Matthew Palmer brings to light one of the most powerful slice-of-life documentaries of 2022, This Land. This Land looks at the highs, the lows, and everything in between.
On November 3, 2020, the most monumental presidential election in modern memory was held in the United States. Four years filled with partisan politics, constant news coverage, and a global pandemic led, finally, to a day that will go down in history. For some, it was indeed a meaningful day. Yet for others, it was a day like so many others, filled with the small trials and small victories that accompany daily life. This Land is a lyrical and poetic look at the lives of Americans from all walks of life. The film follows a Native American man as he grapples with his past, a same-sex couple on opposite sides of the aisle, a rodeo clown simply trying to be a good father, and more. This film not only captures history in the making, but explores what it means to be human.
A film exploring six groups of Americans as they experience Election Day across the United States, This Land premiered In Competition at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, one of the biggest and most respected documentary festivals in the world.
Check out our interview with Matthew!
First off, congrats on the documentary. I had lots of thoughts after watching it.
Matthew: It was definitely interesting for me, but yeah, my goal was always to just observe. One thing I’ve been realizing with the film is because it’s on election day, because there’s politics like kind of inherently embedded in it, a lot of people are like, ‘well, is it bridging the gap? Is it adding to the division? What was it doing?’ I’m like, I’m just observing, you know, I just kind of wanted to see how people live. Are people really as vocal and vitriolic as it seems on the news and media and even from politicians in the way they speak or are there more people in the gray area? I think if they are in the gray area, is there room to kind of let them live there? And so it’s definitely interesting for me as a Californian who has his own political beliefs to talk to all these people who feel quite differently and have to say, ‘Okay, well, I’m just gonna let you talk to him. I’m just gonna watch and we’re gonna see what happens.’ And obviously most of that was done Zoom, because I can only be in one place on election day itself, but even in the editing room, I had to kind of try to keep my feelings to myself and be as observational as possible.
I admire that so much because we are in a very divisive society. Were there times where you really had to step away and kind of let the project be for a few days before you came back to it?
Matthew: Oh, my goodness, you have no idea. Yeah! I mean, both creatively and like ideologically. I mean, I won’t get into specifics on the ideological pledges because that kind of goes against what the project is about. But there were times where I was like, you know, I knew a lot of the people that are featured prominently, I’ve talked to them for years really, over the zoom, COVID made it difficult to do in person for most people, but I knew them pretty well. And there were times even in their interview, even though I knew them pretty well where I’d be like, ‘What the hell did you say? Like really?’ But I think that’s also kind of the ethos of the project, we are on both sides of the aisle or in between or whatever, we’re all full of contradictions in a way, you know? In just hearing those contradictions sometimes, I had a kind of visceral reaction, like, ‘really? You hear yourself there?’ but it also forced me to look at my own contradictions.
One thing that was always the case with the project, and that I had to remind myself of is, the idea was not to, you know, in a way it could have taken place on any day. We chose Election Day for very specific and important reasons, but in a way, we just wanted a snapshot of American life and to show that even though most of what we know of our quote unquote neighbors and nearby states and even cities, as seen through the news or social media, you just get these little snapshots. Behind the loudest voices are kind of fragile, human beings just like you and me, and we were made out to be, because we’re poll numbers, we’re votes, you know, or we’re clickbait and all those things like the buzzwords that we hear about, but at the end of the day, more often than not, if we do live in that gray area, or slightly on either side of the aisle, we are fragile, we are just doing what we think is best for our environment. And I really believe that. It doesn’t mean there’s room for the extreme or anything that hurts others, controlling or harmful of others, obviously I don’t condone that. But I think there’s value in stepping back and saying, this is a human being who is fragile, who is scared, who is sensitive. Let’s observe and see what we can learn.
What inspired you to go this route in the first place?
Matthew: Yeah. There’s a really long answer, and I’ll try to distill it a little bit. But the short answer is I am lucky enough, as a filmmaker and as primarily a commercial director and a documentary director, to travel the world and travel the country and meet different people. And I really liked doing that and especially with people that are different from me. And in 2016, 17, somewhere around that, I had to do a project that was in rural America and I hadn’t spent a lot of time in a place like that. I stayed up at night kind of thinking like, ‘wow, these people are also American.’ These are, in theory, my neighbors. Like, we all have the same American ideological values, right. I started to wonder what that meant and so I kind of ran with that. And then, of course, with the 2016 election and all the vocal divisiveness that was out there, I thought, well, this is even more interesting to me now. Of course, there’s a whole slew of challenges that come with that. But it became more and more interesting and then as a filmmaker, because I do think of myself, I’m not a political expert or a pundit or anything, like I’m a filmmaker and as a filmmaker, I have always liked and been drawn to more experimental, nonlinear stuff. So I was really inspired by Hale County, This Morning This Evening, which is a documentary film that came out a couple of years ago. I love where it goes from character to character and then those types of movies that are a little more like, let’s just see how we can push this idea of a linear narrative and just slice of life moments.
That’s just so interesting because, especially with politics, we don’t just get a slice of life.
Matthew: Yeah, I think it’s important, really, because what we see on the news, and the news is important in a lot of ways, but what we see is often the extremes, right? I like to kind of think there’s beauty in the every day as well. And if you haven’t seen Hale County, This Morning This Evening, it’s an incredible movie. It’s about Hale County, and it has a lot to say about race and socioeconomic status in that county and state, but it does so just by observing and then letting shots linger and letting moments linger. They might feel almost mundane, but there’s beauty in that and seeing what day to day life is like for people that are not like me or not like you or whatever, you know? And that’s the beauty of This Land, in my opinion is that we were able to find, I hope that anyone watching it sees themselves in at least one person, ideally parts of themselves in more than one person and hopefully sees the opposite or something they totally disagree with or a polling topic they have never been exposed to in one of the subjects as well.
When you were choosing the people that you featured, you mentioned that you had spoken to them for quite some time and really got to know them. Was it difficult to get to that place with them?
Matthew: For some, yeah. For some it was, for others, you know, I think others were ready to tell their story, I think. And I also made it very clear right off the bat, I said, ‘you know, I have no agenda here. I want to feature you in this film if you want to tell your story and you’re telling your story your way. And of course, as a filmmaker, in the editing room I will take things out or not include things, but in general, I want to do what you feel you want to put out into the world. And there are people where they would say, ‘well, I want to talk about my business,’ and I’d say, ‘well, I don’t think this is the film for that. Sorry. We’re gonna go with someone else,’ you know? But we, for the most part, we talked to people who were interested in sharing their worldview and their experiences.
In talking with all of them and getting to know them and then putting this documentary together, did anything surprise you?
Matthew: Yeah, a few things. There’s a few answers to that. One is I was really surprised, and this might not be like the most interesting or sexiest answer, but I think I was really surprised at how many people were kind of just over it, the politics. Especially because we’re all, from 2016 on, it felt like that’s all everyone talks about, you know, I thought about it a lot. I talked about it a lot and then it was on the news a lot. I couldn’t go on Instagram or whatever without seeing something about it and I still can’t. But then when I was talking to everyday people, people in 42 states, I saw the footage and when I was talking to these people, it came up more as like, ‘really again, we’re still talking about it? Like, let’s move on. Is this election over yet?’ That was really interesting to me. I’d say the other surprising thing was, and that’s hard to talk about this without specific examples, but like just how often both sides of the aisle people on both sides of the aisle kind of contradicted themselves. I mentioned earlier how we’re all, sometimes within minutes, contradicting ourselves. And it was across the board. And it made me realize that I do that. I’m not immune to that and I don’t think anyone is. I think a part of that is just because we regurgitate what we hear or we’re products of our environment, something happened in childhood, whatever it may be. There’s so many things, so many factors at play, but it almost looks like we have to take everything with a grain of salt.
You end the entire documentary with the line “doing the best we can.” What was the significance of that line as the final moment?
Matthew: Yeah, that’s a good question. I’ve had someone say that, ‘well, we’re not doing the best we can. We can do better politically.’ And I’m like, in my mind, that line has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with, you know, we all rich, poor, white, black, gay, straight, whatever; we all have struggles. We all have obstacles. There’s not a single person who doesn’t. And, of course, if you’re rich, you know, maybe some obstacles are easier to overcome, et cetera, et cetera. But we have daily bumps in the road. And I think we do work with what we’re given, the tools we’re given, whether physical tools or emotional tools or intellectual tools. With what we’re given, we do what we can to get over those speed bumps, and voting is a part of that, of course, which is why we chose to do this on election day. But really, what we’re trying to do is what every individual has to do: eat, pay bills, pay rent, the list goes on and on. We’re trying to have many victories every day. And in doing so, we’re doing the best we can.
I absolutely love that so much.
Matthew: There have been a lot of people say like, ‘Well, this film wasn’t political enough.’ You Like we didn’t bridge the gap. And really, I think it’s hopefully doing something different. Which is just insane. Again, we’re doing what we can as humans, we’re just little old humans, you know, we can only do so much as individuals. Life’s hard and we’re just trying to get by… Politics, of course, affect me and affect the people I love and care about, but at the end of the day, I’m also thinking about how I gotta stop and get groceries and oh, my dog has a lump, I need to go to the vet. Just little things like that are actually more impactful to me on a daily basis. I’m just doing the best I can and I think you are too and everyone in the film is as well. Again, not to excuse dangerous actions or ideologies. I’m not trying to excuse those at all. I’m just saying we can maybe look at life a little bit differently in that way.
And why go with the title, This Land?
Matthew: Good question. Well, a few reasons. One, so when you asked about how this project started, part of the inspiration was also “The Americans” which is a photo series by Robert Frank. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it but early on, one of the producers of the film and I, our idea was actually to recreate his road trip that he did. From some background, Robert Frank did a road trip across America with his wife and child and just took photos. And it’s a beautiful photo series. They’re amazing, like, really impactful to me and one of the producers. Our idea was actually just do that road trip and, and do like a slacker type of film, where we just jump from scene to scene throughout America. And I was like, ‘well, what’s a title like “The Americans”? We can’t do that. That’s an FX show, right?’ We’re like, you know, This Land works, like, that song, ‘This land is your land, this land is my land.’
And then also, I think the common denominator between everyone in the film is that they’re American, right? This land is their land, too. I think you can make an argument, and I hesitate to even say this, but you can make an argument that some of the subjects in the film would view the title differently than others. For example, the Native American man might say, ‘Well, this land belonged to my people before anybody, you know, and I think that’s also interesting.
Is there anything that we didn’t touch on that you would like to add?
Matthew: I think the only thing is that this was a huge group effort, obviously. This was a low budget, almost no budget film that was made by people who were just passionate about the subject that were located all over, literally all over the country, in almost every state. We had a lot of volunteers and I think that’s, in a way, kind of a mirror of what we were trying to accomplish in front of the camera, we had all these people behind the camera that were giving their own voice to the project, and therefore making it stronger. There were people from all walks of life, not only in front of the camera, but behind the cameras all as well and that was definitely unintentional and exciting.
If people want to connect with you, or with the documentary, where can they find you? Are you on social media?
Matthew: We’re putting together a website for the release. I don’t think we have a domain name yet, so the best way to follow the film is on Instagram, @thisland.film. You can just search This Land film and we’ll update it there. And then you can also follow me, @matthewjpalmer on Instagram.