The documentary Un-Natural State, which screened last month at the Avalon Theater in Washington, D.C., can come across as a bit dramatic. But while the style can seem overly theatrical at times, the film is bringing attention to a serious and largely misunderstood issue: the fact that the more than half million residents of the nation’s capitol have no voting representation in Congress. 78 percent of Americans mistakenly believe that D.C. residents have the same voting rights as the rest of the country.
The documentary, produced and financed by real estate developer and film producer Brad Mendelsohn and directed by documentary filmmaker Kirk Mangels, was hosted by D.C. Vote, an advocacy group whose leaders play key roles in the film. Mendelsohn and Mangels liken D.C.’s continuing struggle for voting representation to not one, but two Greek tragedies. They compare Sisyphus’ struggle, continually pushing a boulder up a hill only to see it roll back down again, to the uphill efforts to secure voting representation. They also invoke “The Allegory of the Cave,” from Plato’s Republic, told amidst scenes of darkness and crackling fire, with whispers in the background. The people in the allegory are locked underground, forced to stare straight ahead at shadows until they believe that the shadows are the only reality there is. These, of course, are the D.C. residents, who only know life without the vote.
So will D.C. ever get a vote in Congress? D.C. Vote, which formed in 1998, is determined that it will. Under the guidance of executive director Ilir Zherka, a longtime civil rights advocate, D.C. Vote recently helped move voting legislation forward in Congress for the first time in 30 years. And this time, the non-profit organization has built a coalition on both a local and a national scale.
Last January, Senators Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) introduced a bill in the Senate that would give D.C. a voting representative. The bill would also have added a member to Utah’s delegation. In late February, it passed, but it featured a toxic amendment, added by Senator John Ensign (R-NV), that would ease the city’s strict gun-control laws. The bill promptly began collecting dust, and was ultimately abandoned in June.
Before the Un-Natural State screening, D.C. Vote board member Trish Vradenburg interviewed former Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA), who had been a strong advocate of D.C. voting rights during his time in Congress. Asked why he thought his party opposed D.C. voting rights, he said it boiled down to crass partisanship. “When you go to Congress you wear a red jersey or a blue jersey,” said Davis. “It’s just a very dysfunctional situation.” Davis thinks that there is a historic opportunity to attain voting rights for D.C. residents now, since there is a Democratic majority in both chambers.
Un-Natural State also features interviews with D.C.’s non-voting representative, Eleanor Holmes-Norton, D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty, and numerous city residents. Notably, it also follows Mike Pancetta, Captain of the District of Columbia Olympic Committee, and the D.C. Shadow Representative (D.C. residents elect the shadow representative as the equivalent of a congressional representative, but Congress does not recognize the shadow representative as a member of the government). Pancetta began a curling team when he realized that other non-voting territories, like Puerto Rico and Guam, have their own Olympic teams. It also makes for a convenient metaphor: the object of the game, Pancetta tells, is to get your stone in the “house,” or target.
Above all, the main goal of the film is to raise awareness.
“You know most Americans don’t even know this problem exists,” muses Zherka, the D.C. Vote director, in an interview in the documentary. “The difficulty is it’s hard to put a face on the victim. Who’s the victim in Washington DC?”