One of the more exciting projects I’ve come across recently is 99 Percent: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film, a current work in progress organized by NYC-based filmmakers Audrey Ewell and Aaron Aites. Given the somewhat questionable media coverage of the protests, the idea is that documentarians will team up and record the event as it unfolds, eventually turning the collaborative footage into a more representative depiction of the movement. It’s exciting stuff, and there’s some great video already up on the project’s YouTube channel.
This week, however, Jonathan Demme has jumped into the OWS documentation fray. He took his camera crew down to Zuccotti Park and got a bunch of pretty interesting stuff, which has now been edited into a 15-minute documentary short. It’d obviously be marvelous if Demme decided to team up with Ewell, Aites and their now-international band of filmmakers. In the meantime though, let’s take a look at End the War, Tax the Rich, We’re the 99%, Occupy Wall Street. It’s an intriguing short, hitting on a lot of the important elements of the protests and their place in the city. Yet as much as it effectively captures the feel of Zuccotti Park and its dedicated inhabitants, it also only begins to scratch the surface and proves the excitement and necessity of this sort of direct cinema.
Any filmic representation of Occupy Wall Street that doesn’t effectively capture the rhythm of the community is a waste of time. Thankfully, that’s where this short starts. The opening shot is on the drummers, the constant beat that pervades Zuccotti Park. It’s the collective pulse, an atmospheric reminder of the blend of dedication and exuberance that powers this movement. This isn’t just about anger at the big banks, it’s also in many ways a celebration of human resilience and our passion for living. After all, political protest is just another form of self-expression. It’s appropriate that the short opens with two lithe and joyful people, dancing to the beats of the park. This mood continues throughout the film, from the call-and-response rhythm of the “human microphone” to the final move up to Foley Square. OWS blends the line between march and dance, and Demme gets it.
There’s so much else to talk about. The representation of the police, the intersection of voices both communal and individual, the various posters and publications. Yet I’d like to focus on one single element before closing out. Demme doesn’t just watch but is rather aware that everyone else is watching as well. The police stare at the protestors, possibly unsure what to feel. There’s a TV-journalist for a Spanish language network, whose broadcast is briefly interrupted by a man carrying a multi-language protest sign behind her. Shortly after we see another reporter, but we cannot hear what is being said. Finally, the last shots focus on a busload of tourists passing beside the march. Astutely framed, this film asks not simply what the Occupy Wall Street protest is, but how it is seen. How Zuccotti Park figures in the eyes and minds of America, from the black uniforms of the police to the t-shirts and sunglasses of the tourists, is perhaps the biggest question hovering over OWS after a month of dedication. Demme’s film hardly offers an answer, but shows how crucial it is that we keep asking and keep filming.