Occupy Cinema: Inside Occupy Wall Street's Collaborative Documentary

By Jared Keller

A new documentary seeks to capture the spirit of Occupy Wall Street by embodying the movement's open, collaborative structure.


On October 2nd, filmmaker Audrey Ewell suddenly found herself in the middle of a new project. The previous day, nearly 1,500 protesters made their way from Zuccotti Park across the Brooklyn Bridge as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Nearly 700 were arrested. After spending the day filming the confrontation between police and protesters with her partner, Aaron Aites, Ewell emailed a few fellow filmmakers to see if they'd be interested in shooting a documentary on the then-undercovered Occupy movement. The response was enormous and immediate, and with a single email thread, 99%: the Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film, was born.

The protesters that staked a claim to Zuccotti Park and other public spaces across the country have given rise to many film projects, from theĀ amateur and whimsical to the star-powered. But with nearly 70 contributors pooling footage from more than a dozen cities, Ewell and Aites's film stands apart: To independently document the many perspectives and narratives within the Occupy movement, 99% is being assembled in a collaborative, deliberative manner inspired by Occupy itself.

The making of this film is as much a part of this story as the process of Occupy Wall Street is a part of their story.
"We drew inspiration for the production process based on what we first saw at the New York General Assembly," explains Ewell over the phone. "The making of this film is as much a part of this story as the process of Occupy Wall Street is a part of their story."

Aites and Ewell are experienced filmmakers -- their last project was Until the Light Takes Us, a 2009 documentary about Norwegian black metal -- but the two found themselves overwhelmed by the prospect shooting an independent, open-source documentary. It quickly became clear that the film's production process could never totally mirror the structure of Occupy Wall Street's General Assemblies, where the logistics of local occupations are hashed out, conflicts are mediated, and grievances are voiced. While email certainly made communication between various contributors easy, the intricacies of filmmaking didn't easily translate into unwieldy email threads.

"Within a week, it was unmanageable chaos," Ewell says. "It was a ton of people all over the country with a ton of ideas of what could work and what the film should be. The volume alone was too much. We were getting more than 100 emails a day, some people left the project, some people withdrew. The intention was to open a dialogue, but it was a total failure. We wanted to be like the General Assemblies where people get their say in the particularities of each project, it simply didn't work."

The initial email free-for-all eventually gave way to Aites and Ewell gently guiding the project, soliciting footage from bystanders, keeping tabs on individual locally-focused projects (or "threads" -- themes or points of view), and keeping myriad contributors engaged. Across the country, film crews shadowed separate Occupy movement, searching for the stories at the heart of each local occupation. Contributors range from the experienced -- like Aaron Yanes, a supervising editor who's worked on Tyson and You Don't Know Jack -- to the totally amateur. Other than the occasional big-picture conversation -- discussing purpose, goals, and particular areas of focus -- each unit worked with relative autonomy. "No one is ever told what to shoot, and no one is ever told no," Ewell says. "There are directors, the people who cover individual threads that we're focusing on, and we'll come together for national coverage, but people are generally left alone."

When you first hear Ewell describe it, it sounds like chaos, totally disorganized and directionless. But this, says Ewell, is the beauty of 99% as a collaborative endeavor. The movie wants to be a "prismatic reflection of the movement," she says, with the multitude of filmmakers and perspectives hopefully adding up to an honest portrayal of Occupy in all its forms.

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"Some people are doing portraits, some are doing more journalistic-style pieces, some people are doing more abstract contributions," Ewell says, describing the various threads that will eventually comprise the feature-length film. "Our Minnesota guys are doing a personal portrait on foreclosure. One of the women with our New York unit is shooting on OWS and religion." With so many contributors, the film hosts a variety of clashing of styles and tastes -- much to the group's delight. The final cut, as Ewell says, will ideally capture the intricacies of the movement, conveying "some level of objectivity through an abundance of subjectivities."

Maintaining the decentralized, networked process isn't just an organizational challenge but an aesthetic one as well. "Filmmakers are dictators," laughs Ewell. "We learn to be fascist dictators who know what they want and just want to get it down, because that's how they're going to get it done. This has been a real practice for us for allowing other people's voices and aesthetics to come in. I see footage that comes in that I would never, ever use any film, but we've all learned to step back, to keep an open mind, to recognize that the project, like the movement, is bigger than us. It's something really inspiring and exciting about this project. It's forcing us to be filmmakers in a different way then we're used to. It's a newness in experiencing film and the process of making film. And it's really fascinating."

As is fitting for a cinematic reflection of the Occupy movement at large, the film's production doesn't have a set end date. (Ewell, in fact, spent her New Year's Eve getting pepper sprayed while filming an aborted reoccupation of Zuccotti Park). The group has relied on Kickstarter for funding, and Ewell and Aites find themselves constantly playing catch-up, finding production and distribution partners, hunting down new storage space for the huge amount of raw footage, and searching for funding wherever they can find it. "The first two months were so scary," Ewell explains. "We had no idea what this was going to turn out to be." On Saturday at 7 p.m. Eastern time, a 45-minute clip will be screened online. But the filmmaking process will continue as long as Occupy does.

On the day Ewell witnessed the showdown on the Brooklyn Bridge, she recalls that feeling compelled to properly document the movement, to capture its essence in a way that made sense. For her, film is about "creating a world, and letting people into this world you've created and presenting them with an idea." Through the 99%, she's bringing the chaos of Occupy to the audience so that those who may never have set foot in Zuccotti Park could maybe, just maybe, catch a glimpse of soul of movement.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/01/occupy-cinema-inside-occupy-wall-streets-collaborative-documentary/250898/