The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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The new docs: Do they change our minds or just preach to the converted?

October 18, 2010 | 11:10 am

Arnold_schwarzenegger Arnold Schwarzenegger showed up for a few brief moments in "The Expendables" this year, but the only movie in which the California governor has played a major role since he took office in 2003 is not an action film but a tiny documentary that opened this weekend in five cities, including Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco.

The film, "Gerrymandering," exposes the details of a practice that allows politicians to dramatically alter the boundaries of their voting areas via redistricting as a way to either keep themselves in power or punish a rival party or politician.

It's an especially timely subject, because we have two propositions on the November ballot involving redistricting. Proposition 20 would expand the scope of 2008's Proposition 11, which put state legislative redistricting into the hands of an independent citizens commission -- a fight led by Schwarzenegger and California Common Cause leader Kathay Feng that is the focus of the film. Proposition 20 would extend citizens commission control to congressional districts as well. Opponents have sponsored Proposition 27, which would scuttle the citizens commissions and return redistricting power to the Legislature.

Why should we care? Because gerrymandering effectively disenfranchises the majority of voters. With redistricting in the hands of politicians, only one California congressional seat has changed parties in the last four elections. The film, directed by Jeff Reichert, does a marvelous job of dramatizing the excesses of the current system. In fact, the stories are often so comically outlandish that they seem plucked straight out of one of Preston Sturges’ great political satires.

We see the story of the New York assemblyman who, when he first proved a threat to an established incumbent in Brooklyn, found his district redrawn so that the street he lived on was excluded from it. In Texas, when Tom DeLay set about creating six new safe Republican congressional districts in 2004, the entire contingent of Democratic state representatives -- 53 in all -- disappeared in the dead of night, crossing the border and establishing camp at a Holiday Inn in Oklahoma in order to avoid taking a vote that would approve the new redistricting plan.

In Illinois, gerrymandering had a direct influence on the political fortunes of Barack Obama. Seen as a rising star in the Democratic party, his old state Senate district was reshaped so that it included much of the Chicago lakefront, heavily populated with wealthy white liberals, a key power base for a presidential contender.

There's nothing partisan about this documentary -- both political parties look equally craven and opportunistic. Still, it would be hard to imagine that a tiny documentary playing in a handful of theaters could possibly have any effect on a major election. But Reichert has an ace in the hole -- Stanford physicist Charles Munger Jr. (whose father is the vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway). Munger had been a major supporter of Proposition 11, so when he heard about the documentary, he volunteered to help spread the word in a big way. With Munger’s financial backing, the film has been mailed out to 660,000 registered voters across the state.

"I know people just throw away most campaign mailers, but we figured that if they actually got a movie in the mail, maybe they'd watch it," said Reichert. "It's a way of going one on one with the voters and giving them something of value. Gov. Schwarzenegger has been a great spokesman for us -- he went on ['The Tonight Show with] Jay Leno' and promoted the movie, even playing a clip from it."

Still, a big question remains. Documentaries can often arouse passion and indignation. But do they change our minds or just preach to the converted?

Michael Moore's documentaries have earned a tsunami of media attention. But did they really make anyone feel differently about corporate greed or the healthcare system? Did Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," for all the attention it received, really influence the debate on global warming? The question is a pertinent one because there are a number of rabble-rousing documentaries in theaters right now, notably "Waiting for 'Superman,'" Davis Guggenheim's indictment of our public school system, and Charles Ferguson's "Inside Job," which exposes the greed and chicanery behind the global economic crisis.

Sadly, the rabid partisanship that has soiled Washington in recent years has now invaded the multiplex. With rare exception, "An Inconvenient Truth" was embraced by liberals but reviled by conservatives. The same dynamic is at work with "Inside Job." It has a sky-high 93 Fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, its only two negative reviews coming from conservative critics.

It gave me pause. After all, critics and entertainment columnists rarely believe that our political biases influence our views and reviews. But did I embrace "An Inconvenient Truth" only because I live in a two-Prius household? Would I have found its argument just as riveting if I thought global warming was a lot of hooey? I recently watched a new documentary, "I Want Your Money," whose conservative filmmaker, Ray Griggs, believes President Obama is leading the country down the path to socialism. I didn't buy his argument, but would I have felt differently if I were a conservative?

So how much influence do documentaries really have? I asked Sheila Nevins, HBO's head of documentary programming, whose films have won countless Oscars and Emmys. "Documentaries don't change the world as much as nudge it in a new direction," she said. "'Waiting for 'Superman' might raise people's awareness about education in the same way that 'An Inconvenient Truth' raised our awareness about the environment, but you're not going to get someone to run out of the house and storm City Hall. You can move people, but you're usually preaching to the converted."

I suspect that more people will be able to agree on the merits of "Gerrymandering" because it preaches to the unconverted -- after all, how many of your friends can name their local congressman? Reichert agrees. "A lot of docs make you feel bad afterwards," he told me. "But if you start to understand the political process, you can make your voice heard. And if enough people speak up, we might get better results."


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