Doc Talk: The Daunting Task of Fully Documenting Occupy Wall Street

Doc Talk: The Daunting Task of Fully Documenting Occupy Wall Street

Nov 16, 2011

This week I had the honor of moderating a panel discussion with filmmakers involved with a continuing documentary project titled 99% - The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film. The conversation followed a presentation of 40 minutes of footage submitted for the doc from all over the country and this lengthy preview included some very impressive and exciting material -- up close, first-hand and very diverse coverage of one of the most significant, and yet probably the least understood, current events of today.

Most of the clips shown work as independent pieces, each displaying its own voice, aesthetically and focally, and in a way the presentation wasn’t that different from some other screenings and programs around the city and online these days, but this wasn’t a curation of short films about Occupy Wall Street, these pieces are going to fit together in a sort of cinematic puzzle that will hopefully be the definitive historical narrative on the OWS phenomenon, or movement, or cult, or whatever you want to call it.

I leave the judgment on you, the viewer, because like most collaborative docs, 99% the film should ultimately be open to interpretation from the audience, just as the filming is open to interpretation from the crowd-sourced contributors. While so far producers Audrey Ewell, Aaron Aites and Williams Cole have been unable to find collaborators representing the 1%, they have assembled an array of filmmakers who aren’t all in agreement on the movement or the issues. Some consider themselves part of the movement while others, including the overseers named above, maintain a strictly objective stance.

The lack of total opposition perspective calls to mind the collaborative “participatory documentary” 11/04/08, for which Jeff Deutchman curated submissions from filmmakers documenting the titular date when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. Deutchman had similar trouble getting coverage from and of people voting for McCain that day. For 99% I have to assume that the title would turn some people off since it superficially seems to be biased toward that majority percentile.

Staying balanced will be tough enough for the higher-tier organizers of the project. Collaborative documentary can be anywhere from totally open-sourced, in which the viewer-user is basically given the footage in isolated forms from out of an archival database and allowed to choose his or her own adventure, as it were, to the authorial variety seen this year with Kevin Macdonald’s Life in a Day, which used out-sourced material yet is unmistakably the director’s dominant take on that footage (talk about the 1% being in charge). Ewell and company are targeting something in the middle, more akin to Deutchman’s curation.

99% seems so much more daunting than any precedent that I’m familiar with. While the major collaborative docs that we’ve seen so far have the relative limitation and narrative ease that comes with a 24-hour-based concept, OWS as a subject continues to expand globally and temporally in scope, and to truly comprehensively tell its story might require something closer to the thousands of hours of footage the producers will be culling from rather than a 90-minute-or-so feature film. And this isn’t going to be a film that simply, observationally captures a verite look at the zeitgeist of OWS. This doc will follow character arcs and informational threads, including concentration on economical discussions related to the movement.  With 60-75 collaborating filmmakers so far involved, I can only speculate about the final product so much before my curiosity turns to nervousness, not so much worry but definitely concern.

As someone who hasn’t had the time to follow along with every development and important aspect of OWS, I’m looking forward to a film that ties it all together in a neat package, if that’s possible. Of course, there will be multiple documentaries of different types produced when all this is over -- and likely for many decades in the future. But as someone approaching the specific project of 99% from a documentary criticism angle, I’m mostly intrigued and excited to see how this experiment, as it’s often been called from inside and out, will end up and where it might lead.

Right now, given that unlike previous collaborative films neither Ridley Scott nor The Beastie Boys nor any other “white knights” are throwing big money at this experiment, the biggest challenge for 99% is probably financing. For the most part, I’m far less supportive of crowd-sourced funding (that’s a whole other discussion) than crowd-sourced filmmaking, but in this project’s case I hope it is able to raise a sufficient amount of money through its Kickstarter campaign, strictly for the sake that I want to see how the film turns out. I expect that people probably think by donating they’re giving to the OWS cause, which isn’t the case. It’s a tricky endeavor, obviously. I believe that’s why I’m so interested in it.



At the moment I have no new theatrical releases to recommend (I’m late in getting to both Garbo: The Spy and Eames: The Architect & The Painter, which open Friday), but there are two home video releases I’m very excited about this week. They’re great together, too, since they each involve a kind of dress-up play geared toward keeping the peace. These docs are the Slamdance-winning Superheroes (now on DVD) and the SXSW-winning Becoming Santa (currently on iTunes and VOD and arriving on DVD next Tuesday).

The former, which is about the real-life superhero movement (RLSH) and profiles a number of “superheroes” all over the U.S., is especially interesting after last month’s update on Phoenix Jones, who was arrested for assault. Jones isn’t in the film, but there are plenty of other characters whose motives and actions are questionable. But generally director Michael Barnett looks at guys and girls who are just being great citizens, only in capes and armor, and while much of the film is funny it’s surprisingly not too mocking. Here’s part of my original review from January:

Often 'Superheroes' comes off as also being more about the problems of the world than the costumed crusaders on screen. Through people like "Zetaman," "Life," "Mr. Extreme" and the simply named "Super Hero," we are made to think about the issues of homelessness and violent crime, as well as police corruption and bureaucracy that lead to the necessity for these RLSHs to pop up in cities across the nation. […] Others are inspired by tragedies that could have been averted if the majority of people weren't such apathetic cowards -- another serious concern the documentary addresses.

Becoming Santa is also surprisingly hilarious without being too mocking nor too cute. Directed by Jeff Myers, the doc follows writer/producer Jack Sanderson as he goes through all the steps to becoming a legitimate portrayer of Santa Claus, ultimately with volunteered employment on the Polar Express and as a sidewalk Santa collecting money for the homeless outside Lincoln Center. Along the way, historical and cultural background on the holiday icon are informed and discussed.

The real enjoyment of the film comes through Sanderson, as I note in my full review:

And as far as characters are concerned, Sanderson is an amazing host and hero for a film. He’s hilarious, intelligent, honest and just sardonic enough to be a perfect observer and participant in the whole affair without veering toward Grinch/Scrooge territory. It is probably because he thinks what he’s doing is silly and uncomfortable that he manages to make the most of it, seemingly becoming the greatest Santa you’ve ever seen. And like most true cynics, he does have a deep down love for people, especially the young ones. […] Afterward and ever since, I’ve felt a lot more joy, not just in response to the premature festivity but in general. If you're feeling a “bah humbug” coming on anytime soon, do yourself a favor and watch this doc.

I'll be back with another Doc Talk column in two weeks. Until then you can follow me on Twitter @thefilmcynic and at the DOC Channel Blog

Categories: Documentary
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