An experimental nonfiction film that blends landscape imagery with essayistic first-person narration, Purge This Land contends with the legacy of American racism through personal and impersonal stories. The film weaves together the historical narrative of white anti-slavery leader John Brown in the 19th century with Schmitt’s own experience today as the white mother of a biracial son. Moving between past and present, the film shows a series of landscapes haunted by past events and current inequities, but also burnished with human resilience and the vitality of the natural world. These landscapes are mostly emptied of people, whose actions and spirit are represented through Schmitt’s spoken words.
One of the film’s achievements is its oblique rendering of history through landscape. Schmitt traveled the U.S. to document historical placards commemorating Brown’s life and actions. The film observes historical monuments and signs, everywhere looking for ways in which landscapes register–or erase–traces of racial conflict. Many of these are natural landscapes, characterized by abundant greenery and flourishing plant life which would seem to have no connection with human struggles. But as Schmitt’s stationary camera lingers on these places while the wind rustles through leaves, the past feels like an inescapable, ghostly presence. This strategy de-dramatizes but does not diminish the human suffering that is the film’s subject matter, producing an understated, eloquent statement of outrage.
Schmitt’s film documents how America’s racist violence has persisted not just in its long history of lynching and race riots but in the racist actions of police who continue to shoot unarmed black civilians today. Schmitt cites the deaths of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and 12-year-old Tamir Rice and shows a portion of Rice’s surveillance video in the film. She also refers to the deaths of most of John Brown’s twenty children. Purge This Land is haunted by death, the specter of racist violence, and resistance to that violence. These horrors are modulated by the unexpected beauty of Schmitt’s images. The music in Purge This Land was written by Schmitt’s partner, the musician Jeff Parker, who is visible briefly in the film along with their young son. Parker’s smooth composition offers a feeling of perseverance to buoy the viewer through this painful, essential history.
Jennifer Peterson is a film historian and writer. Her reviews have appeared in Film Quarterly, Millennium Film Journal, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Artforum.com. She is the author of Education in the School of Dreams: Travelogues and Early Nonfiction Film (Duke University Press, 2013). Her academic articles have been published in the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, Camera Obscura, The Moving Image, the Getty Research Journal, and numerous edited book anthologies. She is currently Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at Woodbury University in Los Angeles.