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Aaron Sorkin nailed the deflating reality of Occupy Wall Street on an episode of his HBO drama The Newsroom. A staffer’s suggestion of a segment on the nascent 2011 protest movement was laughed out of the news meeting, typifying a media initially deaf to the voice of genuine popular unrest. When a spokesperson eventually went on air, her defense of the leaderless group, which came together to ask questions and promote change but was notably short on concrete proposals, fell apart under condescending questioning.
That, in far kinder strokes, is the story told in Fisher Stevens and Rebecca Chaiklin’s engrossing but unsatisfyingly skewed documentary Another World. The challenge – which they only half meet – is to present it from a glass-half-full perspective.
For most of us, it’s easy to sympathize with the basic ideology behind the movement. Who doesn’t resent rampant corporate greed and a political system that has done little to stem the ever-widening income disparity of a country where poverty rates are soaring and one percent of the population controls the majority of the wealth? But the stark truth is that while the Occupy protesters started a conversation that remains ongoing, there’s scant evidence that they actually achieved anything.
In New York, where the movement crystallized, it might be argued that a new mayor ushered in on a “Tale of Two Cities” platform is at least a step in the right direction. Would Bill de Blasio’s landslide election win even have happened if OWS hadn’t disseminated awareness of the inequality issues that were central to his campaign?
The film doesn’t directly ask that question. But it’s one of many that arise while watching its impassioned account of a lightning-bolt moment, when an apathetic nation suddenly became galvanized around the common cause of social justice, sending out a message echoed around the world. The filmmakers have taken a generous approach by minimizing their focus on the frustrating failure of all that revolutionary energy and egalitarian spirit to coalesce into a more impactful crucible for change. They seem mostly content to celebrate the fact that it happened at all.
Stevens and Chaiklin (with their cameraman and producer Scott Cramer) followed the ferment from day three of the occupation of Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, rechristened “Liberty Square” by the protesters. The film humanizes the ideals behind the movement by concentrating on a handful of figures. They represent a cross-section of the predominantly young people involved, who connected initially via social media and grew organically into a mass movement united by the desire for “another world.” The U.S. had not experienced that kind of popular protest momentum since the 1960s and ‘70s.
The key figures in the doc are Bobby Cooper, whose father’s New Hampshire farm was under threat of foreclosure; Hero Vincent, a hip-hop performer whose family had lost their North Carolina home; Amin Husain, a Palestinian-born lawyer jaded with his corporate job; Lisa Fithian, a veteran global agitator; Patrick Bruner, an unemployed journalist drowning in student loan debt; and Sandy Nurse, the daughter of a U.S. Department of Defense staffer who had been headed for a diplomatic career.
Each of the subjects brings a different perspective on the experience and its influence on his or her own life and beyond. They also convey the bracing sense of community and collective euphoria of rebellion that was unlike anything the majority of occupiers had ever known.
Some of the strongest material details the kneejerk resistance from the political, business and media establishment to what the movement was about. While Keith Olbermann, then on MSNBC, was among the first to take OWS seriously, conservative commentators like Ann Coulter and Bill O’Reilly were predictably scathing in their coverage, calling occupiers drug addicts, criminals and terrorists. Police harassment is extensively documented, with the use of physical violence, pepper spray, “corralling” and other intimidation methods turning a peaceful protest into a powder keg. Also covered is the push by then-mayor Michael Bloomberg to clear the park, using sanitization concerns as a cover for corporate and financial institution cronyism.
But hostility from neighborhood residents to the noise ordinance violations shows another side, exposing schisms that would eventually negate much of what OWS was aiming to achieve.
The film outlines how strategy meetings dissolved into unproductive forums for divergent opinions, along with far too much empty rhetoric about “creating a space.” It makes clear that the liberal sentiment behind the movement was serious and profound, and that the cracks in the American Dream that sparked it were and are all too real. But the ideas steadily got lost amid the din and lack of structure, and the blueprint for the future never took shape. The documentary could stand to be a lot more frank in acknowledging this. (Press notes in Berlin indicated that finetuning will continue following the world premiere here.)
For many of us who sympathized with the movement’s indignation over a government bailing out corporations and banks while the 99 percent floundered, OWS left the acrid aftertaste of hopelessness. The filmmakers and their interview subjects are unpersuasive in making a case that the movement’s legacy – seen in debt assistance, homeless aid and Hurricane Sandy relief programs – represents even a crack in an impenetrable surface. Inferring otherwise makes Another World seem naive, as does the “Get Involved” message on the end credits. Still, the doc has some value as an earnest record of the cathartic spirit, if not the effectiveness, of direct action.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Documentary)
Production companies: Article 19 Films, Insurgent Media, Diamond Docs, in association with Harbor Picture Company
Directors: Fisher Stevens, Rebecca Chaiklin
Screenwriter: Mark Monroe
Producers: Scott Cramer, Lauren Saffa, Mark Monroe, Rebecca Chaiklin, Fisher Stevens
Executive producers: Lekha Singh, Zak Tucker
Director of photography: Scott Cramer
Music: Fall on Your Sword
Editor: Lauren Saffa
No rating, 89 minutes
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