'The American Sector': Film Review | Berlin 2020

Courtney Stephens/Pacho Velez
'The American Sector'
An elegant and potent visual essay.

Documentarians Courtney Stephens and Pacho Velez visited dozens of the pieces of the Berlin Wall that are on display in the United States, creating a composite portrait through a historical lens.

At its most straightforward and deceptively simple, The American Sector is a catalog: a regathering of some of the scattered pieces of a once-formidable whole. Dismantled in 1989 with profound political repercussions and symbolic power, the wall that separated East and West Berlin for 28 years lives on, in new and no less symbolic ways, in locations around the world.

Some of the surviving slabs of the concrete barrier are stark gray, others elaborately adorned with the work of unknown artists, and many are in the United States, with a high concentration in Southern California. (Watching the movie, I was reminded that an "installation" in Los Angeles that I've driven by countless times is, in fact, a section of the Berlin Wall. Factoid quibble: Its location is no longer the "Variety building," as it's ID'd onscreen.)

Over a three-year period, filmmakers Courtney Stephens, making her first feature-length documentary, and Pacho Velez (Manakamana, The Reagan Show) visited more than 60 of the stateside artifacts. Their film begins as a mysterious travelogue, inviting us to consider the slabs in their varied settings — public parks and private property, museums and roadsides, universities and government offices. Sometimes the new owner has provided curatorial context; sometimes the monolith seems transplanted from an unknown world (2001: A Space Odyssey might come to mind, or maybe the cover of Who's Next).

Public art and political divisions, the sway of history and the impulse toward freedom are inseparable elements in the doc's richly nuanced palette. Other than an exquisitely apt epigraph from Elizabeth Bishop's poem "The Monument," it proceeds without narration or explanatory text beyond place names. And like a poem, The American Sector layers disparate images into a revelatory experience.

What might seem at first an inquiry into another nation's story builds into a provocative illumination of all our histories, and of the here and now. Another wall — one that's still more concept than reality and on many Americans' minds — is alluded to and left to the viewer's contemplation. The final voices heard in the film, on a Culver City corner beside a section of the wall, are speaking Spanish.

The camera is often fixed, compositions frequently symmetrical, as the film showcases pieces of the wall in locations as disparate as a forested corner of Pennsylvania, a chain hotel in Dallas, a private home in Laurel Canyon, Microsoft headquarters, a couple of presidential libraries and a metro stop in Chicago.

The voices that Stephens and Velez have gathered are no less varied. Some interviewees speak directly to the camera, among them a State Department guide offering an official spiel and sculptor Edwina Sandys, who feels a particular connection to 20th century European history as the granddaughter of Winston Churchill. Many of the speakers are heard but unseen: An L.A. food truck proprietor discusses her immigration from Africa; another interviewee professes that "God's into walls." A voice on a car radio lends a flavor of travelogue Americana, and a few boys offer evidence that a whole new generation has been spoon-fed the falsehood that the Berlin Wall came down at Ronald Reagan's direction.

With its judicious use of prerecorded material, The American Sector also embarks on a bit of excavation. News footage of John Kennedy's historic visit to Berlin is particularly well used, however unsurprising; excerpts from an unidentified man's childhood home movies of a family trip to that city, on the other hand, are a terrific jolt of the unexpected.

Toward the end of the film, an elderly black man — who can count among his relatives two victims of lynching — speaks movingly of why a segment of the wall in his town has meaning to him. "We're not alone," he says. His deeply felt words contrast strikingly with those of two University of Virginia students seen earlier in the doc. Their commitment to social justice is evident, and so too is their refusal to connect the dots between the Berlin Wall artifact on their campus and the matter of American racial history that they consider urgent.

In short, there's no predetermined narrative at play in this concise and elegantly crafted road trip. The terrain it travels is one of open-ended questions, and the spark it ignites has a contrapuntal power.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special)
Production company: Asterlight
Directors: Courtney Stephens, Pacho Velez
Producer: Pacho Velez
Executive producers: Joe Poletto, Sam Roseme
Director of photography: Pacho Velez
Editors: Dounia Sichov, Courtney Stephens
Sales: Asterlight

70 minutes