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CURATORS‘ CHOICE 2021

THE AMERICAN SECTOR

Sunday, December 19, 2021, 4:00 p.m. 

United States. 2020, 69 mins. Directed by Courtney Stephens and Pacho Velez.

Review by William Repass, Slant, June 2021

Subtle yet immediate, Courtney Stevens and Pacho Velez’s The American Sector is an invitation to think. Shunning the familiar documentary approach in which voiceover narration and talking heads take turns explaining the significance of all sorts of archival material in authoritative tones, the filmmakers don’t concern themselves with merely presenting information or laying out an argument. Instead of explaining, this disarming documentary lets its images speak for themselves, and between each other.

Stevens and Velez’s filmmaking is simple in execution but complex in implication. In short, they set out to document those sections of the Berlin Wall now scattered across the United States, and, of equal importance, their immediate surroundings. Those who happen to be nearby give impromptu interviews, and although some are experts or figures of authority, most are ordinary people. Locations include unincorporated land in western Pennsylvania, air force bases, corporate offices, university campuses, more than one presidential library, a lavish home in the Hollywood Hills, the Society for Creative Anachronism in Philadelphia, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, and so on.

More often than not, Stevens and Velez simply plant their camera in front of a section of the Berlin Wall. Shots linger, making time for the viewer to take in each section of the wall, as distinct from every other in its texture, weathering, the graffiti on its surface, as well as the space it occupies—and then contemplate how any given shot relates to those around it. Throughout, each section of the wall may be viewed as cross-section of history, a work of art, the political equivalent of a hunting trophy, or a combination of all these things.

One unsettling sequence takes place in the Museum of World Treasures in Wichita. The camera, placed in an elevator at an oblique angle to the section of wall, ascends from the pebble floor of a museum exhibit past reconstructed dinosaur skeletons. In the following shot, the camera faces the wall, though not dead-on, and pans back down its surface toward the base, while a voice with a British accent, piped in to the exhibit (precisely the type of narration that The American Sector avoids), regurgitates facts about dinosaurs, then goes on to say that the interpretation of these facts has always been hotly disputed.

This short sequence gestures at how, in the context of this particular museum, the wall section is implicitly treated as a fossil, a curiosity excavated from some distant past with little or no impact on the world of today. But it also suggests that natural and political history are both defined by the disputation of competing narratives, training the viewer to scrutinize every subsequent context, from the downright bizarre to the self-aggrandizing.

In another sequence, the screen remains blank while a telephone conversation plays back between the directors and a C.I.A. representative in Langley, Virginia. The blank image here has more to say than the words spoken on behalf of the agency, which may have undergone an “identity crisis” when the wall came down but continues to thrive on secrets—on hiding, falsifying, or cherry-picking what information gets shared and with whom.

The thesis that emerges organically from this approach is multifaceted, a dialogue of juxtapositions and extrapolations, as well as a collaboration between the filmmakers and their audience. For most, the Berlin Wall can only be experienced piecemeal, by those living in or visiting places that host one of its fragments. The American Sector accomplishes a restoration of sorts, allowing us to see how the meaning of historical objects isn’t only susceptible to dispersal and dilution, but also capable of conferring meaning on a new context. And not only the expected or intended meanings. For many of those interviewed in The American Sector, the Berlin Wall in its deconstructed form represents some vague notion of freedom, while for others, it’s an ironic reminder of how little currency the word has, in a United States bloated with post-Cold War triumphalism yet unable to address its own divisions.

 

Museum of the Moving Image is grateful for the generous support of numerous corporations, foundations, and individuals. The Museum is housed in a building owned by the City of New York and receives significant support from the following public agencies: the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs; New York City Economic Development Corporation; New York State Council on the Arts; Institute of Museum and Library Services; National Endowment for the Humanities; National Endowment for the Arts; Natural Heritage Trust (administered by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation).

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