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.