“The American Sector” Probes Domestic Policy, One Berlin Wall Slab at a Time
The new documentary “The American Sector”, which opens Friday at Metrograph Virtual Cinema, delivers extraordinary results thanks to daring methods and the willingness of its directors, Courtney Stephens and Pacho Velez, to challenge their own premises. The film’s vanity risks exhausting itself in its own ironies: Stephens and Velez search for dozens of fragments of the Berlin Wall on display across the United States and film them against the backdrop of their often ridiculously incongruous sets. But the film quickly departs from this mission to focus on the wide variety of unexpected encounters the filmmakers have on location. The result is a film that powerfully evokes the active presence of history in everyday civic life and reveals the politics inherent in its commemoration.
Velez worked with the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard, an incubator for the radical depersonalization of documentary filmmaking, such as on the film “Manakamana”, which he co-directed with Stephanie Spray, largely using a fixed camera on a cable car in Nepal. There, as in other films by Lab participants and alumni, the revelations that arise from recording people and events with minimal intervention are counterbalanced, and sometimes overshadowed, by the timid rigidity of conceptual frameworks. . According to the review Director, Velez, the cinematographer of the film, had initially predicted to present the slabs of the Wall only for observation, without interviews. But, during the shoot, Stephens, who was recording the sound, started talking to people they met near the pieces of the Wall; these conversations (in which Velez then also took part) take up most of the film’s running time and provide its crucial substance. The hybrid of conceptual purity and experiential openness is a salutary reminder that form and style are as important in documentary as they are in fiction, and serve much the same purpose in both formats: to turn ideas into action. , embody consciousness in real time.
The first shots of the film show a slab of the Berlin Wall erected in a virgin Pennsylvania forest, like a Kubrickian monolith; another pair in sight in front of an unconscious traveler at a Dallas hotel; and yet another decorating the nocturnal landscape of a university campus, as people and vehicles pass indifferently. Such images provide the basic shock of the film: the very fact that the Berlin Wall has become a source of memories scattered across a wide and inconsistent range of public and private settings. Less than three minutes later, Stephens and Velez meet up with Mary Fanous, a public information officer at the State Department, who gives the filmmakers a spiel regarding the special segment shown there, which she describes as a hymn to the “Diplomacy” and “freedom.” “Far from simply offering sound bites of official banalities (another layer of easy irony), Stephens and Velez continue to elicit freer and more substantive remarks from many whose proximity to the wall owes nothing to homework. government (and some government employees as well). “The American Sector” is a documentary about the person on the streets (and at home and in the office) that brings together an extraordinary range of political speeches. more than a common ground for on-screen discussions: they function as devices of truth, extracting deeply rooted and deeply personal observations as with a metaphysical force that also energizes the camera and microphone, transforming the discourse on the enduring power of history in seemingly physical and heavy incarnations of it.
It’s quite astonishing and confusing to see a piece of the Berlin Wall serving as the backdrop for games of croquet at a corporate retreat, or two flagstones erected on the side of a highway, which drivers can admire at seventy miles an hour. Still, the substantial, revealing, and critical discourse the wall fragments inspire suggests why they end up in the most cursed places: why a man in the Hollywood Hills goes to extraordinary lengths and expense to have a slab transported by truck. on his property; why Microsoft has a room at its headquarters in Redmond, Washington; why there’s a piece outside a restaurant in Suwanee, Georgia, and another in a gated community in Hope Point, Idaho. The filmmakers contact an anonymous CIA employee by phone, hoping to film a fragment that is located at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia; she refuses them, explaining that filming is impossible in a place full of undercover agents. (The filmmakers keep the black screen funny as she speaks.) But she also explains, in surprisingly candid and paradoxical detail, the importance of the wall to the CIA. When it fell, “we kind of rethought the future of intelligence,” she said. , for, with “the enemy” defeated, it seemed uncertain whether the spy agency was even necessary. (Spoiler alert: the CIA survived.)
Many of the discussions in the film center on the divisions and inequalities in American life and their current political context. A man outside a fragment at a California public library describes the wall as a reminder of family separations that were taking place at the time, under the Trump administration. (The film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2020.) In downtown Miami, a woman sees it as a “hurtful symbol,” signifying the rift between wealthy immigrants, whose presence is undisputed, and the poor, who “are one”. far from being thrown out. Two University of Virginia students, one black, the other white, say that a wall tile there is a distraction, even a deliberate one, from the university’s own history, namely that, as the black woman, the buildings there were built by enslaved blacks. (Not all discussions are illuminated the same; a woman, speaking near a courthouse in Stony Point, New York, sees the wall as a symbol of the affirmation of God of individual nations and “Patriots” fighting a battle of “good versus evil.”)
The film’s longest, most powerful, and historic footage is shot at the Berlin Wall Memorial on the Mason-Dixon Line in Cincinnati, Ohio. A black man there tells filmmakers that the site is “less than a quarter of a mile from a slave state,” adding that “if you got to this side of the river, technically you were free, technically” . Citing the story of his own family – both parents, he says, were lynched, in 1926 – he characterizes the wall as a reflection of the black American experience, which means, he says, “that we are not. not alone – we were not alone in being oppressed, and we were not alone in resisting. (In a sharp echo of the man’s reference to the flight of slaves to freedom, this discussion is followed by an archival video, from 1988, showing two men desperately swimming the river from East Berlin to Berlin- Where is.)
Velez, the director of photography, relies primarily on a stationary camera on a tripod, lending the footage in the film a heavy and monumental tone commensurate with the tonnage of the slabs, their crisp lines and harsh textures, and, most importantly , of the weight of the history which they, and the film, bear. It pulls most of the discussions from a distance, sometimes from a great distance; Stephens, who edited the film with Dounia Sichov, often keeps attendees offscreen, deploying their remarks as voiceovers that seem to fill Velez’s spacious frames and, in the process, resonate in the film’s American landscapes. These artfully aestheticized strategies and fluid heuristics help the film transcend its original impersonal conceptualism to convey the immediacy and real power of political mythology – and attempt a corrective demythology in real time. “The American Sector” is an exemplary work of cinema as political action, and proof (if any) that the militant element of a film is inseparable from its well thought out form.