“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” wrote Robert Frost, and history would seem to bear him out. The Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall, and, though the jury may still be out, Trump’s border wall, ultimately failed their purpose. The Berlin Wall, designed to keep East Berlin citizens from getting out and Western ideas from getting in, was declared kaput in 1989. But since then, as seen in Courtney Stephens and Pacho Velez’s “The American Sector” (2020), it has enjoyed a respectable afterlife, with segments acquired as souvenirs, art objects, and memorials.
The filmmakers track down some of these slabs, over 40 in all, in likely and unlikely locations across the United States (including Boston’s John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum and the Hult International Business School in Cambridge). Obliquely and with little editorial intrusion they display these monoliths, which are as numinous and ambiguous as those in “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), with occasional comments from the owners or onlookers about the fragments’ history, significance, and personal resonance.
If a slice of the wall is erected in a forest does it have any meaning? That is the situation of the first slab shown, splattered with paint and indecipherable graffiti, surrounded by trees in a place identified as “UNINCORPORATED LAND/Western PA” with the only human presence the distant buzz of a chain saw. Similarly ignored is the painted cement diptych between a pair of ferns in a lobby of the Dallas Hilton. A guest strolls by without a glance. Perhaps this artifact is intended as a corporate trophy from the victorious war of capitalism over communism.
But the well-maintained chunk at the State Department in Washington, D.C., with its Keith Haring-like graffiti and the slogans “Keine Gewalt” (“No Violence”) and “Wir sind der Volk” (“We are the people”) comes with an official interpretation. As a docent points out, on the back side are signatures of such luminaries as President George H.W. Bush, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, and other leaders and activists who helped bring about the reunification of Berlin and Germany. She says that this “is known as the ‘Signature Segment,’ weighs almost 3 tons, is 13 feet high, and is a testament to the work of diplomacy in ending the Cold War era.”
That’s one way to look at it. Other observers are less doctrinaire. The owner of the Suwanee Grill in Suwanee, Ga., relates how he got his chunk of the wall by chance at the government auction of a convicted con man’s property; that story, he says, is also a “piece of history.” Other venues display their wall sections as curiosities. At the Museum of World Treasures in Wichita, Kan., it is placed next to a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil and seems just a less interesting relic of an extinction. And in the Ripley’s Odditorium, one gathers dust behind a “GENUINE HUMAN SKIN MASK!”
But some onlookers have more focused and informed opinions about the Berlin Wall and its meaning. Like the three kids at Ronald Reagan’s alma mater, Eureka College in Eureka, Ill., who gather around a fragment and discuss Reagan’s speech in which he said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” More skeptical are two students at the University of Virginia who think it is inappropriate to give such prominence to a memorial of another country’s injustice while the university acknowledges the slave labor that built their school with only a small plaque.
Though oblique and understated (Velez was co-director with Stephanie Spray of the incantatory 2013 documentary “Manakamana” from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab) “The American Sector” (named for the section of Berlin apportioned to the United States after World War II), conveys its themes through ironic contrasts, either within an image or in the juxtaposition of images edited together. Detached and incisive, wry and deceptively whimsical, this is a brisk lesson in how we often fail to learn from history because even the most concrete testimony is open to interpretation.
“The American Sector” can be streamed Feb. 12-16 as part of the DocYard series at http://bit.ly/americansectorwatch. Filmmakers Stephens and Velez will participate in a live virtual Q&A with DocYard curator Abby Sun on Feb. 15 at 7 p.m. Go to thedocyard.com/2021/02/the-american-sector.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.