American Selfie: One Nation Shoots Itself is a harrowing, if somewhat scattershot and randomly disconnected, documentary about the current cultural and political climate in America. There may not be a steady coherent thesis, it’s a lot of on the ground point of view of despair and hollering, but the movie is has a creeping sense of menace. This is because American Selfie starts in September 2019 and ends around July 2020 and, considering the big COVID-19 pandemic creeps up right around the middle of the film, its like watching a ticking bomb waiting to go off. The movie is all over the place as it hops from topic and locale but that jarring sense of discombobulation defines the last few months tonally. The quiet moments of anguish are powerful, and the big moments of chaos are intense. It may not make the most logical sense, but the past few months haven’t anyway.
Director Alexandra Pelosi, daughter of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, doesn’t exactly make the movie a didactic partisan hack job, instead going for a “you are there immediacy”. She is only a presence in the film off camera throwing some muffled questions to interview subjects. The opening scene is something from another world, way back just over a year ago, with happily gathered non-masked folks taking selfies and lining up to buy the newest iPhone. That is right when the menace starts to creep in because these poor souls of late 2019 don’t know what is going to hit them. Its not as if the whole movie is about selfies, it’s just an example of cheery frivolity that is about to come crashing down. The move is sort of a selfie of America with peeks in on people’s lives then it moves on to another group.
Probably the only thing that is somewhat uplifting is a check in on a quirky, giant Presidential head park (no, really!) where all of the monuments are kind of crumbling as one of the statues took a bolt of lightning in the face. There’re also a brief snippet of a climate change protest, which took place concurrently with the new iPhone release, that contrasts the pointlessness of the people lining up for iPhones vs. the fact that the planet is on fire. At least at the climate change protest, there aren’t angry confrontations. That comes in spades later.
Pelosi also checks in on people in mourning over yet another mass shooting. The most striking moment is when someone is asked why the shootings happen, and they respond that there is a sickness in America as the shooter was egged on by anti-immigrant rhetoric from the top levels of government. There is a lot of Trump rally footage here which is all disturbing. The rally at Tulsa has one Trump fan happily proclaiming, “It’s Woodstock for conservatives!” and everyone is griping about wearing masks.
There are some fantastic edits as the movie jumps from one subject to another, as the very harrowing section in March has the beginnings of lockdowns as infection rates from COVID-19 start to rise. Smash cut to April and people are already screaming to reopen the states. One moment has a bartender saying that the state is making them close and bemoan they still have to pay rent without taking in any cash. A bit when an anti-masker is berating police SWAT teams standing off to the side to take off their masks has a sense of foreboding considering what comes in later months. The heavily armed police presence is like showing the monster in a horror movie before it strikes. A repeated refrain throughout from many interviewee subjects that the system is broken and seeing broken things again and again, it seems truthful. Even one very striking shot taken in Vegas has a person posing for a glamourous picture while just at the corner of the frame a homeless person is sleeping. A look in on a low income household that is literally sinking in sewage is sobering as they say no one will come help them.
The film is mostly little bits of interviews with people in controlled settings, and then the wheels come flying off when the pandemic starts to ramp up along with civil unrest with protests against police brutality. Any semblance of coherent narrative kind of goes out the window at that point at which point American Selfie becomes a raw, visceral account of chaos unfolding. The most intense stuff is ground view of protestors being gassed and beaten by advancing police squads as even the camera crew itself of the documentary is roughly jostled. The final scenes take place at Trump’s July 4th celebration at Mount Rushmore as native protestors are smacked around by cops in riot gear as the soundtrack plays “America the Beautiful” ending on a close up of Trump smirking at his event. As far as final images go, its fairly jaw-dropping.
American Selfie: One Nation Shoots Itself doesn’t follow a single journey, nor does it have a lot of talking heads ruminating on the historical significance of the moments of 2020. It is just pointing a camera at everyone else pointing cameras at everyone else as everything boils over into rage and violence. This is a dour but truthful watch about right now.
American Selfie: One Nation Shoots Itself
Director: Alexandra Pelosi
Starring: Alexandra Pelosi and Manila Luzon