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'American Selfie' Exposes How Smart Phones, Social Media Are 'Destroying Us'

A person in a mask takes a selfie in front of the American flag on October 22, 2020, in New York City. (Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)
A person in a mask takes a selfie in front of the American flag on October 22, 2020, in New York City. (Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)

Four in 10 registered voters say they don’t have a single close friend who is voting for the opposing major political party, Pew Research Center estimates.

The partisan divide among Americans is something Alexandra Pelosi knows all too well. The documentary filmmaker and daughter of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spent the past year traveling across the country for her latest Showtime and MTV documentary, “ American Selfie: One Nation Shoots Itself.”

Watch on YouTube.

“American Selfie” begins with a tutorial on how to take a selfie and then shows two starkly different events happening in 2019 on the same day: the climate march and the release of a new iPhone and iWatch. As some people demanded action on climate change, at the same moment, others waited in long lines through the night to buy a phone.

“It seemed really important to me to document the upstairs-downstairs nature of American public life,” she says, “And it seemed like there are two different, distinct groups, didn’t seem like one group was going to buy a phone and then go to the climate march.”

This documentary is a look at a divided country, but it’s also a critique of Americans’ obsession with phones and consumerism. Pelosi says she thinks phones are more dangerous than guns.

From the social fabric of family and public life to democracy, phones are “destroying us as human beings,” she says.

“The thing about a gun is you can decide to pull the trigger,” she says. “But with a phone, someone else is pulling the trigger and sending little bullets to your brain that make you happy or sad or anxious or depressed.”

In the film, Pelosi takes the audience to different parts of the country between September 2019 and July 4, 2020. She was on the ground at the El Paso Walmart as it opened after the massacre and in Minneapolis the day after the death of George Floyd.

Pelosi says she decided to look at the “iconic events of each month” and pick one that would define the country during that period. And not every event was political, like the Super Bowl in February.

Unafraid to push back on her subjects, Pelosi asked one man in Las Vegas why he was a drug addict. When he said drugs make life more tolerable, Pelosi responded with, “You’re a white man. The world is set up for you.” The man said no, the world is set up for the rich.

This interaction serves as an example of how Pelosi can annoy people, she says, but doing so leads people to speak their honest truths.

“I always find that every person I talk to has something really deeply profound inside of them, and regardless of their politics,” she says. “And that’s what I try to get out of them.”

During the 30 years she’s spent traveling the U.S. talking to people, she says no one recognizes her as Nancy Pelosi’s daughter. But when a film comes out and people see her last name, critics pick up on who her mother is.

“I always say I will never, ever get a good review because people always prejudge my last name,” Pelosi says. “As soon as the Republicans turned my last name into a curse word, I was never going to get the benefit of the doubt.”

A lot of “American Selfie” captures moments of interactions — some peaceful, while others lead to people screaming and spitting on each other. One scene in Minnesota shows a Somali woman talking with Trump supporters who have been chanting “lock her up” about Rep. Ilhan Omar. The Trump supporters tell the woman that Trump loves her and anyone else who loves America.

Despite witnessing countless moments of interaction between Americans, Pelosi says she doesn’t think she saw any true moments of listening or reconciliation. People aren’t listening to each other, she says, and that’s the country’s biggest problem.

In Manhattan, where Pelosi lives, she says people think Joe Biden is going to win the coming election in a landslide. But she points out that folks aren’t communicating with people outside of their own bubble. Plus, social media and “toxic” cable news both reinforce people’s ideologies, she says.

“In the end, is anybody changing anybody’s minds?” she says. “I don’t think so. … People aren’t really open to trying to see it from any other perspective.”

In contrast to the consumerism displayed in the opening scene of “American Selfie,” a 17-year-old girl used an iPhone to record the police killing of George Floyd this year, Pelosi says. Americans can use technology and social media to “fight back” against the people in charge, she says.

“American Selfie” holds a mirror to the country, reflecting the heartbreak and pain of its citizens regardless of their political affiliation. The only unity between the opposing viewpoints presented in the film is the feeling that the other side is demonizing and refusing to see them.

Looking back years from now, the film will serve as an “artifact” that shows where things went wrong in the U.S., Pelosi says.

“The truth is, this is not a very fun movie to watch. You’re not going to like it,” she says. “You’re not going to like the ending because — spoiler alert — America doesn’t look so good right now.”

Christina Kim produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.