From Vietnam to mass incarceration, foreign and immigrant-directed films captured American identity better than ‘Forrest Gump.’
“I have asked myself: have I been standing up too close, or back too far? Have I really seen? Did we really see?” This is how French filmmaker Babette Mangolte closes her portrait of the American West in The Sky on Location. Mangolte, like many of her fellow international filmmakers, draws on the mythic promises and global allure of the United States, fascinated by what ‘America’ has come to represent, and at times, the gulf between that representation and its reality. America: Films from Elsewhere, a new essay collection with contributions from Hilton Als, Ed Halter, and Erika Balsom, mines these curious observations to comprise a tapestry of different ‘Americas’ as seen onscreen. Fascinated by the country’s mythology, but also well aware of its margins, liminalities, and shortcomings, the films discussed remind us of the “outsider visions” that may trouble our assumed national narratives.
Though many of the films are relics of the 20th century, their critical examination of what America represents is perhaps even more resonant today—at a political moment were dissent is perceived as unpatriotic and critics are told to “go back to where they came from,” the persistence of diverse viewpoints is under threat, especially those of immigrants and non-citizens. Drawing from America: Films from Elsewhere (released August 20 from The Shoestring Publisher) and our own archive of favorites, Document has curated six films that embody different imaginings of what we call America, all directed by international filmmakers.
News from Home (1977) and From the Other Side (2002), directed by Chantal Akerman
It is no secret that New York has been a beacon for immigrants, artists, and innovators for most of the city’s history. Compelled by this legend, the feminist filmmaker Chantal Akerman moved from Brussels to Manhattan in 1971 and captured her border-crossing in the avant-garde documentary News from Home. Akerman overlays long shots of New York’s streetscapes, skylines, and subway cars with her reading of almost daily letters sent from her mother back home. The result is a quiet portrait of a city brimming with hope and promise, but also replete with long stretches of quiet and loneliness. The camera’s aimless wandering evokes the nomadic sensation that Akerman lived with her entire life and also corroborates her continual interest in travel and borders.
Akerman revisited this theme in the 2002 documentary From the Other Side, for which she interviewed locals on either side of the Mexico-U.S. border. Akerman’s filmic technique leans on empathy to dissolve the arbitrary boundaries of statehood, while she also acknowledges the foreboding presence of the border wall (and its geopolitical, economic, and social implications) through a rousing shot in which it seems to extend towards infinity. Overall, these two films compel us to think about the shifting, foggy nature of national belonging as imagined and malleable, or enforced and rigid.
Far From Vietnam (1967)
A collaboration between seven of the most prominent French New Wave directors, Far From Vietnam is an experimental and incisive critique of the Vietnam War and the genocidal, capitalist project of American imperialism. Filmmakers such as Agnès Varda, Jean-Luc Godard, and Alain Resnais each take on a section of the documentary to examine the ramifications of the war in the United States, Vietnam, and briefly, in both Cuba and France. Their collective vision combines a self-aware commentary on the French colonization of Vietnam (prior to American involvement) as well as the hypocritical outrage and inertia of the leftist elite. The film coheres around the ultimate argument that American intervention in Vietnam—and in other regions of the Global South—was an agenda against the right of the poor to self-determine and thus live without reliance on American capitalism.
Bush Mama (1979), directed by Haile Gerima
Haile Gerima moved from Gondar, Ethiopia to the U.S. in 1968 to study theater but ended up joining the L.A. Rebellion, a movement of young African and African-American filmmakers who studied at UCLA from the 1960s-՚80s. Gerima’s Bush Mama is considered a landmark film for not only the stirring performances of its lead actors and crisp black and white cinematography, but for its no holds barred depiction of systemic racism. The main character, Dorothy, is fully-fleshed out and autonomous, but through her, we also gain insight into the diverse experiences of those in her community via snippets of overheard conversations and the everyday experiences noted by Germina. Bush Mama addresses the exploitation of men of color by the Vietnam draft, criminal injustice and incarceration, welfare, eugenics, and political consciousness-raising 1970s Los Angeles. Gerima and his fellow L.A. Rebellion auteurs provided an important antidote to mainstream depictions of American life that failed to recognize the full scope of oppression and institutionalized racism.
The Sky on Location (1982), directed by Babette Mangolte
Mangolte, a French filmmaker who moved to New York in the 1970s in search of better opportunities for women directors, uses the breathtaking landscapes of the American West to meditate on the impulse for exploration. The rugged skylines and empty desserts on which she trains her camera to connote the “untamed frontier” that was won through genocide and Manifest Destiny, revealing how landscapes are actually used as texts of culture. As Erika Balsom writes in her essay on the film, “this desire for an absence of narrative is itself a narrative. In the 19th century, this view of the land supplied a mythos for a fledgling American identity, one posited as origin so as to occlude the trampling of indigenous ways of life.” Mangolte began principal photography at the onset of the Reagan administration, a time when environmental protections were being widely repealed, and land was again being expropriated and hoarded by the state for profit. She questions her position as a European filmmaker, using photography—a principal instrument of the colonial settler to “know”, categorize, and exploit—to undermine the audience’s understanding of neutrality; the landscape, the camera, and the artist are all products of a particular kind of national and international legacy.
American Honey (2016) and Wasp (2003), directed by Andrea Arnold
British filmmaker Andrea Arnold begins American Honey with Spiderman, cowboy boots, and dumpster diving, as two children and their nanny wade through the entrails of consumerism looking for dinner. The ensuing film – a road trip across the Midwest in a van full of outcast teens – is a compote of America’s fair and foul: country songs, confederate flags, and cigarette ash mingle with the promise of something better, somewhere else. American Honey won the Cannes Jury Prize and features remarkable performances from Shia Labeouf, Riley Keough, and then-newcomer Sasha Lane.
It also bears similarity to Arnold’s breakthrough short, Wasp, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short in 2004. Though Wasp is set in Arnold’s native England, it simmers with the same impulse to escape from rural poverty, signaling transnational symmetries between vulnerable British and American youth in overlooked communities. American Honey even features a brief encounter with a wasp on a windowpane—is this Arnold subtly drawing a connection between the two films?
Video Girls and Video Songs for Navajo Sky (1973), directed by Shigeko Kubota
Shigeko Kubota was one of many Japanese women artists who moved to the United States in the 1960s and became a key player in the Fluxus movement, collaborating with giants like John Cage and Nam June Paik. Though Kubota was very successful in the art world, she also faced the lingering racism of post-World War II anti-Japanese ideology and found comfort in American women of color feminist circles. In 1973, Kubota visited her friend Cecilia Sandoval and her community in Chinle, Arizona at a Navajo reservation, where she spent a month making the video Video Girls and Video Songs for Navajo Sky. In the half-hour-long work, Kubota records a dialogue with indigenous Navajo women as a transnational, transcommunal axis for thinking about race and solidarity. Kubota’s film aligns with the work of many other influential Japanese-American artists who immigrated in the post-War era and found themselves working in a complex milieu of heterogeneous cultural politics. It also speaks to the power of American civil rights movements to build feminist solidarities among BIWOC (black/indigenous/women of color) and the possibility for uniting across differences.
‘America: Films from Elsewhere’ is edited by Shanay Jhaveri and was released by The Shoestring Publishers on August 20, 2019.