Film #3: 99%–The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film

99% took footage shot by four directors and five co-directors all over the country, interspersed with commentary that highlighted the footage.

Overall rating: 3 out of 4

Before the main feature, we watched a great short – 30% (Women and Politics in Sierra Leone). In about 10 minutes, it highlighted three women in Sierra Leone who, despite threats and the resistance of the current power structure, are fighting to get the percentage of women in government. The thing that stood out to me was the woman who talked about the need to educate women about how to organize, raise funds, prepare their families for the character assassination common in politics, create actionable agendas, etc. I wanted her to go to Egypt and to Wall Street and talk to the organizers of those movements, since she had a much more clear understanding than they did of how one is effective in politics.

As for the feature – before seeing the film, I had read a blurb in Variety that called it shapeless, but I didn’t feel that in the film. Given that there were four directors and five co-directors, the film showed more narrative cohesion than yesterday’s offering “The Square.”

The film started with the occupation of Zuccotti Park, and talked about how the protesters organized themselves, but early in the film it still wasn’t clear what the protesters wanted. Several times, people talked about their individual circumstances, but “remedy my plight” does not necessarily translate to actionable policies. There was one woman whose house was being foreclosed, but nobody talked about amending foreclosure laws.

The separate pieces filmed all over the country, stitched together by thoughtful, coherent commentary by Naomi Wolf, Matt Taibbi,  and Richard Wilkinson, who talked about the organization of the movement, its aims and its victories and defeats. At the end, as a sort of ray of hope, the film offered statistics citing the number of political entities that have enacted legislation to repeal the Citizens United decision, the main cause of the current political atmosphere.

But the film didn’t change my mind about the Occupy movement as a whole, which was nicely summed up about halfway through the film by Naomi Wolf who pointed out that movements without a central leader have never succeeded.

It also brought to mind for me the number of people who, after 9/11, thought that passing the Patriot Act was the right thing to do. They were too happy to give away their civil rights in exchange for protection from terrorists. Except now that same Patriot Act is being used to justify the police actions that put down many of the Occupy demonstrations. And people are all too happy to shop at Target, Walmart, etc., but don’t understand why their jobs have dried up and their local economies have gone under. I’m hoping that more attention to the sickness of whole economic ecosystem will get people to change the behaviors that feed the corporations.

Film #2: American Promise

American Promise follows two African-American boys from first grade through high school.

Overall rating: 3 out of 4

My mind was staggered at the though that parents/filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michéle Stephenson decided to follow their son and his friend from the day they entered Dalton, one of the most prestigious schools in the country.

There’s no way a film of an acceptable length could possibly include every milestone, drama, etc., that happens in a child’s life throughout the whole of grade school and high school, but this film did a great job of bringing us into the two families. The film catalog talked specifically about the fact that one of the boys leaves Dalton and goes to another school, and the filmmakers paced the stories so well that the audience didn’t know until the decision was made who was leaving. Given that the Joe and Michéle were filming their own lives and their own parenting, it was refreshing to see how unsparing they were of themselves and their own foibles.

I also appreciated the focus on race. There was a lot of blunt talk in the film about how the two boys (and their families as well) had a hard time dealing with race. They sometimes felt that they and their children were being dealt with differently because of race, on the other hand they also said straight out that they felt more comfortable around people of their own race. It really highlighted for me some of the reasons why it’s so hard to talk about race in America – if white people start the discussion they can be seen as patronizing, if black people start it they can be seen as defensive. It’s easy to sit down and have a talk with a single person, but harder to have a talk with a large group, all of whom have very different experiences.

According to Michéle, the film will be appearing on PBS later on this year, and I hope that it receives a wide audience. It deserves one.

Film #1: The Square

The Square (Al Midan) tracked five Egyptian revolutionaries from immediately before the fall of Hosni Mubarek until December of 2012.

Overall rating: 2 out of 4

Early in the film, we are introduced to five different people – real Egyptians, really involved in the struggle for a truly democratic government. One was a woman whose occupation and/or qualifications weren’t clear (we were only ever given her name, and only once). One was an actor whose father appeared to also be involved in Egyptian media (although not 100% certain it was his father, although there was a strong resemblance). One was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. One appeared to be a student, although again, his occupation wasn’t given. One was a soldier who did nothing but toe the party line.

The film followed these people from the day that Mubarek stepped down and many Egyptians thought their revolution was over, to the realization that, although Mubarek was gone, they had not achieved their aims of democracy and freedom. The military took over and began issuing orders to the civilian population, restricting their freedoms and occasionally clashing with them, then, when elections were finally held, many people felt that the results of those elections weren’t indicative of the actual wishes of the people.

The filmmakers literally risked their lives, as much of the footage was taken from sites where the military was attacking civilians. Several of the subjects of the film were wounded in the 2 years of filming during various encounters with the military. The action was certainly dramatic.

The film really fell down because there was no cohesive narrative to tie it all together. We began at a very high point – the deposition of Mubarek, when all the subjects celebrated their first victory and felt that the country had come together to achieve something great. Over the next two hours, though, we went from the emotionally high point of Mubarek’s defeat to the realization that the military leaders were lying to the people and curtailing their freedoms, then to the realization that the revolution had lost its coherent center, then to the point where the Muslim Brotherhood took advantage of the political chaos created by the revolution to step in and seize power. By the end of the film, the people we were following seemed confused and defeated.

I feel that, even in a documentary where you’re filming things that are actually happening and where you may need to film a great deal before you can get a sense of what the “what” really is, you have to have some kind of narrative. Humans, as my own research keep saying, love a pattern. Sadly, war is precisely a breakdown of established patterns, so filming and making sense of warlike events is a special talent. One that, I’m afraid, this director is still perfecting.

Great for understanding what’s going on in Egypt. Certainly thought-provoking for me personally as I equate a lot of what Egyptians are fighting for with a lot of what the Occupy movement is fighting for. We’ll see how it stands up to tomorrow’s offering about Occupy Wall Street.