'American Selfie: One Nation Shoots Itself': Film Review

American Selfie: One Nation Shoots Itself
Courtesy of MTV Documentary Films/SHOWTIME
It's not a pretty picture.

Alexandra Pelosi's documentary looks at the fractured state of the country during the last tumultuous year.

Documentary filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi says that the purpose of her latest film was to "take the temperature of how people feel about America today." Judging by the alarming footage on display in American Selfie: One Nation Shoots Itself — premiering Friday on Showtime — the country is suffering from a high-grade fever.

Pelosi (daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi) assigned herself the unenviable task of traveling around the country for the last year chronicling the tumult and chaos permeating the national conversation. It certainly wasn't hard to find, from the hatred and xenophobia displayed by attendees of Trump rallies to the violent anger of anti-lockdown protesters to the passion of the Black Lives Matters marches. Hovering over all of it is the looming presence of the division-stoking president, who in four short years has brought the country closer to a civil war than we have been since, well, the Civil War.

The movie begins on a relatively light note, assuming you don't think that people obsessively photographing themselves heralds the end of civilization as we know it. Several young women provide instructions on how to shoot the perfect selfie, from the pouting of the lips to the body positioning. Their answers to Pelosi's query about why they take so many selfies at least seem honest: "Because people love themselves," one says. "It's proof that you're living," another declares.

The year-long journey, for which Pelosi should have received hazard pay, starts in September, 2019, when she interviews several of the hordes of technology-obsessed young people waiting for hours in Manhattan to buy the new iPhone. They offer their reasons for why they need a new cell phone, including "Because it's the new one" and "I don't want to miss out."

Things get progressively darker from there. Pro-Trump demonstrators in Minneapolis chant "Send them back!" referring to immigrants while another proclaims, "I'm sick of the hatred, I'm sick of the intolerance" without a trace of self-irony. The heated altercations with anti-Trump counter-demonstrators eventually turn violent.

At an international bridge crossing the U.S./Mexico border, we see hundreds of desperate asylum seekers camping out for weeks waiting for their applications to be processed. Nearby, a makeshift memorial has sprung up near the El Paso Walmart where a crazed young white nationalist, inspired by Trump's evocation of the "invasion" taking place at the Southern border, massacred 23 Latinos.  Of course, the mere threat of a mass shooting doesn't prevent people from rushing to their local big-box store on Black Friday, where the frenzied jostling for bargains provides a testament to the all-powerful effects of consumerism. One man, pushing a wildly overloaded cart, at least has a philosophical explanation for why we shop so obsessively. "To fill the void in our souls with material goods," he thoughtfully explains as he stuffs the items into the trunk of his car.

America's enduring love for mechanical devices that can kill is on full display at a Virginia guns-rights rally, where overgrown adolescent men strut around waving automatic weapons while citing the 2nd Amendment to a document they've probably never read. "I haven't felt more secure since I left Afghanistan," announces one man. The fatal toll of that national fixation is made evident when Pelosi talks to people in Las Vegas at the site of the largest mass-shooting in American history. There's no memorial marking the spot.

Inevitably, the onset of COVID-19 plays a prominent role in the film's second half. We see people panic-buying dozens of rolls of toilet paper and enough ramen to feed a middle school. Footage shot in New York City includes people bitterly complaining about their favorite bar being forced to temporarily close and scenes of bodies being put into refrigerated trucks serving as temporary morgues while funeral homes, especially those catering to minority communities, are overrun with new arrivals.

The film covers both Black Lives Matter and state reopening rallies, including a protest in Minneapolis shortly after the murder of George Floyd. There's footage of the Washington, D.C., protest that was ended by rubber bullets and tear gas bombs to facilitate Trump's bible-waving photo op, and his ill-fated Tulsa campaign rally, which one attendee describes as "Woodstock for conservatives."

American Selfie inevitably feels a bit scattershot at times, no doubt due to the vagaries of Pelosi's travel schedule and her guerilla shooting approach. Some of the footage is revelatory, some feels overly familiar. The filmmaker wisely avoids being on-camera and making editorial observations, save for the innocent-sounding questions she asks that often allow her subjects to verbally shoot themselves in the foot.

The film ends with a scene of Trump staring rapturously at Mount Rushmore as fireworks go off and Native Americans protest nearby. We also hear a soaring choral rendition of "America the Beautiful," but never have the words "God shed his grace on thee" seemed less applicable.

Production company: MTV Documentary Films
Distributor: Showtime Documentary Films
Director/producer/director of photography: Alexandra Pelosi
Executive producers: Sheila Nevins
Editor: Christopher O'Coin

90 min.