Occupy Filmmaking: How Is a Movie Like a Protest Movement?
On October 1, 2011, Audrey Ewell was watching a livestream video of Occupy Wall Street protesters from her Brooklyn apartment. That day, a group marched from Zuccotti Park to the Brooklyn Bridge, where they were kettled by police officers and arrested en masse—a full 700 protesters were taken into police custody.
In the midst of the drama, which was playing out in the middle of a workday, the livestream feed went down. “So I turned on the TV and I figured this must be on the news—there were like 700 people being arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge in the middle of the day,” Ewell told me in a phone interview. “It seemed like news to me. So I turn on the TV and there was nothing—there was no coverage of it.”
That was the first day she and her filmmaking partner Aaron Aites lugged their cameras down to Zuccotti Park, shooting the initial footage for what would become 99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film, a documentary about the protests that opens in New York and Los Angeles on September 6 and will air on pivot on September 17.
“We felt there was a need for accurate coverage, and if it wasn’t going to happen via the mainstream media, then we were sort of able to do it,” Ewell says about the impetus to start shooting footage that day. And as plans for a documentary began to coalesce, an experimental approach to filmmaking developed too, one colored by the particular organization of the protests—the working groups, the people’s mic, the general assembly.
Unlike Occupy Wall Street or any of the satellite protests that dotted the country last year, Ewell and Aites’ “parallel experiment to the Occupy movement” had one significant difference: There were leaders, there was a goal. They wanted to “see what would happen if we took their model and put it in a real-world, goal-oriented context,” Ewell said. Still, the departure from the dictatorial Hollywood model was significant. There were just three simple rules that guided the collaborative project.
“So the rules were that anybody could be a part of the film if they wanted to,” Ewell said, introducing the laws and ethos that governed the production of 99%. “Two was that it would not, however, be propaganda, so anyone who wasn’t comfortable with that should probably leave. And three was that the more experienced filmmakers would lead the process. We wanted to be collaborative, but we knew that you can’t actually make a film without leadership from experienced filmmakers—they’re too hard.”
In many ways, the Occupy protest were an experimental film in their own right. The sheer amount of video footage beamed out of Zuccotti Park made the events remotely accessible to people around the globe. I never set foot in lower Manhattan during the two months the park was occupied, but I spent many hours tracking the events on Twitter or watching grainy video footage of the proceedings. Like thousands of others, I watched in real time as a march destined for Union Square turned chaotic after police moved to break it up, and the day that the NYPD moved in to the clear the park. The uninterrupted, shaky video was equally riveting and limiting: The camera wasn’t always trained on the action, or was too far removed. A sense of foreboding prevailed during the more hectic moments I watched in real-time. But the narrative of events never took the form of anything more than a question: What’s happening, what happened, what will happen next?
By pulling in a plurality of voices, Ewell’s film attempts to define the narrative of both the protest movement and the economic circumstances that brought it about—the foreclosure crisis, the student debt crisis, the excess of money and lobbying in politics. It’s an effort she considers essential despite how recent and thoroughly documented Occupy Wall Street was. In fact, she thinks that framing the narrative is even more important because of the casual familiarity so many people have with the events of those two months.
When I asked her about the value she saw in revisiting such recent history, she corrected me in her prompt response: “Not just revisit it, but establish it in a truthful way.”
Since the protesters were cleared from Zuccotti Park, “Occupy” has become an even more nebulous idea, a signifier of protest that may only be tangentially related to what started in Manhattan’s financial district on September 17, 2011. We’ve Occupied Sandy, the debt, Cheerios, Monsanto, the SEC. In March, a man was arrested at the Supreme Court largely because he was wearing a jacket that said “Occupy Everything.” In many senses, 99% will be released into a post-Occupy world—meaning not only that the initial protest is over, but that the idea has transcended (or obliterated) its original intent.
For Ewell, that doesn’t mean the momentum that swirled in and around Zuccotti Park has dissipated—it’s just dispersed. “As far as where it’s going now, I think we aren’t going to see people in tents anymore, but those people who were in Occupy are filtering out into other organizations and they have an activist perspective that they’re carrying on with them into other related activities,” she says. “It’s not going to be tents anymore, but I think that a generation of activist came together and from there learned how to organize and work with others on similar goals and are now filtering out into society and still with a focus on these issues.”