The AFI DOCS Interview: SLAY THE DRAGON With Directors Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance
Gerrymandering influences elections and sways outcomes. SLAY THE DRAGON tackles this hot-button political topic and dramatizes precisely what is making our political system sick and, possibly, how it can be healed. Profiling those on the front lines fighting to change the system, Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance’s new documentary hopes to galvanize audiences and show a way forward to confront this national threat to American democracy. AFI spoke with Goodman and Durrance about their new film.
SLAY THE DRAGON plays as part of the Truth and Justice program at AFI DOCS at the Landmark E Street Cinema in Washington DC on Saturday, June 22 and at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, MD on Sunday, June 23. Buy tickets to the screening here.
AFI: How did you both get into documentary filmmaking?
BG: I come from a journalism background, but I fell in love with the process of making films. The opportunity to blend writing, visual storytelling and deep reporting is thrilling. Good documentaries can strike many chords at once in their audience—emotional and intellectual—and that’s the kind of storytelling I’ve always been drawn to.
CD: I love that we get to bring to life the most consequential issues of the day and, we hope, find ways of making them resonate with the audience. We explore these stories, report on them for years at a time and uncover characters who can help tell them. Once we have everything, the real business begins—and what is so special is that you get to work as a team with some of the most talented editors, camera people, sound technicians, musicians, animators around to take this vision to the screen.
AFI: How did you become interested in your story about gerrymandering? What spurred you to tell it?
BG: After the 2016 elections, I felt compelled to use the platform I had as a documentary filmmaker to call attention to the unfairness in our system. I knew I wanted to make a political film, but it wasn’t until reading David Daley’s book “Ratfucked” that I realized that gerrymandering would be the issue. As dry as this subject might seem, Daley showed how absolutely central it is to understanding what has gone wrong in our politics. It seemed to me a perfect, if challenging, subject for a film. Fortunately, I had a partner in Chris Durrance who is a supremely talented journalist and a longtime collaborator. We decided to take this on together.
CD: Barak told me about David Daley’s book, “Ratfucked,” as soon as he started reading it, saying that I just had to read it. And, for the first time, I felt there was a clear explanation for so much of the dysfunction, the gross partisanship, the polarization that has become a toxic feature of US politics. Barak suggested collaborating on a film together. We knew it would be hard, but there’s no better filmmaker and more vivid storyteller working in documentaries today than Barak, so I leapt at the opportunity.
AFI: How did you discover and choose subjects to profile in SLAY THE DRAGON?
We began by narrowing down our focus to the three most gerrymandered states in the country: Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin. From there, it was a fairly simple matter to home in on where the action was in each state. We always look for compelling characters engaged in a fight we can follow. In Michigan, we heard from a political scientist about this young woman, a political neophyte, who was leading a group of ordinary citizens in a fight against the power structure in that state. In Wisconsin, it was a group of lawyers that had the chutzpah to think they could persuade federal courts that partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional. In North Carolina, it was less clear, but we knew that we had to focus on perhaps the most out-of-control state legislature in the country.
AFI: What was a particular obstacle you faced while tackling this subject?
The biggest challenge was how to make this somewhat technical subject accessible and invest the narrative with emotion. We knew we didn’t want a dry, policy wonkish film that would only erect more barriers to understanding this story. We needed to bring home to our audience the real costs inflicted by gerrymandering, and the real courage of the people fighting it. It’s been very gratifying to hear from audiences that we have succeeded in this.
For us, these characters were compelling because they perfectly illustrated the consequences of gerrymandering in their respective states—and what can be done to fight back. They convey how the Flint water crisis in Michigan, the fight against public sector unions in Wisconsin, the notorious bathroom bill in North Carolina and other issues are all connected as well as the threat to democracy posed by lines drawn on a map when it is done for the specific purpose of denying voters their voice.
AFI: What do you hope audiences learn from watching your film?
We want our audiences to be inspired to act. Katie Fahey, and the other characters in our film, show that it is still possible in our ailing democracy to enact positive change simply with the power of the people. As she says so eloquently herself, “All power resides in the people. We are those people. This is our moment.”
The elections of 2020 will be so important for the future of our democracy. In almost every state, they are being fought on the gerrymandered maps drawn in 2010. Already, the election is skewed, and democracy is in danger before even the first ballot is cast. We hope our film informs viewers and inspires them to get out and vote, and then fight to put an end to gerrymandering once and for all, just like Katie has done in Michigan. It won’t be easy because there are a lot of very powerful people who have a vested interest in keeping gerrymandering in place, but it needs to be done.
AFI: Why is Washington, DC an important location to screen your film?
With so many important decision-makers in DC, we can think of no better place to raise the alarm about gerrymandering. The issue has never been more prominent, but we think even the most sophisticated, jaded viewer will be moved and informed by our film.
AFI: Why do you think documentary films resonate strongly with audiences today?
The genre is in a golden age. Documentaries can cut through a lot of the cant and bullshit we hear in other media. With the emotional power they summon, they can often change minds and move people to act in ways that print or short-form broadcast cannot. We are thrilled that there are so many good films and filmmakers around, and with the tools becoming every cheaper and more accessible, we expect that trend to continue.
Buy tickets to SLAY THE DRAGON here.