The Berlin Wall comes to Los Angeles

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This year marks 25 years since the Berlin Wall came down. The ultimate symbol of the Cold War ran through the heart of Berlin, separating East and West Germany. While most of it was destroyed, the longest stretch of the Berlin Wall outside of Germany is in Los Angeles. There are ten original segments on Wilshire Boulevard, across the street from LACMA.

There are lots of other Wall fragments in Southern California. Two Canadian artists recently visited Los Angeles to collect some of their stories for a documentary they are calling Freedom Rocks.

As soon as the Wall fell, on November 9, 1989, people took hammers and chisels and started to chop pieces off. These little fragments have since traveled the world. Canadian artists Vid Ingelevics and Blake Fitzpatrick are documenting what happened to segments of the Wall that traveled from Berlin to North America.

At the Goethe Institut in Los Angeles, owners of Berlin Wall pieces held their treasures in front of a camera like fragile little birds.

Rebecca Motlagh shwos her fragment.
Rebecca Motlagh shows her fragment. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

German professor Daniel Villanueva brought a rock he chipped off in 1990. “Thankfully there were a lot of other people out there, people college age and older,” said Villanueva. “They just passed the tools from hand to hand as you got them chipped off.”

Artist Zox brought faded photographs from a rainy night in Berlin almost 27 years ago when he painted part of the Wall, even though thunder and lighting almost scared him away.

Another person who has a few pieces of the wall, Angela Thompson from Dresden, recalled walking through the Brandenburg Gate for the first time in her life in November 1989. “These pieces here are very meaningful to me because they talk to me about my very personal German history. They are ever present in my life,” she said.

The artists ask the same series of questions to participants anxious to share their stories: name, location, how did they get the fragments, where are they now and what do they mean to them today.

They filmed Wall segments in Berlin covered with weeds in a dumping site for construction material. In Los Angeles they recorded a picnic next to the stretch of the Wall on Wilshire Boulevard. At the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, they documented a sign warning visitors not to touch a colorful segment of the Wall where “The Great Communicator” challenged the Soviet leader to tear the monument down.

In splitting the Berlin Wall into millions of pieces, the Cold War symbol evoking fear and dread has become a mobile and fragmented ruin, with each of the fragments creating its own history.

Angela Thompson believes the project brings hope to those still fighting for freedom. “No matter how high or how strong a wall is, eventually it comes down. People took this down with their own hands,” Thompson said. “All the other walls of separation, I know they are going to come down some day.”

The filmmakers plan on finishing their project in November, fully aware that they will only capture a fraction of the Wall’s history. As long as the fragments keep moving, their story will be forever changing.