2020 Film Essays

Open Spaces, Solid Foundations: ‘The American Sector’ and ‘The Building’ at Open City Documentary Festival

Open City Documentary Festival

Some echoes in the programme at London’s Open City Documentary Festival make this year’s online event into a rhyming scheme that forces the viewer to consume all of the films on offer like candy. Even if one burst isn’t enough, you’re already reaching for more. To combat the sickly feeling of overindulgence, the festival has split into two blocks. This encourages binge streaming and for virtual attendees to take a chance on more titles in each section of the festival.  

It isn’t just screening blocks that separate The American Sector and The Building (Budynok). It’s a wall. 

Courtney Stephens and Pacho Velez’s The American Sector is a road trip movie around the USA, to visit sections of the Berlin Wall that have been transposed to American towns. Stephens, one of the editors on The Tree of Life, and Velez, the political documentarian who co-directed 2017’s archival remix doc The Regan Show, combine sensibilities to show how people react when they stumble across a piece of the wall behind Planet Hollywood in Orlando, or at a corporate retreat in Pennsylvania, or at a food court in Seattle. Regan’s America clings in unexpected ways. 

At Ripley’s Odditorium in San Antonio, a punter notes that “Dinosaurs were the most successful creatures that ever lived.” Their skeletons are displayed next to a piece of the wall. 

The wall has a similar effect to the Borat character played by Sasha Baron Cohen. The mere presence of an outside object in America seems to make these subject heighten their patriotism or blinkered nationalism. A guy trying to work out what “Wir Liebe Dich” means is mildly amusing by itself, but among a litany of gauche behaviour, Stephens/Velez’s narrative is clearer. But the wealthier the subject, the more tasteless their approach to the outside world becomes. In a Hollywood hills house, a piece of the wall sits like a James Turrell art piece. “This represents the greatest canvas in modern history, a media sensation in a media town,” says the white shirted, aviator-wearing owner, proud of the commotion its delivery caused on Mulholland. Fetishising history is depicted as the great American pastime. 

More so even than Borat, The American Sector really calls to mind the Mr. Show sketch where a bunch of kids film a game show finding trinkets in European spots like the Anne Frank House. “We’ve been to jolly old England, gay Paris… Nazi Germany!” yell David Cross and Bob Odenkirk’s obnoxious Americans abroad. The American Sector reveals how U.S. culture sucks everything inward to turn people into those monsters, by reducing history and heritage to little more than ephemera. The 16mm really captures the detailed objects, heightening garish colours and tacky things. With a James Benning-type eye to landscape, space and subject clash in an ironic way that is genuinely funny. 

The American Sector Documentary

About halfway through, The American Sector sputters out — and then the CIA get involved. Tracking down a piece of the wall at Langley, an agent denies their request to film there and then becomes surprisingly frank about the significance of the wall’s fall for the agency: “Do we even have a purpose after we defeated this monolith? I don’t want to say we had an identity crisis.”

By necessity, the viewpoint remains from the U.S. side of the wall. Stephens/Velez don’t show feelings for East Berliners and beyond about the fall of the wall, aside from a brief news clip. In a gated community, Hope Point ID, a Ukranian woman cleans the section of wall and reminisces on her youth, how she cried when a local Lenin statue was taken down. There’s an implicit link to Trumpism and the Mexico border that goes mostly unmentioned. It’s a wise move, as The American Sector has more insidious observations to make. As Stephens and Velez move through places like George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Texas, and National Churchil Museum in Westminster, Missouri, viewers may begin to wonder how many of these places need to exist, and how many were just concocted to get better culture and heritage grants. Ephemera is surprisingly big business. 

Far across the Berlin divide is Ukraine’s former capital city Kharkiv, home to state industry building Derzhprom, the star of Matilda Mester and Tatjana Kononenko’s German-Ukrainian co-production The Building. Like The American Sector, Derzhprom is taken in through long static shots that summon a sense of the place and people around it. Through shots form the windows of trains and busses, the viewer is dragged through a post-soviet landscape to witness unmistakably constructivist architecture. The camera glides around the sharp corners of the Derzhprom. Mester and Kononenko define the space broadly, leaving gaps for the viewer to miss parts of the building, somewhat replicating one’s own experience of visiting the vast corridors and exterior park. When they cut from one location to another, does the film move through space, or teleport around it, as with The American Sector’s lurch through America? 

Budynok - The Building Documentary

Within minutes, Mester is incorporated as a figure, shooting on a 16mm Bolex camera. A Dane who seems to struggle with the slavic language, she comes across not as a tourist figure as much as anthropologist. As part of the crew on Ramon Zürcher’s cult classic, The Strange Little Cat (2013), The Building filmmakers have a kinship with the earlier film’s interest in how people cross from domestic and private spaces, and how they appear on screen. The bolex  photography changes the same spaces that the viewer sees in digital, undercutting those romantic cinephile myths of texture and grain. 

Archival footage of the building’s construction takes viewers back more directly to this modernist building’s inception. Seeing the three visual perspectives on the same space gestures to the Dziga Vertov group, who were notably inspired by Derzhprom to attempt political change through moving images. “Art must not remain a sanctuary for the idle and justification for the lazy,” reads a title card. But The Building is too indirect in translating research to screen to provoke any such change itself. Despite a soundtrack of Shostakovichian plonking strings, which adds to the inquisitive, curious air, this interminable film doesn’t necessarily acquaint the viewer more with Derzhprom even as it rushes back and forth through time. This could be in part due to the absence of people as subjects in a meaningful way. As figures rush past the camera or have small interactions with Mester/Kononenko, the film feels more like sitting in a town square and ignoring everyone as a way to get to know the place better. A seemingly obligatory scene near the end where a worker gives the crew ice creams and they chat a little about the project softens the hard walls somewhat, but the directors seem less interested in this than the scene where whispered narration receits the old building plans, as blueprints flash upon the screen. 

This pair of films at Open City Doc Fest present more questions than answers, which is precisely what this sort of festival is for. But one wonders how substantial these projects need be. Both of these films could have been shorts of 10-20 minutes, or they could have continued for an indiscriminate length of hours or even days. The fact that length doesn’t seem to matter is concerning, because size matters in a film about material things. But while The American Sector outstays its welcome, I’m not sure if The Building wants to be invited in to begin with.

Ben Flanagan (@manlikeflan) is a film critic and programmer based in London.