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‘The American Sector’ Review: Breezy Documentary Explores What Happens to a Border Wall After It Collapses

Berlin: Courtney Stephens and "Manakamana" co-director Pacho Velez take us on a fun road trip movie about pieces of the Berlin Wall across the USA.

“The American Sector”

The Berlin Wall may have “fallen” in November 1989, but it was never destroyed — only dismantled. More than 30 years later, fragments of the concrete border that once separated East and West Germany are now scattered around the world; these lonely slabs of rock stick out of the ground like cold, gray monoliths, and radiate with the knowledge of another time. Dozens and dozens can be found in the United States alone. One hides in the verdant forests of Pennsylvania’s Unincorporated Land. Another is on display at the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas. A Hilton Hotel in Dallas keeps a fragment in the lobby, where people walk by without looking twice. There’s even one at Universal Studios in Florida — right behind the Hard Rock Cafe.

Courtney Stephens and Pacho Velez’s “The American Sector” may not have time to visit every section of the Berlin Wall that’s been imported to the country (the film runs a breezy 65 minutes without credits), but this light and thoughtful documentary road trip still manages to draw a comprehensive map of what the Cold War relic has come to represent — and what freedom means to the people of a nation that’s been defined by its pursuit. A nonlinear portrait of the public imagination that was conceived in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, Stephens and Velez’s appropriately fragmented movie isn’t a reactionary time capsule so much as a gentle meditation on the relationship between history and the ideals that help to shape it (Velez co-directed “Manakamana,” and fans of that film will recognize a similar flavor of semi-voyeuristic humanity).

“The American Sector”

Much of “The American Sector” is devoted to insightful “man on the street” interviews with good-natured Americans who Stephens and Velez just happen to find near the Wall slabs, but some of the subjects have clearly spent a fair bit of time considering the value of these far-flung slabs. British sculptor Edwina Sandys (who also happens to be Winston Churchill’s granddaughter) reflects on how the concept of “freedom” can only be defined by its contrast against a threatening “unfreedom.” Elsewhere, someone discusses how ironic it is that a blunt tool of division has been reclaimed as a symbol of liberty. To paraphrase their rather poetic conclusion: By trying to contain people’s bodies, the Wall has unlocked their minds.

Those words cast a long shadow over this short film, as “The American Sector” is more interested in the wide array of responses the ruins inspire from people than in any one particular reading. If all of Stephens and Velez’s footage is blanketed by a vague sense of warmth, perhaps that’s because it taps into the basic joy of watching people interpolate the present into the past on their own terms.

A black man who lives along the Mason-Dixon Line looks at his local piece of the Berlin Wall and thinks about the history of American slavery; it reminds him of the underground railroad, and stokes a sense of solidarity between the struggles of people all over the world. Some goofy types at the Society for Creative Anachronism see their slab as an ideal prop. The State Department keeps theirs as a symbol of democracy, an African-born woman who owns an LA food truck relates to the Wall as a kind of fellow immigrant, and a kid who works at Universal Studios thinks of it as… a symbol of kicking ass at Universal Studios. Or something. It’s unclear, but he’s definitely pretty stoked about it.

Not everyone has such warm feelings about it. Two students at the University of Virginia lament how such a universal testament to freedom — such an easy symbol of digesting a difficult past — epitomizes how Americans deflect attention from their own history of violence. Another young woman argues that society has always been defined by movement and dislocation, and that even a dismantled wall is a hurtful symbol of what her family overcame to get here.

“The American Sector” is equally interested in all of these readings for the same reason that Stephens and Velez are uninterested in making some kind of soft-footed, lyrical takedown of walls across the world. Their amusing documentary shrewdly traces how the future is filtered through our separate and collective imaginations of the past; and how the same object might come to assume so many different meanings depending on who’s looking at it, and from where. A plaque on the back of one slab reads: “Please allow this piece of history to remain as is.” But there’s precious little chance of that.

Grade: B

“The American Sector” premiered at the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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