What Does It Mean To Be American?
Matthew Palmer’s documentary ‘This Land’ captures a day in the life of 42 states and six families on Election Day 2020. It can’t heal us, but it could help.
This Land is Your Land was penned by folk singer Woody Guthrie in 1940. As the story goes, Guthrie wrote the song in response to the blind patriotism of “God Bless America” by Irving Berlin; as Guthrie crisscrossed the nation on his travels he wanted to write a song about the land we should all share, not an America we should all celebrate.
It is in this vein that Matthew Palmer’s documentary, This Land, finds itself. Following six groups of Americans on Election Day November 3rd, 2020, the film largely evades politics; instead, Trump, Biden, and their looming shadows skitter on the edges of the screen and the lives we meet.
This Land isn’t designed to take aim at conservatives, laud liberals, or attempt to explain why people act, feel, or vote the way they do. Its subtlety is the film’s power, serving as an incisive if tiny cross-section of American life; it is a meditation on what it means to live in the United States and how kaleidoscopic that reality is.
“In my mind, what makes This Land unique is that it doesn’t try to fix anything,” Palmer told me.
“What it does do is remind us that we are all vulnerable, fragile human beings with our own unique stories, backgrounds, and challenges. The film is meant to be quiet, nuanced, and human. It is not meant to be a tool for mending political wounds.”
We meet a host of humans hailing from all over the country: from “Bear” — a Native American man grappling with his past, knocking golf balls into the New Mexican desert, to a same-sex couple on opposite sides of the aisle, a rodeo clown raising two daughters, and a family reeling from deportation.
The vignettes were documented by thirty-five volunteer filmmakers capturing small moments around the country, while seven dedicated film crews followed the “main subjects” from morning till night, a Day in the Life that was set into motion two years before Palmer and his team ever started filming. Capturing portraits this intimate required a long field of vision and a unique level of trust that only comes from time.
Palmer says he found his interviewees through word of mouth.
“I would just talk about the project and the desire to make this film, and someone would be like, ‘Oh, you should talk to my friend who lives in Georgia, oh yeah, I go to church with this guy who does this. And then it snowballed.
“They all trusted us because the first thing that we made clear was that we weren’t trying to say any side or any opinion is bad or wrong. We were trying to show what life is like in different parts of the country. I made it clear I wanted to be a conduit for whatever story they wanted to tell about themselves, whatever they wanted the world to know about their lives and their existence.”
And while the tapestry Palmer weaves is full of beautiful gauzy moments — a young white girl paints her father’s face for the rodeo, a plus-size model spills her rolled skin in the sun, buskers sing the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination” from the aging planks of a park bench — the film is also shot through with seething moments of political pain, class shame, and racial tension.
It just doesn’t attempt to reconcile or judge them.
We watch Ashanti, a young Black artist from Chicago, alternatively dancing on her rooftop and shredding the heart of a paper target at the gun range; she reads a poem about being God’s flowers as a man sweeps away a glinting pile of spent bullets. “I don’t put too much weight in a government that was never designed for me,” she says.
Ted is white and Greg is Black — they’re a same-sex couple living in Maine, life partners in the throes of unprecedented friction around this election. Ted’s incredulity at Greg’s support of Trump as a Black man is growing to a fever pitch. Silhouetted and quietly sharing breakfast, Ted sighs, “You said most Black men are voting for Trump — you’ve been brainwashed for so long! “No,” Greg spits back, “I’ve been off the plantation for so long.”
Meanwhile in Shiprock, New Mexico, Bear was formerly incarcerated and before COVID, was feeding oatmeal every day to the surrounding homeless community. He was once a heroin addict and is wrestling with demons— personal and political.
“I’m Native American, I don’t forget things that were done,” he says. “And I’m gonna go put a vote in that box for a white leader?”
Jason Rochester, a Christian Trump supporter, lost his wife to “self-deportation,” a choice she made so she can return legally — but not for ten years. Meanwhile his son Ashton is diagnosed with cancer and Jason is reeling from single parent-dom — his loss, fear, and loneliness. Every night he calls his wife who tells her son she loves him through the flickering screen of an iPad.
We see the burning rubber joy of cars doing sideshows, careening rollerbladers, a North Dakota dusk. At one point, an old mustached white man fills the screen and tells us, “If the wrong person gets in the White House, a lot of people are going to die.” But who, exactly, is the wrong person?
It is this ambiguity that makes This Land sing.
We find ourselves in an unprecedented political divide with mutually caustic derision for those who don’t share our vision of the binary.
“When the balance of support for these political parties is close enough for either to gain near-term electoral advantage — as it has in the U.S. for more than a quarter century — the competition becomes cutthroat and politics begins to feel zero-sum, where one side’s gain is inherently the other’s loss,” writes Pew.
The political system often reduces us to data points, disappointing statistics in voter turnout, proxy enemies of the state that threaten an American way of life; there is little space granted to any shared vision on the horizon.
Despite Palmer’s insistence that this film isn’t intended to heal this divide, This Land offers a small and potent gift of mutual vulnerability.
It is our mutual pain we so often ignore at our peril.
“Life is not easy for anyone, we struggle in our own ways,” says Palmer. “There’s value in just witnessing, observing, and watching because what you’re gonna find are the quiet moments, the moments where you see yourself.”