By Jordy Yager - 12/01/09 11:26 PM EST
Worse, their lack of interest made him feel cynical.
So Mangels, who lives in Dupont Circle, decided to make a movie about the city’s quest. His three-year journey will be on display Wednesday when he screens “Un-Natural State” at the Avalon Theater. He will lead a discussion with some of the film’s participants afterward.
In choosing a topic for the International Documentary Challenge in 2006, Mangels picked D.C.’s voting rights history — a topic that got him fuming with a sense of injustice and a story waiting to be told.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) has represented the city in Congress for more than 20 years. While she can vote in committee, she cannot cast a vote on the House floor. She has been the only representation on Capitol Hill for the city of more than 500,000 residents. For dozens of years, voting rights advocates have assailed Congress for not granting the District its full voting representation.
Mangels captured the crux of the issue in a nine-minute short film that he and a small crew made in five days. The film won an award for best editing at the International Documentary Challenge, beating out 75 other films. But he had a bigger vision for the project — one that included approaching one of the biggest names in media.
In 1988, Mangels, fresh out of college, went to visit a friend who worked for Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey had rented a projection room to screen the film “Eyes on the Prize,” and Mangels sat next to her for all six hours of the movie, striking up conversation and befriending her in the several days he hung around the studio afterward.
“I had a secret plan,” said Mangels. “I thought that our documentary would be about us taking the film that we were making to Oprah. I mean, we rented an RV; we even had cameras filming our opening meetings [after beginning work on the film] at Ben’s Chili Bowl.”
Before departing for Chicago, Mangels determined that taking the film out of Washington would detract from the core purpose of the project. So he abandoned the Oprah storyline and opted to focus on the city at the center of the debate.
“Well, I think we’re all very happy that that’s not what happened, because this film is about here. It’s about Washington, D.C., and we shouldn’t leave here.”
Throughout the course of filming, Mangels met the voting rights advocacy group, DC Vote, and its members introduced Mangels to more people fighting for the effort.
“The film crew came to us not knowing much about the issue and they needed a lot of background and help with getting in touch with people to interview,” said Ilir Zherka, executive director of DC Vote. “So in the early days we were a big resource for them. And then once they decided to make it a feature-length film, we gave them complete behind-the-scenes access to our organization.”
Initially, Mangels thought he would need six months to finish the film. But a year later, he found Congress moving closer to granting the city voting rights and became deeply involved in following the debate.
On Sept. 18, 2007, a majority of the Senate voted to move the D.C. Voting Rights Act to a final vote. But Senate rules require 60 votes to end debate and the upper chamber was three votes shy of overcoming a Republican-led filibuster.
In one of the film's most dramatic moments Mangels and Zherka gather in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) office off of the Senate chamber to watch the measure's failure.
"[Zherka] is trying to put the best face that he can on, but it’s obviously a defeat,” Mangels said. “We lead up to the moment by him explaining that it took four years to get [the bill] there, it took all this time and all this effort and all of these people, and in an instant it disappeared … It felt like a girlfriend breaking up with me. I felt like I was seduced by the bill, and so that was kind of brutal.”
Mangels didn’t remain heartbroken for long, and by the beginning of 2009, with a larger Democratic majority in both chambers and a Democrat in the White House, the D.C. Voting Rights Act was back in the news and expected to pass easily within the first session of the 111th Congress.
“And then we get to thinking that maybe we’re going to make the film of the end of this. It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, could we be this fortunate that we’re actually at the right place at the right time?’ ” he said.
But another obstacle surfaced when the National Rifle Association backed an amendment that would loosen D.C.’s gun laws and threatened to score the vote. Many centrist Democrats retracted their support, and with Republicans mostly opposed, the bill has stalled.
Not all Republicans oppose the effort. Former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) was a major supporter before leaving the House. He hasn’t seen the film, but hopes his colleagues will take the time to view it.
“To me it was always an historical anomaly that the capital of the free world was spending millions of dollars to bring democracy to Baghdad and Kabul but we don’t allow the voters in the capital city the right to vote,” he said in an interview.
Mangels and his crew added new footage from this year’s debate, and after unsuccessfully submitting newer versions of the film to multiple festivals over a period of months, Mangels got a request from FilmFest DC that they wanted to premiere the film in April 2009. While the deadline pushed them to finish the film into its current polished state, no film festivals have picked up the $150,000 independently financed project. Mangels isn’t discounting the possibility of sending it to Winfrey.
Getting it shown at a film festival would be wonderful, but Mangels said he’s content for the time being with the small victories.
This past August, Mangels was in Florida celebrating his father’s 75th birthday with his conservative-leaning family — the same ones whose eyes would glaze over when he started talking about this project — and after a big dinner, as the evening came to a close, he showed them the latest version of his film.
“The moment that was great for me was my aunt, who lives in Atlanta and was so dismissive of me, watched the film and she was riveted the whole time,” he said. “She ended up saying, ‘Well, that’s just not right.’ And I thought, ‘Yes! I reached you.’ ”