99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film
Directed by Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell
In 2009, filmmakers Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell presented Until the Light Takes Us, an enlightening – excuse the pun – exploration of Norway’s black metal movement, a scene that picked up steam in the 90s and became inundated with controversy surrounding church burnings, murders and satanic posturing. The filmmakers brushed aside the media outcry that had tarnished an initially forthright youth rebellion, opening up the process of how these young, isolated individuals had pushed back against the crushing cultural hegemony of globalisation through the power of their music, and had the odds increasingly stacked against them by the many who endeavoured to draw a line under the movement and pervert its meaning, ironically adding fuel to the fire in sustaining the vehemently opposed satanic elements. The film achieved what all good documentaries should, challenging preconceptions and unearthing the truth underneath a mound of spin, doing so through envelopment within the same glacial, dark milieu of Norway that fostered the burgeoning of black metal.
That film has been followed, and perhaps superseded, by a take on another movement whose previous media depictions have been similarly unflattering. The Occupy movement, originating in New York in opposition to Wall Street as an avatar of concentrated wealth and income equality, and extending to cities all over the world, is treated in a new documentary with a degree of empathy and structural nuance not afforded by the mainstream press. In 99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film, Aites and Ewell – along with Nina Krstic and Lucian Read – utilise footage from hundreds of protestors on the frontlines of Wall Street, Zucotti Park and the Brooklyn Bridge, to once again immerse the viewer inside the eye of a storm in order to redeem an unfairly miscategorised campaign.
A number of highly elucidating interviews with Rolling Stones’ Matt Taibbi, Naomi Wolf and many others provide a context pertaining to the financial crisis, along with a selected case study concerning a desperate mother threatened with foreclosure. But as well as touching on what led us to this pivotal moment, the contributors effectively map out potential storms on the horizon, in particular the chilling accumulation of student debt originating from predatory lenders in a manner analogous to the sub-prime mortgages of the last financial crisis. This stark warning serves as a cautionary rebuttal to moral-vanguard conservatives who direct exclusive admonishment to the public sector for ‘leaving a terrible legacy to our grandkids’.
99% is most interesting, and surprisingly affecting, when a sequence of civilian-shot footage is allowed to flow through at length, displaying an unsullied version of events that handily bypasses media stereotypes with precedence on benevolent intention rather than overt ideology. Part of this transparency involves an honest admission that organisation devoid of an absolute manifesto, and committed to avoiding any notions of hierarchical structure, is an uphill struggle. Likewise, the film itself offers no easy answers, positing an implicit question to its viewers about how things should progress from here, as opposed to summating its findings into a definitive war-cry.
What remains most vivid in the mind is the bravery and compassion of some of these individuals, displaying a commendable love for their brothers and sisters, and uniting as a makeshift family. One especially touching scene shows a row of Iraq war veterans making clear their disappointment that, despite the rosy, nationwide smokescreen of ‘help for heroes’, many ex-cadets are in fact left homeless, with thousands resorting to suicide. It’s under the banner of Occupy that we see a large collection of these societal outcasts, broken and oppressed by the system, find a semblance of salvation through communal protesting.
Anyone expecting the spectre of Wall Street to assume the primary antagonistic threat in this film will find themselves perhaps more disgusted at the ubiquitous, callous and uncaring NYPD. Not one frame omits the sight of a row of identical, armoured officers flanking the crowd as if unfeeling machines, stifling the very people they’re sworn to protect for the benefit of a higher, sinister power. The level of brutality exacted on some of these young protestors is completely astounding, and although many of the clips have been seen and caused outrage upon their original reveals, their sheer amassment here comprises a discomforting narrative of a country that once prided itself on freedom and equality freely transforming into a police state.
But from the Red Epics to the DLSRs to the iPhones that document this report from the frontlines, there is a sense that art provides the final vindication for a wholly misinterpreted and unfairly portrayed movement. Aites and Ewell are continuing their theme of misunderstood youth and media obfuscation, yet they have crucially upended their auteurist privilege by including all of their subjects as the film directors of their ordeal, long after the fact, thereby having these afflicted individuals regain the right to define themselves in the public eye. Reflective of the finished product, the craft that constructs this finished product is essentially collectivist; a potentially revolutionary sum of comforting, empathetic documentation, and as close to a truthful manifesto as this movement is like to hold to its chest for the near future.