Open City Documentary Festival 2020 – Focus: The American Sector, That Wall


Jesse Cumming explores the various walls, seen and referenced, that make up Courtney Stephens and Pacho Velez’s The American Sector. The American Sector is available in Block 1 (Wed 9th Sept midday – Sat 12th Sept midnight BST).

At the midpoint of Courtney Stephens and Pacho Velez’s The American Sector, the duo’s attempt to document all the panels of the Berlin Wall that exist on American soil leads them to the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Overa black screen we hear a recorded phone call between Stephens and a federal representative, wherein Stephens, in an unsuccessful appeal to film the segment housed inside the agency, describes her and Velez’s experimental documentary as a project “about public commemoration.”

The unseen CIA fragment is positioned against more than sixty other segments that the filmmakers have located and which form the content of The American Sector, with resting places that include hotels, museums, malls, offices, universities, highways, metro stations, private homes, and more. The diversity of locations is only matched by the variety of interpretations around what the 13-foot-tall concrete slabs are able to signify for the owners, custodians, tourists, and everyday citizens who are invited to speak to the camera, a polysemy encouraged by Stephens and Velez’s clear and unadorned style that permits ambiguous readings on the part of the viewer.  

As a boundary at once symbolic and very real, having bifurcated Berlin from 1961 through 1989, the graffiti-laden and occasionally bullet hole-ridden segments prove to be a Rorschach-like open text, reflecting and supporting whatever beliefs a viewer brings to it. For one private owner, the wall and the artistic interventions that took place on its west side represent the greatest “modern canvas”, an interpretation shared by a museum-style didactic panel that accompanies a segment in Redmond, Washington’s Microsoft Headquarters: “Unknown Artists, Berlin Wall, 1961-1989, Graffiti on concrete”. The most commonly evoked term however, remains “freedom”, a term that has long served as a pernicious cover for US brutality at home and abroad, and one that feels particularly loaded in 2020. 

In the six months since the film’s premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, questions of public memorialisation have been at the forefront of conversations in the United States, with the destruction and defacements of racist monuments still underway across the country. Meanwhile that same nation, whose leader has for nearly five years pushed for the construction of a border wall along its southern border to quell migration, and whose mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis has led to deaths in the six-figures, now finds several international borders closed to them. 

Stephens and Velez never make explicit mention to that wall, despite the fact that oblique references to it emerge at various points across the film, mostly from the filmmakers’ interlocutors or passersby. “I’m sure families were separated, just like what’s gonna happen now,” notes one, in a direct, accurate assessment of contemporary US policy.  

Subtle and clever in its construction—particularly in terms of the refined sound design—the filmmakers’ eschewal of voice-over never guides the viewer with a heavy hand, while they do place clues to their own interpretation of the material by way of a deceptively weighty bookend. Opening first with an isolated panel in a forest located via on-screen text in “Unincorporated Land, Western PA”, the film closes in Culver City, California with a group of teenage boys snacking and chatting in Spanish in front of an ignored and seemingly out of place slab of the wall. In each sequence—two of the most tranquil moments in the film—Stephens and Velez layer place and time as they gesture to the violence behind the foundation and maintenance of US borders and the American project, one of the most trenchant connections to the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, yet which elsewhere remains all but unspoken.  

Jesse Cumming is a curator and writer based on Toronto.

Tickets for The American Sector is on sale now.