Over her years cross-crossing America to get the pulse of the nation, Alexandra Pelosi has gone well out of her way not to make enemies – employing the last name given to her as the daughter of the current Speaker of the House and reaching out to start a dialogue across the political spectrum, starting out from when she joined the press corps following George W. Bush on the campaign trail in 1999 and forged an unlikely friendship with the president documented in “Journeys with George.” If finding the humanity in those we disagree with has been the predominant theme in her work, it makes sense that as we reach the most polarizing presidential election cycle in American history, Pelosi has finally identified an adversary in that device that nearly everyone has in their pockets, creating less engagement with the world around them rather than more when people can tailor how they appear online and the ability to share through social media has only encouraged affirming a certain worldview.
“There’s so many people out with cameras nowadays, every year that I do this, there’s millions of new podcasts and people going live from their cameras, people going on Facebook Live from their camera,” says Pelosi. ”The public has so distrustful of all media, so it’s like more cameras, less trust, an interesting toxic mix out there.”
Of course, Pelosi wields a camera as well, but always with the lens pointed towards others as a means of connection, not only in the moment when she seeks out perspectives both geographically and politically well removed from her own experience, but in delivering these views to audiences around the country with regularity when she’s been turning her road trips into movies for the past two decades. If her latest film “American Selfie” comes off as her angriest, it is only partially due to filming in the midst of both a heated election and a pandemic where wearing a mask can spark screaming on the street. Although Pelosi soberly documents cultural flashpoints from the past 12 months where she thrusts herself into the middle of the action, whether it is a Trump rally in Minneapolis where MAGA supporters clash with supporters of local Rep. Ilhan Omar (and returning months later after the death of George Floyd), a drag queen show at Christmas in Omaha greeted by protestors or visits to locations of recent mass shootings in Las Vegas and Wal-Mart, there is a palpable frustration in observing people who talk at each other rather than to one another, making the filmmaker’s insistence on interaction quite powerful.
Opening up the film wryly at an Apple Store where people line up for hours to get their hands on the latest iPhone when the one most already own would do, Pelosi looks inward to reflect on a country where the cultural and class divides can be seen in the same space of a frame of film and there’s increasingly less will to build bridges, yet it’s what the filmmaker does in offering a clear-eyed portrait of these tumultuous times and before “American Selfie” airs on Showtime, she spoke about pressing ahead when the coronavirus could’ve halted the shoot but gave a new dimension to a film that already was tracking the distance Americans were putting between one another.
Election year is my beat and they’re always dark. They always bring out the worst in all of us and obviously, I couldn’t have anticipated how bad this year could’ve gotten with a lockdown and a social justice revolution, but I knew something was going to happen. So I started going out in September and I thought the one thing that everybody has in common is the iPhone, so that’s why I started out at the iPhone store. I was trying to make an artifact of how America looks in 2020, so the idea was to start with the people lining up to buy these phones, to take these perfect selfies that are these delusional images of themselves. The ironic twist of it all is these silly little toys that everybody has in their hands ended up turning everyone into war photographers because it was a 17-year-old girl who filmed the murder of George Floyd that changed the course of human history.
Then the idea was to take one iconic event each month that was really the thing that everyone was talking about that month, so if it was a Trump rally in Minneapolis because of the Muslim ban [where] he’s walking into the backyard of where Muslims live and he was going to challenge Congresswoman Omar, that seemed to be the thing that everybody was talking about at the moment. Or the Super Bowl — I tried to take cultural events [rather than] political [events], picking iconic events that America was talking about in that month to try to take a snapshot of how America looked in that moment. I just had to follow what was happening and then of course, you know what happened – the coronavirus locked us all inside. I ended up having to go to funerals and anti-lockdown protests, so I couldn’t have anticipated where it was going to go, but I tried to find something that was a perfect encapsulation of how America was feeling at that moment in time.
It seems like you were really looking for places as well as moments where you could see certain dichotomies in American life right now. That Las Vegas scene in particular was powerful when you see the rich and poor coexist so starkly side-by-side.
Well, I tried to go everywhere — you can’t talk about America right now without going to Las Vegas because it’s where they have the largest mass shooting in American history, so I had to go there to see how people were feeling because when something tragic happens in America, all the media rush there, but then they leave and I always like to go after the media’s gone but that community is still hurting, to talk about how they feel having been at the center of something terrible and what that place means to America right now. For example in El Paso, I went when they’re reopening the Wal-Mart [where there was a mass shooting] because I thought everybody goes when there’s a tragedy, but not as many people show up when they’re reopening and trying to move on. I thought that was a perfect destination for an Alexandra Pelosi movie because you’re in that spot where they’re trying to move on and you don’t see all the network news anchors going live. Maybe [there’s some] some local news coverage, but it’s like they’re forgotten and I try to connect the dots between these places because we just move on so quickly in this country. It’s so of the moment. A crisis today in this location and then it’s a crisis in this other location, but we don’t go back and connect the dots for people.
It’s always amazing to me just what you take on from a logistical standpoint – it’s always you behind the camera, asking questions with the most minimal crew. Has it been a choice to stay as a one-man band as you’ve increased the ground you cover?
I think once you bring a camera crew in, it becomes a production and an experiment watched is an experiment changed — at least as I’ve learned from my son’s eighth grade science class because I’m home-schooling my kids, so I’m learning a lot of expressions that could be used to apply to my own work. [laughs] Once you bring in the camera crews and the microphones, people act differently and when you just have a handheld camera, people just talk to you like a human being and I want people to be in their natural habitat and not make it uncomfortable for them.
I just like people being themselves and [doing it solo] makes it easier to go from place to place. I can get on a plane any day and go anywhere. If you have to have a call sheet with large camera crews, it’s much harder to be working. I’m in the Directors Guild and [because of the pandemic], they said “You’re no longer allowed to work.” They cancelled it. So that became real tricky. The insurance was cancelled and nobody was allowed to work, but you can’t tell me I can’t get in my car and drive to Washington D.C. to film a protest. There are rules, if you have camera crews, but I think being a one-man band, especially being in a global pandemic, really worked in my favor.
Alexandra Pelosi never shuts down! [laughs] Come on now! I mean, the role of a documentary filmmaker is to run into the burning building. That’s our job. So as soon as those reopen protests happened, I had to be there because I came from New York City, which is ground zero for the pandemic. Black and brown people were dying and white people were out having huge protests saying we should reopen, so I had to go because I knew people that lost family members due to the coronavirus, and it seemed particularly insensitive to have rallies to say we’ve got to reopen because those rallies are predominantly white. I felt like I had to be there and I had to go and find out what those people had to say.
Was there anything that changed your ideas of what this could be, engaging with people from across the spectrum?
I’ll tell you this – I have a lot of friends who are voting for Donald Trump and they’re still my friends and they still let me come and stay with them when I’m in town. I don’t get political with people. I make friends on a personal level. But the one thing I learned universally all across America no matter who I talked to, even people that really didn’t like me, [is that] social media is destroying democracy. It’s destroying friendships and destroying the fabric of the American public life. People are being fed a certain amount of misinformation that makes them hate their neighbors. In real life, people don’t scream at you in all caps. If you go to places, you can make friends there, but you can’t do that on social media. Social media is just a place for people to vent, so I feel like if there’s something that every single person I met this year had in common, it’s that they all agree that social media is destroying our mental health. I don’t think it matters who your political affiliation is or who you’re going to vote for, I think that that’s the biggest threat to American democracy — it’s completely unregulated and it’s doing real damage to the conversation. That’s the one thing [I could ask], “Okay, what would you say everybody could all agree on?” That’s about it. There’s not much else.
“American Selfie” will air on Showtime on October 23rd at 9 pm EST/PST and available on Sho.com.