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Politics At The Movies

Gerrymandering

Directed by Jeff Riechert
Playing one night at the Crest Theatre on Oct. 19 (1013 K St.)

“Nothing will produce Bad History more directly nor brutally, than drawing a Line.” –Thomas Pynchon – Mason & Dixon

“Gerrymandering” opens with this quote, seeking to bring some immediacy to something that, to most people, is a beyond-boring topic. Even for those who understand its importance, a quick introduction to map-drawing software and the many variables it tries to handle, such as I got earlier this year at the Statewide Database & Election Administration Research Center at UC Berkeley, it’s enough to bring on confusion to the point where you throw up your hands in frustration.

While the contents may still be dry to some, “Gerrymandering” does a good job telling its story in human terms. It also raises a point that I have been arguing for years – why do we even have districts in the traditional sense? The film argues for a European-style parliamentary democracy, with proportional representation that award seats to different parties based on the overall percentage of the vote. It’s such a rare argument in this country that I feel a little guilty saying I wish they hadn’t waited until the end to raise it.

It’s also refreshing to see a documentary that takes equal aim at both major political parties. The film makes its case with a series of usually-recent examples. We see the 50 Democratic Texas legislators who fled to Oklahoma to stall a legal but arguably unethical effort to redraw that state in 2003, just two years after it had been done as part of the standard once-a-decade process. Ultimately, that Tom Delay-led effort resulted in six seats in their Congressional delegation moving into GOP hands.

The film also provides a play-by-play of California’s Proposition 11 campaign in 2008. In this case, it was Democrats in the California Legislature who provided the main impediment to change. Many of the main players here are well-known to those of us around here, including our governor and Bill Cavala, the Democratic strategist and redistricting expert who died late last year.

The heroine of this story – something which will surely annoy her detractors – is Kathy Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, and the main proponent of the initiative that created the Citizens Redistricting Commission. Early on, we see her tell how a Democratic Assemblywoman from San Francisco called her up in 2001 and told her in no uncertain terms that she wasn’t “going to put another effing Asian” in her district. (Feng declined to say who it was, but we bet many of you have a guess).

The problem with shaping the story around Prop. 11 is that the ultimate conclusion is that it won’t change things nearly enough. As long as we have single-member districts, millions of people will be effectively disenfranchised because they’ll have no chance of electing someone who thinks like them. It may not be as bad as Iowa used to be, where at one point the 12 percent of the population who lived in rural areas elected over half of the legislature because these powerful members refused to redistrict for 60 years.

But “Gerrymandering” argues that the best way to get rid of the lines altogether is to perhaps go to a European style parliamentary Democracy with proportional representation. The question is, would Americans accept this? More than people in many countries, it seems, we vote for individuals. But haven’t we all learned by now the public niceness, or jerkiness for that matter, has a very indirect relationship to moral behavior when the cameras aren’t on?

A parliamentary democracy, which would guarantee any party with a certain number of votes would get a seat, would likely confuse and anger many people. But if you believe that the top goal of an electoral system is to translate the will of the people into legislators and then into legislation, it is the best system known. It’s often been remarked that our Legislature is ideologically extreme compared to voters, but it’s rather homogenous in terms of party representation. If some of those extreme members were Greens or Libertarians, and moderate Democrats and Republicans needed to work with them in order to form coalitions, the mere act of forming a working government for that session would get us more of the way to a budget.

In short, a worthwhile film on a topic that we really ought to be thinking more about.

Other Entertainment News By Tony Sheppard

Sacramento’s longest running film festival unveils its 19th season this weekend as the Sacramento International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival lights up the big screen at the Crest. Playing at 7:30p.m. October 7th-9th, Thursday’s program features male-oriented stories, Friday features female-oriented stories, and Saturday’s program is a mixed lineup of short films.  Details at siglff.org

Friday is also opening night for the newest production from New Helvetia Theatre, with a regional premiere of “[title of show]” (yes, that is the name of the show) playing through October 30th at the Artisan at 1901 Del Paso Blvd, one of Sacramento’s neatest small theater spaces and best companies.  Showtimes and tickets can be found at newhelvetia.org
Also opening is the indie film “Howl” with James Franco playing beat poet Allen Ginsberg as his poem of the same name becomes the focus of a 1957 obscenity trial.  With biographical details, scenes of the trial, and animated sequences, the Sundance Film Festival described it as “…a genre-bending hybrid that brilliantly captures a pivotal moment – the birth of a counterculture.”


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