‘Un-Natural State’ will tell D.C. vote story at Avalon
||Northwest Current (DC)
||Wednesday, December 2, 2009
||Teresa G. Gionis
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What can D.C.’s beloved pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian teach people
about the city’s lack of voting rights? Quite a bit, according to a
new documentary that will be screened tonight at the Avalon
Theatre. Local filmmakers Kirk Mangels and Brad Mendelsohn liken the situation of D.C. residents — who pay federal taxes but have no voting representatives in the U.S. House and Senate — to that of animals in captivity in the 72-minute documentary “Un- Natural State.” Tonight’s screening is a fundraiser for the advocacy organization DC Vote, which is working to secure full voting representation for the city.
“While D.C. residents appear to be living freely like other
Americans, they are actually caged without American democracy,” Mangels says in the film’s press release. “Un-Natural State” makes heavy use of footage from the National Zoo to illustrate this analogy.
The idea for a film came about because Mangels, a freelance
video producer who moved to Washington from Ohio in 1989, was simply worn out after years of trying to explain D.C.’s situation to friends and family.
“Their eyes would glaze over almost immediately,” he said. “It felt
like such a strange intellectual exercise. I knew I wanted to do a film on the subject, so I could get an audience to feel what I was talking about instead of just listening to me talk about it.”
The Zoo angle came about in 2006, at the International Documentary Challenge, where filmmakers from around the world are given five days to make a short documentary. Mangels and Mendelsohn entered
the competition planning to make a film about voting rights, but
they had to think fast when they heard their assigned genre — nature.
“Being given the nature genre to work with forced us to be creative
in how to think about and present this problem,” Mangels said. “The Zoo analogy came about because of the genre we were given. It also led us to include a lot of the natural beauty of our city, so that was a good thing.”
The initial film — a short documentary, nine minutes and 45 seconds
long — was a prizewinner at the competition, and it premiered at the
AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring in August 2006. “We got a good reaction, so we sent it to film festivals, and a number of people told us they thought it deserved more than 10 minutes,” said Mangels.
With financial assistance from producer Mendelsohn’s family, the team moved forward withshooting a longer film in January 2007.
“I thought it would take about six months,” said Mangels. “But then the legislation really started to move, and we followed it along. We didn’t stop working on the film until April 2009.” The legislation — a compromise bill to add one seat in the House for the heavily Democratic District of Columbia, balanced by adding a seat for largely Republican Utah — passed in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2007. But the bill failed when it reached the Senate that September, just three votes shy of the 60 needed to avoid a filibuster and open debate.
“I was filming live with Ilir Zherka, executive director of DC Vote, during that Senate vote,” said Mangels. “Those three senators changed their mind that very morning. So it was back to the drawing
In February 2009, the D.C. House Voting Rights Act passed the Senate, but Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., introduced an amendment that would repeal D.C.’s gun control laws. Because of the rider, the bill
has been stalled in the House for months. With tonight’s screening at the Avalon, Zherka hopes to fire up his organization’s support base in D.C. “That support is absolutely critical. We need continued
engagement,” he said.
DC Vote did not play any active role in getting the film made, but Zherka and others cooperated with the effort and appear in the documentary.
“We have to keep people all over the country aware of this issue,” Zherka said. “Our polls show that most Americans don’t even know this problem exists.” Zherka called the film “a great piece,” saying, “It captures both sides of the argument, and it fairly presents the opponents and how absurd their arguments are.”
“I think people understand a little better these days just how hard it is to change the status quo,” said Mangels. “It is exhausting to keep up with something that, at times, feels almost without hope. The only way this will change is if the rest of the country wants it to change — the nature of the status quo is just so heavy.”
“The movie shows a love of our city, and shows the creativity and persistence of groups like ours,” said Zherka. “But it also shows how hard it is and captures the essence of the movement and the long-term fight."
After spending so many years documenting this issue, Mangels has come to terms with his role in the fight.
“Ambivalence is not the right word,” he said. “I feel like I have done what I could. I have done my best to come up with a way to get people to understand this issue. This film is my love letter to the city. When people tell me, ‘You’ve captured the D.C. I know and love,’ that’s a great compliment.”
“Un-Natural State” will play at the Avalon Theatre, 5612 Connecticut Ave. NW, at 8 tonight. A question-and-answer session with the filmmakers will follow the screening. Tickets cost $25, with the proceeds supporting DC Vote. More information is at dcvote.org/events.