70th Berlinale | 2020
"The more technical part of the animation work, animating, colouring and compositing were a welcomed relief and seeing the images take their final form was amazing."
Courtney Stephens & Pacho Velez
The American Sector
Nominated for the Berlinale Documentary Award
The American Sector takes viewers on a fractured road trip, encountering panels of The Berlin Wall that have been installed as public monuments throughout the United States. Visiting over forty sites, the film weaves together the stories people tell about these imported monoliths, capturing how artifacts bond the past and the present.
Hey Courtney & Pacho, it's great to talk with you, how are things going?
Things are going well! We’re very excited for the upcoming premiere, finishing up all the last little details.
Congratulations on The American Sector on being selected for the Berlinale Special, are you both looking forward to attending the festival?
Yes, very much so. We’re excited to have a chance to show the film there, and to start a conversation about these unlikely monuments to the Cold War. What do they stand for? And what is the value of bearing witness to them? For both of us, it’s also our first trip to Berlin. It’s sort of funny to make a film about the wall before visiting the city, but there it is.
The American Sector is nominated for the Berlinale Documentary Award, what does it mean to get this type of recognition for your film?
The nomination, and the whole festival, is a great platform for launching The American Sector. Our film is such a personal work, of love and sweat, three years in the making. We shot it mostly on our dime, during long weekend roadtrips, editing it in Pacho’s living room. There were a lot of despairing moments along the way, where it seemed like a truly crazy thing to do, chasing around cement slabs. But it was important because we felt we had something to say about how the legacy of the Cold War still shapes American perspectives. And now to be up for a prize at the Berlinale - ground zero for the wall - what could be more thrilling?
This will also be your film’s World Premiere, does this add any extra pressure on you?
It brings intensity and realness for sure! Especially because the audience will be full of Germans who lived with The Berlin Wall dividing their country for decades. And while the film is really about the American experience of the wall, we do hope that the audience feels we’ve properly honoured the complicated and specific history that this symbol represents.
"I was very inspired by the American music composer John Cage, for whom all the activity of sound is considered music - it’s only the act of listening that changes."
Can you tell me a little bit about The American Sector, what is it about the story of the Berlin Wall in America that interested you both as filmmakers?
It was a shared interest in the Cold War, and how its legacy has shaped present-day politics, that first led to our interest in The Berlin Wall in America. We wanted to take a road trip to visit these panels, spread all over the country, and to use them as a catalyst for larger conversations about immigration, border walls, and big ideas like “freedom” and “liberation.”
Did you know much about the history of the Berlin Wall in the US before you started making this film?
We knew hardly anything about its “official” history, but we’d both encountered it many times, in different forms. For instance, Courtney lives in Los Angeles and, in 2009, had by chance encountered a public performance. A large “wall” made of board had been built across Wilshire Boulevard, one of the city’s major East / West thoroughfares, and citizens were invited to tear it down to mark the November anniversary of the Wall’s fall. She learned years later that the event was the work of the Wende Museum of the Cold War, an idiosyncratic collection focused on the material history of East Germany and the Eastern bloc countries. They have also brought several pieces of the real Wall to Los Angeles, ten of which mark the site of the performance. Berlin and Los Angeles are sister cities, incidentally.
Where was the first piece of the wall you discovered?
Pacho’s last film, The Reagan Show, took a close look at Reagan’s use of public relations during his summits with Mikhail Gorbachev. While working on that film, he spent a month at the Reagan Presidential Library. Every day, he ate lunch at the library’s picnic table, right beside a panel of the wall. Eavesdropping on the mix of history and mythology, fantasy and memory, that the sight of it provoked, he started wondering: how had this slab of concrete ended up here? How many were there around the country? What does it mean, that so many have ended up here?
When you are working on a project like this how flexible do you like to be or do you like to keep to a set plan?
Because we were covering big distances with limited time and budget (with hundreds of miles between locations sometimes) we had to stick to certain itineraries, but we also let ourselves be guided by chance. While driving through Pennsylvania, we noticed a town on the map called East Berlin. How could we not visit? And this led us to one of the more interesting voices in the film. Our agenda with the film was to show up at all these far flung places and listen; the film seems to be about the individual wall pieces, but also turns out to be about individual Americans.
How important is the collaborative nature of filmmaking for you?
Both of us are driven by the experience of actually learning while making a film, and we feel that this quality is evident in the layers of the final film. Co-directing means there is someone who is invested to the same extent as you are, who you have the benefit of really thinking alongside and with, during the long process of making a film. This was especially valuable on the long drives we had while making this film. Some films come from a very internal space - but this one benefited from a dialogue between the two of us.
What has the experience been like working together on this film?
We wanted to kill each other at times and we also made a film that neither of us could have made alone.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
Yes, in addition to having our own practices as filmmakers, we are both big cinephiles and do a fair amount of film programming and teaching, both in Los Angeles in New York. Sharing taste and interest in films was a big part of our friendship before working on this film together.
"All these things are much more palpable and tangible to me now compared to when I did my debut film ten years ago."
How has your style and approach to your work changed since you started out?
Definitely! We both spent time in graduate school (Courtney at the AFI, Pacho at CalArts) focusing on narrative filmmaking, and later came to making experimental and non-fiction work. I think this interest in the perforation between fiction and non-fiction is something that is evident in both of our work.
What has been the best advice you have been given as a filmmaker?
Courtney was told: “It’s easy to see what was iconic about the past. Try to perceive what is iconic about the time you live in, even if you don’t find it beautiful.” Pacho was told to make films about things he loves. In this case, not the Berlin Wall, but the American landscape.
As a filmmaker, what advice would you offer fellow a filmmaker?
Courtney: Find the surface in the depth and the depth in the surface / Good writing, like good films, is distilled time - and so it takes time to do.
Pacho: Find a teaching job.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from The American Sector?
We hope that people come away feeling that connected to the fragments of the wall, are fragments of shared humanity, this epoch, and the value of personal experience over institutional narratives.