Interview with Courtney Stephens and Pacho Velez, filmmakers of The American Sector presented in the section Disrupting History, available from November 12-18
Pacho’s latest film, The Reagan Show, also looked back at history, and in particular the relationships between the USA and the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Do you share a common interest in the Cold War?
Yes, but it’s not just a research interest. We’re both children of the 1980s, and the cultural products and political events of that era shaped our sense of the world, dreams, the built environment, what we studied in school. Everything. Godard called the ‘68 generation the children of Marx and Coca Cola - I guess that makes us the children of Reagan and Coca Cola (so there is some generational continuity, at least).
Was your focus always the relics of the Berlin Wall within the USA, or were you ever interested in its legacy elsewhere on the planet?
Making The American Sector, the panels of the wall felt mostly like the documentary equivalent of Hitchcock’s MacGuffin, an excuse to document our shared obsessions - institutional memory, landscapes, the legacy of the cold war, etc. America always felt like a natural boundary for those explorations. Though we did do some research into pieces now situated “behind” the iron curtain. There are a number of them, mostly distributed throughout former Soviet republics that we would love to visit, perhaps for a future film.
Why is now a good time to look back at that time of history? What does it tell us about our present time? It’s difficult not to think about Trump’s Wall, of course, but it’s also larger than that…
Haha, is it a good time to look back at that history? The news cycle changes so quickly. The end of the Cold War was an epochal shift in global power relations, but its effect on the American psyche has been so little examined. Francis Fukuyama laid it to rest by declaring “The end of history,” and though his epitaph has proven premature, nothing’s quite emerged to replace it. We don’t have a good national framework for understanding who and what we stand for. Some of the issues that were on the top of folks minds while we were in production were Trump’s Southern border wall and confederate monuments. The film is about national fractures, which we are seeing now in the most overt way.
How did you build the structure of the film, drawing from all these different fragments and different narratives?
It took a lot of trial and error! In the beginning we thought we might have a voiceover that could guide the viewer around the country, but we abandoned that pretty quickly after we began filming and talking to people (sometimes as formal interviews but often just inadvertently in the process of recording environmental sound). The associative meaning that the different Americans bring to the question of what this wall is doing here had far more nuance than anything we could write. So we started to think about the editing process as a process of stringing beads on a necklace - to see how they created meaning through juxtaposition, and how the subject of our film - which is a grey concrete block - could be made to develop through the way different people sound their voices off of it.
Can you talk about your choice to shoot in 16 mm? The texture of the film seems to mirror the idea of a historical imprint, but sometimes, I also feel a touch of irony in your aesthetic choices.
Shooting in film adds a patina of time to an image. Time can feel like a burden, or an affectation, getting in the way of other things a director is trying to capture. But in a movie like The American Sector, the choice of 16mm feels apt because it draws the audience’s attention to time’s impact on landscapes, institutions, and people.
16mm also has a distancing effect. Since it’s no longer the default medium, it draws attention to itself, inviting a more reflexive reading of an image. I think this ties into the irony that you’re describing, documenting contemporary attitudes through outmoded technologies.