When Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell built the Kickstarter page for 99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film in October of 2011, the project seemed borderline impossible. At the time, Film School Rejects called the project “massive, chaotic” and “Herculean.” That wasn’t far off. Aites and Ewell issued a call to filmmakers, professional and amateur, to gather footage of the occupations taking place around the world. The goal was to document OWS as it happened, and then create a truly collaborative work. The speed, breadth and plurality of the movement made the project both extremely daunting and entirely appropriate to the situation. And now, two years later, there is a feature length film. The form it has taken might surprise you.
99%, (with two added directors, Nina Krstic and Lucian Read), seems at first to be a fairly conventional documentary. It is primarily a historical chronicle, laying out the causes and course of the Occupy Movement. All of the important points are hit: the subprime mortgage crisis and the lack of penalties issued to those who caused it, the problems caused by America’s financial inequalities, the growing student loan debacle, etc. It also guides the audience through the most important moments, from the origins of September 17th, 2011, and the involvement of Anonymous, through the mass arrest on the Brooklyn Bridge and the eventual destruction of the Zuccotti Park encampment. Activists are interviewed, expert advice is sought, and connections are made. In many ways, it is a very well-made example of the journalistic essay film, the likes of which we have seen often enough before.
Yet the choice to adopt a fairly conventional structure is in itself daring and perhaps radical. It can be hard to realize this in a world of instant media reaction, but it really has not been very long since the occupation of Zuccotti Park was ended by the New York Police Department. 99% sets out to craft a thoughtful chronicle of a movement that remains fresh, its impact still barely understood. It never becomes a collection of greatest hits, nor does it reach too high in drawing its conclusions. Instead, it carves out a narrative from the wisdom that comes from having watched the movement, via footage taken by an almost unfathomable number of filmmakers all over the nation.
The varied footage itself doesn’t dominate the film in the way one might expect. True, there are a handful of expertly edited sequences that bridge the protest communities of Oakland, Austin, Philadelphia, Boston, and many other cities. Yet they serve as a single, crucial pillar in the larger narrative of the Occupy Movement. Equally important is the pointed exploration of individual themes, such as the role taken by former police officers and members of the United States military in the occupations. If this sounds like an academic list more than a film, don’t worry. 99% is compelling as a panorama with historical analysis at heart, rather than an intellectual deconstruction devoid of any visceral proof.
This stylistic victory comes through the use of counterpoint. First, on a basic structural level, the directors are sure to alternate between causes and developments, moving between the larger issues at stake in American society and the specific events that defined the months of occupation. But beyond that, there is a clever and not immediately obvious interplay between themes, opinions and ideas. The presence of Naomi Wolf in particular as a critic of some of Occupy’s methods and accomplishments from within the world of radical politics, sits in stark contrast with the well-placed footage of the mainstream media willfully misunderstanding those same aspects of the movement.
Of course, 99% could have been an entirely different film. Many of the shorter works that have been made in the past two years have taken a much more atmospheric approach. Jem Cohen’s newsreels and even the short film shot by Jonathan Demme take the form of immersive representations of the Occupy experience. With the vast amount of footage that we can be sure is sitting on a hard drive somewhere, collected in the course of making this new documentary, these directors could have easily built hours and hours of a rawer nonfiction cinema. They chose not to.
The resulting film is therefore something different, something exciting. It stands apart from the previous independent films on the subject because of its stylistic and structural choices, but it also presents the story with a much greater degree of honesty and depth than any of the more conventional media readings of the movement. It may not be the perfect chronicle of Occupy Wall Street — that won’t be written, or filmed, for decades. But for something like this to exist now, so soon after the tumultuous autumn of 2011, is a gift.