Most political observers are familiar with gerrymandering, the practice of redrawing electoral maps to serve the party in power. But the new documentary Slay the Dragon, which had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last week, reveals the real-life consequences of the abstract concept, explaining how recent partisan redistricting, particularly a well-funded, organized effort by Republican strategists in the wake of the 2008 elections, connects to everything from the Flint water crisis to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s removal of collective bargaining for public employees to extreme legislation like voter ID laws and North Carolina’s bathroom bill to the hyper-polarized current political environment.
While the process of gerrymandering has been around since the 1800s, Slay the Dragon co-director Barak Goodman was inspired to make the film and expose the high-tech, nationwide initiative to reestablish Republican dominance in the wake of Barack Obama’s presidential victory known as REDMAP (short for Redistricting Majority Project), after he read David Daley’s book, Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count. The REDMAP plan involved Republicans winning legislative seats and then using the 2010 census data to redraw electoral districts in their favor to give the party a long-term electoral advantage.
Goodman read the book in early 2017 and was so compelled that he shared it with frequent collaborator Chris Durrance, who co-directed the doc, and suggested that they make a film about it.
And Goodman wanted to show the consequences of the politicized process Daley detailed.
“I felt very strongly about connecting the dots and showing not that gerrymandering in some abstract way dilutes your vote but how the policies that are passed in these states are so out of step with the people in the states,” Goodman told The Hollywood Reporter. “If you’re a voter, it’s not just a sense that your vote doesn’t count, it’s actual things that affect your life everyday, whether it’s a water crisis or environmental stuff or a union issue or whatever. It’s real life stuff. It’s not abstract.”
The doc also follows the efforts by voters to combat gerrymandering, specifically 20-something Michigander Katie Fahey’s Voters Not Politicians grassroots organization and the group’s 2018 effort, including a midterm ballot initiative, to put redistricting in the hands of a citizens’ commission.
The film also follows the legal challenge to Wisconsin’s 2011 redistricting plan, which wound up at the Supreme Court.
For Durrance, the film really came together when he and Goodman met Fahey.
“It was clear that the film couldn’t live in the realm of ideas and that the film couldn’t exist solely by retelling what had happened in 2010,” he told THR. “You had to understand the fight and the push back and what was happening now and how these issues were resonating with ordinary people across the country, and Katie embodied that, and that’s when the whole project really took off from there.”
They discovered Fahey as they were investigating states where, as Durrance put it, “gerrymandering was the most pernicious, was the most troubling,” citing Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan as particular examples.
When they went to Michigan they began hearing of Sunday morning town halls about gerrymandering.
“I mean, who does that? It speaks to the early days of the republic, when you’d have these massive political meetings and these pamphleteers and this huge public interest in the issues of today,” Durrance said.
They reached out to a political science professor doing one of the talks and he said they should talk to Fahey, who agreed to be part of the project in order to be transparent about and document the challenging process of voters trying to take control of Michigan’s electoral map.
“A big part of what we saw was wrong with gerrymandering is that it happens behind closed doors by a few people that are impacting this really big thing, so transparency as like a concept and value was really important to us,” Fahey told THR. “And the other thing was, it was so hard, like organizing and figuring out how to navigate the system was really difficult, we felt like we were recreating the wheel constantly. So when we got this opportunity … we were like, good, because then we had a film to go look at to see some of the behind the scenes of how do you make this a reality. And because we tried to be really transparent and invite everybody in, we wanted to show this is how the sausage gets made, here’s how we’re doing it, because it should be a process where everyone’s invited if they’re all impacted by the decisions.”
The film follows Fahey throughout her 2018 campaign, with her hopeful story woven in amid frustrating examples of gerrymandering, an editing decision that Goodman said was intentional for the balance of the film.
“The first cut we showed to [Participant president of documentary film and TV and Slay the Dragon executive producer] Diane Weyermann was essentially in three parts,” Goodman explained. “We did the entire REDMAP story and then we did Michigan and then we did North Carolina. It was sort of blocking like that and Diane was like, ‘No, you need a character right off the top to bring us in, somebody to root for, somebody to follow.’ So in two weeks we rejiggered the whole film and had Katie running through it.”
He added, “It’s just the emotional release that you need to get wrapped up in a real person’s story and root for it. There was a lot of putting the puzzle together in different ways and it took a long time to get the right balance between wonky stuff and emotional stuff so that they would support each other.”
With 2020 bringing both elections and another census that could further shape how voting districts are drawn, Goodman and Durrance initially hope their film makes people aware of the current gerrymandering problem and then emboldens them to take action.
“I think when people are aware of it — Republican or Democrat — they don’t like it,” Goodman said of gerrymandering. “People still believe in free, fair and balanced elections.”
He added, “People have to fight for their democracy. They have to vote on this issue — the problem is that this practice attacks voting. You’re already behind the 8-ball and trying to overcome it because your vote doesn’t count as much. But people have to get exorcised, they have to get upset and they have to get mad and really make it clear to politicians that they will not stand for it. That’s what happened in Michigan—it’s got to happen everywhere and we’ve got to hope that the courts and Supreme Court steps in and does something — it’s unclear whether they will. That’s the quickest way to fix the problem but probably unlikely.”
Durrance said the “fight for fair democracy” is “foundational.”
“There’s a huge fight in 2020 and it’s existential for the soul of our democracy,” he added. “It’s on us.”
Fahey also encouraged voters to get involved.
“Whether you can change who is drawing the lines or not, knowing about this and paying attention, adding transparency to the process, asking your legislators how are you going to represent my community, how am I going to give you feedback on how the lines are going to be drawn — the fact that people’s eyes can now be opened to I know how they tried to manipulate this and I’m not going to say that’s OK. Maybe you can’t change who’s going to vote, but if you show up to every one of those meetings, if you’re writing op-eds in the newspaper and you actually make it something that people are more aware of, then I think you can start to do something, you can change the narrative,” she said. “It will have to take people paying attention … Otherwise politicians have no incentive to give themselves less power, whether it’s Democrats or Republicans. The Democratic party hadn’t tried to enter a ballot initiative in Michigan. … The only people who really are impacted by this but will also change it in the right way, I think, are all of us regular folks.”