How to Stay Nonpartisan While Also Telling the Truth

'Slay the Dragon' directors Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance discuss their attempt to make an anti-gerrymandering documentary that's not politically biased.

Slay the Dragon 1
Magnolia Pictures

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The latest issue film from Participant Media was originally scheduled to debut exclusively in theaters on March 13th. Then, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was delayed until April 3rd, with plans for a day-and-date theatrical and VOD opening. Due to social distancing and shelter-in-place orders, though, it’s become a VOD and digital platform release. The circumstances aren’t the greatest for a hot new documentary feature, but in the case of Slay the Dragon, the situation and timing seem appropriate.

Directed by Oscar nominee Barak Goodman (Scottsboro: An American Tragedy) and longtime collaborator Chris Durrance, the film tackles the political monster known as gerrymandering, specifically addressing how the centuries-old practice of redrawing congressional districts has become a tremendously unfair and arguably undemocratic way of rigging the electoral system over the past decade. Slay the Dragon begins with the story of the Flint, Michigan, water crisis and how that was partly caused by gerrymandering. The way the government handled the problem, which included a public health emergency, is comparable to the way it’s now handling the coronavirus outbreak.

Of course, this is also a big election year and so the documentary, which first premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2019, needs to get out there as soon as possible to remind voters of certain issues with the system and their representatives. Fortunately, not only does it have timely concerns but it’s also a well-constructed doc with some great characters and a lack of biased reporting. That’s why I’m excited to spotlight the film by way of an interview with Goodman and Durrance. In the edited conversation below, we talk about how they attempted to remain nonpartisan while covering a political issue.

How do you two go about splitting the work involved in co-directing a film like Slay the Dragon?

Chris Durrance: We’ve worked on so many of these projects together. For over a decade now? All sorts of different things. And sometimes they run simultaneously. One thing I love is that we just have this open communication and a way of knowing what needs to be done and who’s best placed to do it. Whether it’s because of what they’ve got going on, knowing fully what someone’s got on their plate, their docket, and just seamlessly, without even talking much about it, being able to just slip in.

Barak came to me with the idea that you’ve got to read this book [Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count by David Daley]; it’s fantastic and we’ve got to try to make a film about it. That’s where it started, and then from that point on, it’s just whatever is needed to make that happen. Some things we do together, some things we do apart, but it’s hard to remember because it’s kind of seamless and we’ve been doing it for so long that we don’t even really have to talk about it.

Barak Goodman: Two other important things: one is that Chris and I come out of a hard journalism background. We know how to report stories; we don’t have to learn or teach each other how to do that. It’s second nature to know how to execute a film like this. And how to report it and what steps to take. So as Chris said, we’re interchangeable in that way.

The other thing is that neither of us has very big egos, which is hugely important in a collaboration. It doesn’t really matter who’s stepping forward in any particular time or place or story. And there’s a third person in this, our editor, Seth Bomse, who is hugely important in this film and is similarly ego-less. Put all that together and it can really work.

We try to work with people like that. I just find ego so toxic I can’t be around it. We tend to collaborate with people who are about the work and about getting a story right and about telling it right and the right values. When you have all that coming together, it becomes pretty easy to collaborate.

How did you go about constructing the film? Did you start with any particular one of the stories that you follow? How did the various pieces come together?

Barak Goodman: We were really focused on a state by state structure at first. We were very interested in three states — Wisconsin, Michigan, and North Carolina — but that was pretty early. Pennsylvania was a very gerrymandered state, and there were others that were very gerrymandered, but the three of those were clearly the most gerrymandered states and presented the most compelling full stories.

So, we began reporting this on a state-level basis. North Carolina’s story was much bigger in the beginning. It’s very complicated and very rich. There are some great characters down there. It almost became too complicated for the film. There are so many ups and downs and backs and forths. The other two, Wisconsin because of this court case and Michigan because of [Katie Fahey and Voters Not Politicians] came more to the fore.

Gradually it changed from the state by state model to the three pieces, which are the story of REDMAP and how it came to be and then these two efforts to push back, in Wisconsin and Michigan, with North Carolina being a smaller part of that. I think that was the shift that took place.

Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance

The tone of the film is pretty balanced, or nonpartisan, and you feature many Republican voices in the form of interviews, but the ultimate goal was to be anti-gerrymandering film, right? How do you balance that kind of reporting? And do those conservative figures care that they’re in a film critical of what they’ve done?

Barak Goodman: I’m sure they won’t like it. I’m sure they would feel it’s partisan. But we really tried not to be partisan. Our target is gerrymandering, not a political party. It’s just that one political party happened to take this practice to a new level. And they did it in the open, proudly. They have since backtracked and sort of pretended that they didn’t mean to do it, but it’s clear that they did mean to do it in dozens and dozens and dozens of ways. It’s easily provable that it was intentional and that it was pre-planned and that it was beautifully executed.

So what do you do with that? You can’t pretend that it’s not one party doing it. While we go out of our way to point out that the Democrats have gerrymandered and are gerrymandering even now, the fact is that one party made this a national political strategy and the other didn’t because it didn’t think of it. So that was a dilemma for us. How do we stay nonpartisan while also telling the truth about what happened? It was a difficult line for us to walk.

Chris Durrance: It was also difficult for Katie Fahey and that group in Michigan. They were walking that line as well. The opposition there and the Republicans there were forever trying to — and you see this in the film — paint them as partisan hacks who were just doing the bidding of the Democratic party. That they were backed financially by them, organizationally by them. And that was something they faced throughout.

But the point is, and you see this in the vote total, how well she did across the board with tea party activists, with Republicans, with Democrats, with independents. She outperformed. It was a big year for Democrats. The governor flipped and became a Democrat. But she outperformed all of them because voters en masse agree with her that this practice is just wrong. It’s just rigging the rules of the game, which is what gerrymandering is. It’s just wrong.

Sure, fight over the issues, disagree over policy measures, over what laws to do, gun rights or climate change or whatever it is, education, roads, hospitals, healthcare — disagree over that, yeah, but don’t rig the rules of the game so that one side is utterly emasculated. That was a message that has hit home in pretty much every state where it’s been brought to the ballot. Even all of the federal judges, as well, who’d looked at this, apart from the Supreme Court, wrote coruscating decisions against the practice of gerrymandering. So it’s just the Supreme Court and a faction of the Republican party that has decided that it’s fine to pursue.

You do a good job of not scrutinizing them or making them out to be villains, though. That’s fair because they don’t think of themselves as such. 

Barak Goodman: I’ve asked myself this very question because we sat across from, for example, Bob LaBrant, who is the architect of the Michigan gerrymander, or Dallas Woodhouse in North Carolina, who is the head of the Republican party there and a staunch defender of what they did: What do they say to themselves? Are they really that cynical? Because Bob LaBrant sat across from me and lied to my face about what he did. It subsequently came out in a lawsuit. Various emails came out that showed what he did was totally intentional, totally partisan, etc.

Are they just evil people? No, I don’t think so. What happens is you’re so deep inside this game — I’ll use this word because that’s how they see it — and it has very important stakes, and they know it. They believe their side has better ideas and does better things for the people of their states. So gaining and holding on to power becomes a justifiable means to a necessary end. Whatever those means are, in their minds, it’s all a game, and both sides are engaged in that game, and both sides are looking for advantages, and both sides are using whatever levers they can. And if it means suppressing votes, which is essentially what gerrymandering is, it’s rigging the game so that some people’s votes count more than others,

That’s justifiable if the end is that they get to hold on to power and enact the laws that they believe in. I very much think it’s a means and ends kind of thing, and I very much think they do not think of themselves as evil or manipulative or that what they’re doing is manipulative. It’s a necessary part of a game that they need to win. And they can’t abide the other side winning. I think that’s true on both sides of the aisle for a lot of these politicians.

Do you have any thoughts about how the film will play right now? Not how it will be seen, which is unfortunately no longer going to be in theaters with a crowd, but within the context of what’s going on?

Barak Goodman: Obviously it’s not ideal to be coming out in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, but I will say that when this pandemic fades away (and it will), and it’s a memory, we will all have been reminded of the importance of government and of responsive, well-functioning government at all levels, from the local to the national.

I think that makes the question of how our government works all the more important and the institutions that undergird the government and the responsiveness of the government to the people will all be in starker or bolder relief after this is over than they were before. I really believe that.

And I think our film will then have its moment. It’ll be part of a conversation about how we can shore up our government and be sure our leaders are responsive to us and are about taking care of us and not taking care of themselves. In that sense, maybe this is a good thing for our film in the long run, even though it’s sort of blotting out the sun at the moment.

Chris Durrance: We call them representatives for a reason, and I think what the film does is just show how that has got lost. I hope the people see in someone like Katie and the movement that she inspired, this return to an old school form of government where it’s — and as she says in the film it’s kind of hokey and founding father-y — by and for the people, and that’s a timeless message but one that’s particularly important in these challenging times.

Read the second part of our interview with Goodman and Durrance here.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.