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Though it concerns that most clamorous of subjects in modern American discourse—political division, and the partisan enmity that’s come to define it—the nonfiction feature “This Land” begins quietly: with a shot of a wheat field, blowing in the breeze, and the sound of a pick-up truck engine, sputtering.
Often privileging such sensorial vignettes above narrative detail, director Matthew Palmer opens on these two as if to establish the rural America they belong to as a real place—as distinct from the mythic “heartland” often conjured to frame a stereotypical home of America’s reactionary right wing as, beyond the nation’s geographic center, some moral and political middle ground as well.
Once that truck engine roars to life, though, so does the radio, and the polarized stylings of Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow drift in to better situate us. Through introductory intertitles, “This Land” (out on VOD) soon specifies not only its setting, but also the slant of its premise. 2020’s presidential election, referred to as “one of the most contentious in the country’s history,” is mid-progress across America, whose politics have come to feel informed most, in the filmmakers’ moral assessment, by an ideology of hatred for vaguely defined others. Registering a plea for humanism amid such hostility, “This Land” asks a leading question directly: “Who are these people we view as the enemy?”
The presumptive framing of this rhetoric suggests at first that “This Land” will go the route of other propagandist liberal panacea—see: Dawn Porter’s “The Way I See It,” released by Focus Features then broadcast more appropriately on MSNBC—narrowing its audience to those who already agree with an oversimplified premise and telling them nothing they’re not ready to hear. Seeking an alternative to that particularly useless vein of cultural output, Palmer instead adopts an observational aesthetic, emphasizing the textures of everyday life for various Americans on Election Day across a 67-minute feature that resembles a slice-of-life snapshot more than a sermon.
Prominently featured are a married gay couple on opposite sides of the aisle; one is white and liberal, the other Black and conservative, and their inability to bridge this divide is seen as one consistent source of tension in a complex relationship. A Native man, in recovery from addiction, asks why he should vote to elect another white man to office; a young Black woman echoes this overall disillusionment with party politics. A Republican voter addresses both the loss of his wife, who was deported to Mexico following the last election, and parenting their young son, who was soon after diagnosed with cancer. “Being a Christian, I believe God’s going to take care of us, so long as I do what I’m supposed to do—the right way,” he says at one point. Meanwhile, tacked to the family fridge, a drawing of Trump in a Superman costume is adorned by a request, in a child’s handwriting, to please let the boy’s mother come home.
Indebted most to RaMell Ross’s comparably ethnographic “Hale County This Morning This Evening” without rivaling the richness of its insights, “This Land” prizes moments of intimate pictorial beauty. The landscape photography, of which there’s plenty, is attuned to light and shadow, which might abstract a character into silhouette as they walk through a desert at dusk or regard them from a far distance as they swim downstream. Though it introduces its main subjects early, the film is carried less by their stories than by associative editing rhythms that keep the tone tranquil as connections are uncovered between characters. In the woods, one rodeo cowboy waxes poetic about his love of riding while a separate subject dances on the rooftop of a city apartment building, lost in a moment of private joy. A particularly moving parallel finds two different parents reading their children the same bedtime story. Elsewhere, having registered his righteous anger at the United States’ long history of white supremacy and violence, another key character retreats into nature, taking solace in sobriety and spiritualism, as a talking head declares, “We have a great country, so let’s keep it that way.”
Unavoidably, “This Land” was shaped by the limitations of a global pandemic. To capture the experiences of various people around the country on a single day, Palmer and his producers assembled a team of nearly 50 filmmakers, coordinating with each over Zoom. Selecting main subjects for the film to feature involved a months-long interview process, and Palmer divulges—in press notes, not on screen—that one of the first questions asked of interviewees was “What do you want to share with the world?”
As such, politics often surface within the context of subjects’ daily circumstances, but which way any of them will vote is treated as an entry point, just one potential avenue through which the specifics of their challenges and priorities can be illuminated. The subjects of “This Land” ultimately have less to say about Trump—and certainly less to say about his opponent, now-President Joe Biden—than you might expect. That people’s politics can be personal, complicated, and contradictory should come as no surprise to anyone living in America, nor should the idea that political affiliation writ large represents something different to each one of us. Despite its lyrical presentation, the film’s lingering ideas are straightforward and sentimental, arguably even self-serving. Our political divide can be bridged only by those who take the time to see each other, and who approach such patient acts of observation from a place of genuine compassion, concludes the filmmaker who set out to prove as much in the first place.
Now available on VOD.