Film-maker Alexandra Pelosi: ‘I think phones are more dangerous than guns’ | Film
America is, as the refrain goes, divided. This has been demonstrated empirically, with evidence on America’s increasing political polarization, and anecdotally, if you’ve lived in America for the past decade, and especially the last four years. Easily legible examples of a country fraying at the seams abound; American Selfie: One Nation Shoots Itself, a new documentary from Showtime, serializes some of the most prominent ones of the last year, with a retrospective of such indelible yet quickly faded images as crematory trucks in the height of pandemic New York, the Trump motorcycle rally in pandemic summer South Dakota, and a fraught border checkpoint in El Paso, Texas.
Hyper-partisanship is something American Selfie’s director, Alexandra Pelosi, knows well – her mother, the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, is one of the Maga-sphere’s most loathed targets, and a frequent recipient of the president’s Twitter ire. The Democratic leader’s youngest daughter, 50, has over the course of 13 films fashioned herself as a traverser of America’s cultural divides and interpreter of the conservative mindset. She embedded with the George W Bush campaign bus for her first film, Journeys with George; 2018’s Outside the Bubble (her 12th documentary for HBO) endeavored to parse the Trump voter psyche with visits to “real America”, from coalminers in Pennsylvania to survivors of Hurricane Harvey in Port Arthur, Texas.
American Selfie grew out of her longstanding tradition of campaign road-trip films, a mission she has described as “taking the temperature of America”. The film seeks to “take a selfie of how America looks in 2020” during a year when, as a calling card says at the beginning, “smartphones and social media changed the course of American history”. That change specifically in 2020, Pelosi told the Guardian, is the nationwide movement for social justice and Black Lives Matter launched by cellphone footage of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May. American Selfie, hopscotching across the country from September 2019 until last month, gets to Minneapolis in its final half, but starts literally: tourists at Cloud Gate in Chicago, explaining how to take the ideal selfie; round-the-corner lines at the Apple store in Manhattan for the launch of the new iPhone in September 2019 – a celebration of American tech consumerism just days before, the film notes, an international Climate March.
The contrast encapsulates what Pelosi sees as the double-edged sword of mobile cameras in a film that quickly moves beyond the literal selfie. “For every pop tart, every sorority girl who was standing in line for a new iPhone to take pictures of her perfect life, one 17-year-old girl used that phone to start a revolution,” said Pelosi, referring to Darnella Frazier, who filmed the murder of George Floyd on what was supposed to be a trip to the grocery store. Frazier “used her phone to show that we are all war photographers, we can all use our phones for good, to show the world what’s happening”.
In making American Selfie, Pelosi came to see the cellphone as ironically both the propulsion of American division and a unifying source of concern. “Every single person I talked to, no matter who they were going to vote for or if they weren’t going to vote at all or didn’t even know who was on the ballot, would say: social media is destroying our mental health,” she said. “It’s destroying our conversation.”
“People are so much angrier because of something they read on the internet that may or may not be true,” she said. “People now have these devices in their hands that feed them toxic mistruths.”
In her man-on-the-street-style interviews for American Selfie, Pelosi riffs with subjects from two different conceptions of America: one, a generally fact-based understanding of the racism exposed by the Trump presidency; the other a fandom of the president and the “America First”, “don’t tread on me” ethos he embodies. Often, she films, along with news cameras and countless iPhones, the two camps screaming at each other – at a Minneapolis Trump rally in fall 2019, after Trump called for Representative Ilhan Omar, a Muslim Somali-American to “go back home”. At Black Lives Matter protests in DC, an abortion rights march at the Capitol in February, and a “reopen” protest in Sacramento this summer.
The chasm between the two groups in the streets this year has, she said, widened in the years since she began filming. “There used to be we had something called facts, and we could all say, ‘here are the facts, now you can have an opinion about those facts, you’re allowed to be pro-gun or anti-gun, you’re allowed to be pro-life or pro-choice, but now we don’t have the same set of facts. We’re not operating in truth any more.”
Pelosi is a self-professed abstinent from hyper-connectivity – she doesn’t use social media, she says, except to understand TikTok enough to know what her two teenage sons are consuming (they have new iPhones despite her objections after she says her 12-year-old raised the money via a lemonade stand); she didn’t shift to an iPhone until March of this year, when the pandemic made human interaction via screen unavoidable. Still, she has come to see iPhones as a major threat to American democracy: “I always tell my kids: I would rather buy you a gun than an iPhone,” she said. “Because a gun is something you control – I can pull the trigger and shoot you if I want to, but an iPhone is controlling you. There are tech companies that have algorithms to shoot little bullets at your mental health, shooting little bullets at your brain to stimulate you or depress you.
“I think phones are much more dangerous than guns.”
Pelosi does, however, find some redeeming qualities in smartphones and social media: “It can be used for good, that’s your choice. You can use it to fall off the side of the Grand Canyon to take a selfie – many people have fallen to their death trying to take the perfect selfie, you could use it for that – or you could use it to amplify a message that you want communicated or an idea that you want communicated,” she said, referencing Frazier’s filming of Floyd’s killing, footage that made anti-black police brutality undeniable.
Asked about the pitfalls of parachute journalism – the much-criticized practice of dropping into a community to quickly refract an explanation of America to a coastal, city readership – when reporting on so many places for American Selfie, Pelosi replied that she saw the film more as a collection of highly public events than in-depth portraits of different communities. “When you go on vacation, you don’t live there, but you feel like you get to know a place, right?” she said. Pelosi, who works with a handheld camera sans production team, said she never felt like she was interviewing; “I just talk to people,” she said.
“I selected iconic events to see what people had to say,” she said, from the painful reopening of a Walmart in El Paso where 22 people were killed by a racist gunman in August 2019, to the Super Bowl in Miami. “The word selfie has never been a comprehensive – this is just a snapshot. All this is is a snapshot. I’m not writing a history book that you’re going to study. This is a selfie; it’s as disposable.”
What made this year – this taking of the temperature, so to speak – different from election-year road trips in the past? “This was the year white America woke up,” Pelosi said. We can’t hide it, we can’t deny it any longer. We can’t pretend we don’t have these ghosts in our closet and we have to face it.”