Dragons and Slayers: US Doc On The Fight Against Gerrymandering
Updated: Apr 9, 2020
By: Arash Azizi
United States is a frustratingly difficult country to explain. Few nations are so vast and so full of contradictions and yet few are so prone to reductionist caricatures by insiders and outsiders alike. Does the political system in the United States allow rich elites to buy elections; or is it a system in which a 27-year-old woman with no serious experience in politics can start a grassroots movement and bring about change on a grand scale? Is it possible to answer affirmatively to both questions?
Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance’s Slay The Dragon, which premiered at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival and is now being released publicly, shows us that it is. A political documentary in tradition of American activist films, it follows ordinary citizens around the country who work to end a very American practice: Gerrymandering. Named after a 19th-century governor of Massachusetts, the term refers to politicians redrawing electoral districts to their political interests, i.e. politicians effectively electing their own electorate and thus obviously undermining democracy.
Gerrymandering is a familiar term to students of US politics but severity of its current utilization, mostly led by strategists of the Republican Party, will be a revelation to most viewers. The filmmakers interview and follow those who are fighting against the practice; but also Republican strategists and politicians who are proud of having spearheaded the practice to increase their party’s success in the aftermath of its shattering defeat in 2008; the year the United States elected its first black president but also a watershed year in the country’s uber-polariziation, a process that made possible the shocking victory of the right-wing businessman Donald Trump in 2016 presidential elections.
The film is all the more powerful because it delves into various legal and political battles around the country and shows how living-room meetings of concerned Americans goes all the way to the Supreme Court. The understated star of the film is, without a doubt, Katie Fahey, a 27-year-old activist from the state of Michigan whose campaign to ban partisan gerrymandering in her midwestern state starts with a Facebook post; and ends in a unquestionable victory after multiple court cases and ultimately a successful referendum win in November 2018. The doc’s strongest aspect is in the way it presents Fahey: a heroic protagonist who is nonetheless not especially charismatic, at least not in the traditional cinematic fashion. Her appeal comes from her very ordinary nature, her dogged insistence and her very real vulnerability. We see Katie break down in tears in a Facebook live pos when faced with the first major legal challenge that could derail the entire project. We also see her at numerous folksy let-me-introduce-myself moments in small church meetings and larger national conventions. This all makes the film a very American story.
The film’s genuine drama and excitement comes from the fact that Katie’s victory is, in no way, assured. In fact, the film shows more than one frustrated attempt. Where Katie wins, many fail. In this regard it resembles Knock Down the House, Rachel Leary’s much-acclaimed Netflix-released 2019 documentary that revolves around the electoral campaigns by the now-legendary Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and a few other contenders for the Congress, many of whom goes on to lose unlike the AOC.
Activist documentaries like Slay the Dragon and Knock Down the House are distinct from verite-style classics such as The War Room (1993) about Bill Clinton’s historic 1992 campaign. The classic film by Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker let the cameras roll and us to live through the ‘war room' as it got formed, although its sympathy with the ultimately victorious campaign was unmistakable. Goodman and Durrance bring more of an activist energy to their film which, after all, belongs to a more didactic moment in the history of political cinema. This is a hammer not just a mirror to use the old Brechtian vocabulary. No wonder that is is being championed by Michael Moore, a veteran filmmaker who has long excelled in the art of activist docs, even if he has had his own ups and downs, both artistically and politically.
Like the best of Moore, Slay the Dragon is an unapologetic battlecry who will probably find thousands more interested in joining the battle to end the undemocratic scourge that is gerrymandering. But the film is also an excellent introduction to the actually-existing American political life and all its marvelous contradictions.
* Slay the Dragon directed by Chris Durrance and Barak Goodman, is now available on demand.