy will always be imperfect, and how what our Constitution guarantees us has never been the right to the representation we want but to the possibility of participating in a system that could produce our desired representation. This always seemed to me like great material for a film. The innate contradictions of how these questions are perceived and the, ahem, energetic responses they engender prove that Joe Bendel, my anonymous friend from Seattle, and I agree on at least this one point. That's democracy, too.
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