WKCR 89.9 FM Interview on Occupy the Film Festival
An interview with host Blair McClendon on WKCR 89.9 FM New York City about the organizing behind Occupy the Film Festival is now available on their website archives.
MAG-Net’s September Digital Dialogue: “Occupy the Theaters: Celebrating Media and Films as Catalysts for Social Change”
Occupy the Film Festival participated in this national call with organizers from Participant Media, Global Action Project, Line Break Media and Streaming for Change Festival moderated by Betty Yu of the Center for Media Justice. To listen to this lively discussion about the importance of media to organizing, advocacy and social change in light of the Occupy movement, please visit the MAG-Net site.
Short Film about Occupy the Film Festival
by Amanda Hass of Paper Tiger Television
Click the image below to see the film. Filmmaker Q+A sessions coming soon!
All Protest, No Porn
by Leshu Torchin, Souciant, September 19-20, 2012
Michelle Fawcett, co-organizer of Occupy the Film Festival said people had asked about the title of the event. Did she mean “Occupy: The Film Festival” suggesting a festival about the Occupy movement, a completely suitable topic for a program taking place in the weekend leading up to S17, the first anniversary of the birth of Occupy Wall Street (OWS)? Or, did she mean, “Occupy the Film Festival”? That is, in addition to the numerous other occupations (Occupy the Hood, Occupy Research, Occupy Our Homes etc.) it was time to occupy that institution — the film festival — which once a showcase for artistry potentially lost in the shadow of Hollywood, had become a marketplace and an event deeply tied to commerce and the tourist industry, even in its commitment to art. She liked the confusion, because for her, the answer was both. The absence of the colon added a key ambiguity that opened up potential for this event to house multiple meanings, not unlike OWS itself.
To be fair, not every film festival is tied to the production of markets and consumers. Many are dedicated to producing public space for marginalized communities and to cultivating advocacy networks and capacity building (membership and fundraising.) [Shameless promotion alert: Many of these festivals and ideas are covered in the collection Film Festivals and Activism, which I edited with Dina Iordanova, which includes scholarly pieces alongside contributions from festival programmers, activists, and filmmakers.] This fact was not unnoticed by the programmers, who enjoyed the participation of a member of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival team.
That said, this was very much a grassroots effort reliant on collective effort and goodwill. The site of the festival speaks volumes; the Anthology Film Archives was born from a collective effort to cultivate an appreciation of cinema through an occupation of continuous screenings. It is a center for preservation and screening today, in particular focused on protecting and showcasing the independent and experimental work—the cinema “created outside the commercial mainstream.” Organizations known for their work in media and social change came on as partners to assist, offering outlets for publicity in exchange for promotional space in the festival. These includePaper Tiger Television, Deep Dish TV , Cinema Libre Studio, MAG-Net: Media Action Grassroots Network (a project of the Center for Media Justice) People’s Production House and Haymarket Books as well as Queers for Economic Justice. Further aiding the no-budget festival were unpaid volunteers (including friends from the NYC Grassroots Media Coalition, who collected in person and online to help curate and organize the event.
To call this no-budget is not entirely accurate, not only in light of those donating time, effort, and materials that cost. It may be worth keeping this in mind, because as much as many fantasize about creating “pure” spaces fully free from commercial presence that is not always possible. Very rarely, if we consider the presence of smart phones, browsers, video hosts, social media, computers and other technologies that ensure our on-going immersion in a corporate world. But this did come close, and anyway, purity restrictions rarely lead anywhere good.
The programmers sought to avoid protest porn, those images of protesters violently clashing with police that frequent mainstream media reportage and YouTube. (As much as we might wish online to be a site of utopic collectivity, practices of online voting often ensure hierarchies of interest that are sometimes disappointingly in line with dominant—and destructive—perspectives.) The goal here was to reflect on the Occupy movement, to look at what had been done, to consider where it stood now, and where it could go. This was crucial in light of the one-year anniversary reports that seemed keen to declare that the movement had lost all momentum. This was a time for taking stock, and regrouping, literally and figuratively as events were bringing people back to occupy public space throughout New York City.
Occupation of space began not inside the theatre but in the upper lobby. Indeed, a film festival is more than its film program: it is a live event that involves the physical collection of people who encounter the screen, each other, and additional materials. In this way, media are connected to the social in a visceral and material way, with real life and real space physically altered for at least a weekend. The walls were papered with posters from the Occuprint Collective recalling OWS and the general strike of 1 May—a holiday (Mayday) that, in my lifetime and experience, has not been so publically or popularly acknowledged in America.
Four other exhibits brought other material mediations of the movement, crucially reminding visitors that smaller analogue media also played a role. One table carried a display of Occupied newspapers from across the U.S. The striking assemblage contradicted claims of the death or growing irrelevance of print journalism: on the ground it appeared to thrive as a means of counter reportage and connecting the occupiers of each city to their collective time and space. More importantly, these publications persisted, even as encampments faded. (To be an academic about it, I am tempted to point out Benedict Anderson’s assertion that newspapers were crucial in the construction of national collectives, or what he called “imagined communities”.) Across from this table, a handful of panels displayed the work of two photographers. Vanessa Bahmani’s black and white portraits, entitled “We are the 99%” showed people holding signs explaining their situation and how they can to be part of Occupy while Andrew Stern’s color photographs showed instances of Occupy across the nation, including protests from Occupy the Hood and home foreclosure defense actions.
Encompassing the entire space, in a manner, was The Illuminator, described by the programmers as “a tactical media machine (aka a van with a really powerful projector, sound system, and library) that has been roaming the streets of New York City and beyond, bringing the spirit and message of the Occupy movement to street corners and public squares everywhere.” Specifically: it projects words and images against buildings and sky and other public space as a means of redesigning the landscape and calling people to action. This spectacle is part of a larger mobile projection venture, which is presently seeking donations via Kickstarter.
These displays were significant not only for their reminder of the role of media in social change—a useful point of entry for this film festival—but also for something they all shared: An almost joyous merger of old and new media, a vibrant assembly of digital and analogue. Bahmani’s “We are the 99%” recalled the We are the 99% Tumblr, where people uploaded their testimonies using the same trope: Figures holding pieces of paper or cardboard on which they wrote their stories. The digital haunted these portraits done on film using a medium format camera. The point Bahamani said, was to slow things down when posing, to encourage the participants to sit and reflect. One of Stern’s photographs showed a flyer from 596 Acres, a New York-based organization which identifies vacant space—a resource that vastly outsizes the number of those in need. The paper leaflet is affixed to a chain link fence but on the leaflet is the image of a QR code, suggesting the possibility for further engagement—after this encounter—through mobile phone and internet technology. Both movement and media spread in Occupy, rendering previous borders and structures porous. These are changing the structure of lived and mediated space.
The program carried on these themes, and more: The films built on the intermediality (the entwined connections of media formations that rely on, refer to, and give meaning to one another) that characterized the entry and further developed networks with considerations of the movement historically and internationally. The festival promo produced by MK12 united these themes in a short that began with what looked to be a game of Pong. One side wins disproportionately, growing into a massive wall; it is only with the collection of additional players on the other side that they can begin to combat the inequality of the game. The camera pulls back to reveal more ‘players’—the lo-fi bars who, from a distance become like twinkling LEDs in a global map.
The world has come together, and is shown to do so in an aesthetic that recalls earlier electronic media, its primitive aspect conferring nostalgia whilst uniting old media with new. The Revolution Will Be Televised, promised Livia Santos’s documentary chronicling the movement in California and New York. Meanwhile, Angeline Gragasin’s playful PSA Occupy: Citizen Journalist Super Suit showed how a person might prepare for the role of citizen journalist with instructions on dress, neutralization of pepper spray, and the best way to document action on one’s camera. An appreciated touch was the reminder to shoot horizontally on one’s camera phone. Not only is the vertical mode distracting, but a proper aspect ratio will travel better across other media platforms.
Hashtags were prominent, whether in the below screen titles, or in the title of the films themselves.##12M mai no hem marxat (15Mbcn.tv) provided a birds-eye-view of Plaça Catalunya on the first anniversary of the 15 May protests that launched the Indignados movement (and inspired OWS.) The title means “We have not left.” With the hashtag, it refers not only to the use of social media in movements, but the Twitter message that went out that day, reminding the world that this was not over. The producers of this short, as it turns out, have been documenting the plaza, with attention to social activities and the crackdowns on activism.
Handwritten signs provided a powerful reminder of small, analogue media that combat the messages from above. “Fox News will Lie About this,” read one poster in Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill Protest (Shahin Izadi) which depicted the occupation of the Madison capitol building in protest of the devastating attack on collective bargaining and public services. In Sarah Blom’s feature Fair Square: Occupy Amsterdam, scraps of paper and poster bearing slogans are shown pasted onto Beursplein 5 (the Dutch Stock Exchange.) Conceptual and physical space is occupied in these media actions.
Many films could represent this clash of media narratives through the editing of copious footage, whether from citizen journalists (and uploaded onto YouTube as suggested by the blurred and highly pixelated grain that reminds us of the difference in video registers) or from alternative media outlets such as Al Jazeera, Russia Today (a curious but interesting spot for news, I find), and Occupy TVNY, an open video collective who produced festival entry Voices of Veterans.
Most powerful in this selection may have been I am Not Moving (Corey Ogilvie) combines a historical and transnational perspective as he places OWS in a long line of protests—not just Arab Spring, but Tiananmen Square and the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. The film generates its emotional power from associative editing. The matched compositions of depictions of military and police force join the disparate battle. But more notable were the intercut sequences of Hilary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama decrying the military force against protesters of Arab Spring with images of police violence against peaceful Occupy protesters (including the famous pepper-spraying of students in Oakland—an image repeated in many of the films). The irony in the juxtaposition calls to light a shared struggle and the hypocrisy of a government whose practices harm its citizens.
This erosion or testing of boundaries seemed an omnipresent theme in the programming. Perhaps these were most playfully assailed through The Tax Dodgers (Z.S. Grant), or rather through the program around it. As Fawcett introduced the 8.30pm program, she was interrupted by a man in a baseball uniform for the team, The Tax Dodgers. He was holding a box, asking after something celebrating its first birthday, before he introduced the team and its all-star line-up including Bank of America and Verizon. These players were the tax dodgers, he explained, corporations who had paid few to no taxes, and their gift to the audience was: Nothing. The box was empty. (Calling attention to this particular financial sector malfeasance was a theme of many films, including the Sunday night feature, We’re Not Broke (Karin Hayes and Victoria Bruce), which outlines the widespread tax avoidance that results in a perception of empty public coffers and cuts to public service.)
Backed by the cheerleading squad who brandished hula-hoops (“The Loopholes”) they performed for the audience, singing popular American songs with lyrics rewritten to underscore corporate debt and criminality. This was enjoyable as a lead-in to the program, but when they appeared once again in a film chronicling the political theatre of Gan Golan, the audience cheered. Through the festival, a genuine connection had been forged between the audience and the people on-screen. This call to emotion had been present throughout the evening, and many audience members were pointing and whispering throughout as they recognized themselves or a friend in the protests depicted on screen, but this moment invited everyone into knowing someone onscreen.
This intermedial and multi-platform theme joined productively with that of multitude. I choose this word deliberately as a connection to the term used by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri to refer to a collective social subject poised to take back territory and capital, having been deterritorialized and marginalized by an empire of global capitalism. An aesthetic of multitude was present not only in the intermediality, which united a variety of voices, but also in its attention to said voices. Jean Thevenin’s 99 Words in Zuccotti Park invites occupiers, speaking directly to the camera, to say one word that expresses what Occupy means to them. The result ranges although words like “human”, “love”, “equality” and “solidarity” repeat, bringing a sense of consensus to this diverse collective. One could argue that the presence of the “mic check” also brought this sense of collective consensus in the multitude. (The “mic check” is a practice of having the crowd in front repeat what the speaker says for the benefit of those in back; this practice also works to excite the crowd and generate a feeling of unity.) Even the festival embodied this aesthetic: There was no physical program giving us a list and schedule of films. The shorts ran and only by paying attention could we determine its topic.
The multitude was visible in the worldwide demonstrations onscreen. Beyond the Indignados and Arab Spring were The Greek Revolt (Brandon Jourdan/Marianne Maeckelbergh) about the protests against austerity measures; Casseroles – Montréal, 24 mai 2012 (Jérémie Battaglia,) a black and white film of the nightly pot and pan demonstrations done to protest the rise in tuition fees and a law restricting public protests, and Sarah Blom’sfair Square: Occupy Amsterdam, which documented in exceptional detail the encampment from start to finish, both good and bad bits. The consensus rule of her film was shown to be a noble experiment, but perhaps too messy and inefficient for the next steps of protest.
America was by no means forgotten. San Francisco, Oakland, and New York appeared, but films also drew attentions to actions and communities in unexpected places. Alejandra and David: Facing Foreclosure (Peter Leeman) was both poignant and inspiring. The documentary told the story of a couple who experienced wrongful foreclosure of their home, and the way the local community rallied to occupy their home and protest the eviction. A town, immigrant rights activists and Occupy Homes MN united and on screen demonstrated the power of a humane and human horizontal integration—a useful reminder for how we think of the Occupy movement post-decentralization. Indeed, many films showed the more local, focused actions that have come out of the movement such as: F* the Banks (Dan Scott McNair), a playful call to foreclose on banks; Default: The Student Loan Documentary (Serge Bakalian and Aurora Meneghello;); and We Are Farmers, We Grow Food for the People (Anthony Lappé.)
Occupying Paradise (Michelle Fawcett) and Queen Mother of Harlem (Adele Pham) deepened these portraits with reminders of communities who risked being forgotten. Fawcett’s film turns to Hawaii where the indigenous community has long understood “Occupy” in terms of the colonial project that lead to genocide, theft of resources, and oppression. At the same time, she points out, native communities have long been mobilizing for land rights and sustainable farming: these are activists with whom the movement could join, provided they respect indigenous aims. Queen Mother introduces Dr. Delois Blakely of 477 West 142St HDFC, which, for over three decades, has provided low-income housing to women and children. Having long-addressed housing injustice, she was delighted by the turnout in Zuccotti Park. These films, among the others, offered helpful reminders of the role of local community actions as a foundation and resource for continued protest.
Agitating for continued economic justice advocacy, American Autumn: An Occudoc outlines the demands of the Occupy movement, explaining the rationale for this seemingly amorphous and inchoate series of demonstrations. In this regard, its tone is clear and direct, if playful. Amidst interviews with and speeches by Occupy protagonists like Cornel West, Medea Benjamin, Naomi Klein, Richard Muhammed, José Martín and many more, director Dennis Trainor Jr. intertwines portraits of activists and actions as well as efficient itemisations of injustices. The latter offers a powerpoint aesthetic of sorts: slideshows of readily consumable data that illustrate profound discrepancy through the use of figures—numbers or cartoon people, whose numbers or sizes can also illustrate comparative statistics. These are often playful and use ironic 1950s style images or archival footage to lighten the mood around a serious subject.
The film is useful to be sure, and many laughed and applauded (or waggled their spirit fingers as apparently one does in Occupy spaces,) but I’ll confess it did not move me as much as the other films. Its politics aligned with my own, but the aesthetics suggested something less interesting than the almost anarchic intermediality and immersion in the multitude enabled by the others. It was effective, but not affective—at least not for me. Of course, there may be other factors informing my response: The director’s use of voiceover, his introduction (including an identification of himself as a suburban husband and father) recalled the work of Michael Moore and Jason Russell (of Kony 2012 fame) and thus struck me as edging towards narcissism rather than the personal. The slick style suggested masterful media savvy; it certainly seemed to appeal to those in the audience but it also seemed to replicate the commercial styles that create a sense of top-down instruction rather than an emotive eruption from the multitude.
Nevertheless, this clear outline may be just what is required at a time when we reflect on the movement and where it is headed. It cannot take the same shape it did last year—certainly not if we are to learn anything from the challenges shown in Occupy Amsterdam. And it is not, as we see from the other films, which show the horizontal spread of the movement into local community partnerships. The movement is neither over nor irrelevant and the festival program effectively demonstrates that.
If I take any quibble with the politics on display, it remains with how little those involved seem aware of economic rights. So often, throughout films in the festival, I heard that “education should be a right” or that “shelter should be a right” or that “healthcare should be a right”. Of course they should be rights. That’s why they are listed as such in the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Although the use of “should” suggests the correct impulse in shifting the frame, it may be more useful to ask questions around implementation and enforcement, as these are what have stymied so many decision-makers to date.
Published under a Creative Commons license.
Occupying the Big Screen: Film Festival Documents Occupy’s First Year
by Michelle Chen, The Progressive, September 17, 2012
Occupy Wall Street has always been as much a media phenomenon as a political one. The revolution hasn’t exactly been televised, but Occupy’s biggest victory so far has been its radical public-relations coup, saturating both mainstream and alternative outlets with icons and images of popular protest that have been subsequently broadcast, live-streamed, and projected, bat signal-style, onto the concrete face of the New York skyline. But there are still aspects of the movement waiting to be documented.
Now that the media establishment’s spotlight has faded somewhat, a film festival devoted to Occupy at Manhattan’s Anthology Film Archives has returned those radical aesthetics to the foreground, conscious of the singular ability of old-fashioned film to capture the crackling energy of a social movement. And the films selected by the festival coordinators, Arun Gupta of the Indypendent and New York University media professor Michelle Fawcett, were presented as both a nostalgic retrospective and hopeful prequel to the next chapter.
Meshing the movement’s DIY digital production techniques with old-fashioned agit-prop sensibilities, Occupy the Film Festival parades the scenes from Occupy that have now crystallized in public memory: marching on the Brooklyn Bridge, sharing food and twiddling spirit fingers, faces young and old cheering, chanting, and contorting in clouds of pepper spray.
One of the two feature-length headliners of the festival, American Autumn, is a global overview of the political, economic, social and environmental catastrophes that spurred activists to revolt last September.
The documentary covers a sprawling range of issues, from climate change to dirty money in politics. But it’s smartly framed around the key points of the Occupy Wall Street declaration, which sets up themes for each segment outlining the issues and activists’ responses, which range from clashing with riot police to growing communal gardens.
The narrative threads together with commentary by the co-producer and writer Dennis Trainor, who also appears in some of the scenes as a fellow agitator. But the film–distributed for free on the web–mostly spotlights his diverse co-occupiers: the labor organizers, student debt resistors, environmentalists and other self-styled stars of a proudly leaderless movement.
We’re Not Broke, directed by Karin Hayes and Victoria Bruce, exposes the pro-corporate policies that drove the country toward its current massive imbalance of wealth and economic opportunity. Around the world, in fact, people are just now discovering the connection between the failure of representative democracy and plutocratic power grabs.
Other films explore the international dimensions of Occupy and related movements.
Fair Square: Occupy Amsterdam tracks the protesters who led the Amsterdam encampment that lasted for several weeks last fall.
Casseroles–Montréal, 24 mai 2012 by Jérémie Battaglia applies stunning monochrome cinematography to give the rollicking parade of pot-banging protesters in Montreal in May the aesthetics of a French art film. There were also shorts that highlight the transnational intersections of different youth-led insurgencies of the past year, aligning Occupy with the Greek anti-austerity protests, the Arab Spring uprisings (particularly the disturbing similarities in the state’s crackdowns on protesters).
There’s even a short on the collaboration and tensions within Occupy Movement Kauai, which has rubbed up against a longstanding indigenous Hawaiian anti-colonial movement.
The Revolution will be Televised rolls out a 15-minute mash-up of cherished OWS moments in San Francisco, Oakland and New York City. It’s sometimes difficult to tell in which city the protest is happening–an indicator of the versatility of the Occupy brand, as well as a portent, perhaps, of a subcultural peculiarity that raises challenges about broadening the movement’s reach.
The shorts present a spectrum of narrative angles on Occupy.
Occupy Economics comments on how Occupy’s underlying anti-capitalist analysis poses a refreshing challenge to an academic field that has often internalized and validated neoliberal ideology.
Citizen Journalist Super Suit instructs viewers on how to police-proof their guerilla video gear.
Default tells the wrenching stories of young people crippled by student loan debt peonage.
And the comedic performances of the Tax Dodgers shows how activist theater compels people to think critically without taking themselves too seriously.
Wherever Occupy is headed in its second year, the films featured at the festival have captured both the medium and the message–a testament to the vitality of storytelling as a political tool, and panorama of a movement that is helping level social inequities with each new space it claims. And this is just the first take.