Audrey Ewell and her film partner, Aaron Aites, are the director-producers of 99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film, showing at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. For the film’s truly collaborative production, which mirrored the Occupy movement itself, Ewell and Aites worked with two other directors, Lucian Read and Nina Krstic, as well as five co-directors and as many as 100 contributors.
What were the challenges of coordinating so many filmmakers and so much footage?
I was the central nervous system for the film, working individually with all the directors and co-directors, and also all the shooters from around the country. I would coordinate with the co-directors to make sure that what they were filming was something that would work to make a cohesive film, so that all the pieces would work together. The five co-directors gave us the regional portraits ... a single mom who’s facing foreclosure in Minneapolis ... a portrait of poverty in Mississippi. We were able to bring in more of a national voice, in a more directed manner, than just the march and rally footage that our contributors sent us.
The number of shooters fluctuated from 50 to 100 at various times—people would come and go. With them, I would coordinate things like national events that would happen—there were certain days and dates that would be these big rally days around the country. It was hard—very time-consuming and hard to have the oversight and coordination, especially when there was so much going on. Things would just happen. In the end, we managed to pull it all together and make it work, but it was a very difficult project to coordinate.
When did you start doing this? Obviously, you weren’t planning to film this documentary before the movement began.
This is the crazy thing—there are so many crazy things about this film but this is the craziest. I was in Brooklyn, and on Oct. 1, 2011, the Occupyers marched across the Brooklyn Bridge. This particular day, 700 people were arrested on the bridge. I was working at the time, and I was also following the movement a little so I knew they had this live stream, where people within the movement were filming what was happening as it was happening and uploading it simultaneously to the web, so people could see in real time what was happening. I was watching this amazing drama unfold on the Brooklyn Bridge, a couple miles from my apartment. There were all these people getting arrested, and they were shouting out their names, and there were all these cops, and they were taking over the lanes of traffic on the bridge. It was this crazy drama. The person filming all of this, I heard him say behind the camera, “My batteries are running out, I don’t know how long I’m going to be able to keep filming.” And right after that, the screen went black.
I was completely caught up in the drama of what was going on, so I flipped on the TV and all through the different news channels, and there was literally no coverage anywhere. I was astounded—I couldn’t believe that this wasn’t being covered—that they didn’t have five helicopters out covering the event.
That’s the day when my film partner, Aaron, and I decided to go down to Zuccotti Park, and we filmed that day. We were the only people there who had anything resembling professional film gear, and the only people who had a light—everyone else was filming with cell phones. It was at that moment that I felt that somebody needed to be covering this, and not just in a way that the YouTube content was coming out, but something that was going to tell a story. That was the day that I decided to do a film about this.
I wanted it to be a film that could sort of mirror their process, not because I wanted to be a part of the movement, but because it seemed like an interesting way to test what they were doing. They have this thing that everybody should have a voice, that everybody can be involved if they want to. I thought it would be an interesting way of taking those ideas and putting them into a real-world context, where there are goals and deadlines, and an actual thing that we wanted to produce at the end of it—a feature film. That day, I wrote to a lot of film friends, and said, “Hey, I want to do this, and it’s going to be open to anyone who wants to be a part of it, and make this film with me and Aaron.”
We did get a lot of responses, mostly from New York and Los Angeles, but I wanted it to be for everyone. I did a little bit of press, and what happened from that was that we got flooded with e-mails from people all over the country who wanted to be part of it. That’s when it really started to get nuts. We weren’t working with our 15 filmmaker friends—we were working with 100 people all over the country, many of whom had never done anything media-related. One of our contributors is a grandfather in Chicago who lost his job, and he was inspired by the idea of the film and felt that it was something he could contribute to. It was really open to anybody. We wanted to reflect back what the movement was—not because we were part of it, or because we wanted them to make look good, or bad or anything of the sort, the film is an objective portrait. We wanted to test their process.
Given how big the Occupy movement was, I’m surprised yours is the only documentary.
There are many different views. You could follow one person who was involved in it, or there’s the international version of the story that could be told. But we wanted to tell the story of the patchwork movement that had sprung up in America—and not just the movement. We wanted to give the background information. Not just what is this movement, but why did this movement happen. We peel back the curtain on power in America. We look at the gears and the mechanisms of the people who are making decisions, and how that’s affecting normal, everyday people. We look at the economic crash in 2007, how that really came about from deregulation of the banking system, and how that ties into the foreclosure crisis. It was important to us that we not just get behind the scenes of the movement, but also behind the scenes of power in America, and show what led to this movement.
Was it hard to corral the disparate Occupy movement into a narrative?
That’s the storytelling aspect of it. That’s what elevates it from being the sort of loose little videos that a lot of people have seen on YouTube. We do tell a cohesive story. We have our characters who take us through what was going on, why was it happening. One of our characters was one of the leaders who were very involved in setting up marches—he’s part of this direct-action committee, and they plan for a lot of these large-scale events. He’s out there, on the front, and you see him a lot. It takes it out of this fragmented, faceless thing and brings it into a more personal arena. Whether or not you agree with what they’re doing, at least they’re people; it’s not a faceless march, it’s a march of people whose agendas you’re getting to understand. As the film evolves, you get greater and greater understanding of the characters themselves and what the movement was about as well.
Is Occupy Salt Lake part of your film?
No, we don’t have any footage of Utah in the film. We do have a lot of footage from a lot of cities, but ... because we didn’t want it to become this dislocated, fragmented thing, we kept our story elements pretty consistently in a few places. You’ll see a lot of footage from a lot of different places, but for the most part, we focus on the New York occupation, because they were the first. We also take a pretty hard look at Oakland, because they were another power center within the movement, and because of how violent things became there. And we also have a wonderful character to guide us through this section—Boots Riley, from the band The Coup. He’s been an activist for a really long time, and he had a really interesting perspective on it. He had this reaction, which a lot of people did, that the movement didn’t look right—it wasn’t what they expected, it wasn’t what they were used to. He had some initial hesitation about did he even want to be a part of this thing.
Where do you think Occupy is now, more than a year later?
The film basically covers the first year of the movement. Right as the first year was ending, there was Hurricane Sandy, and that was a really big deal. What we saw happen was a bit of a surprise. The Occupiers in New York set up relief centers for some of the hardest-hit areas in New York, along the East Coast. They set up an aid station in the Far Rockaways, which is a lower-income area of New York, and a place where the city and the state government weren’t providing support. These people didn’t have electricity or food or anything. The Occupiers took a lot of the organizational skills that they had gathered while occupying Zuccotti Park, and were able to set up huge relief centers in different parts of New York. They ended up being commended by both FEMA and the Red Cross.
This is right after the timeline of our film, so we don’t actually cover it in the film, but what I took away from this is that they are going to continue in some way or another—but they’re not necessarily going to be what we expect. I think that it’s going to continue to evolve. I don’t think they’re necessarily going to remain recognizable. The only way to identify an Occupyer is when they’re in groups together. All of the individuals who were a part of it took a lot away from the experience, and as they go through life, a lot of what they experience is going to inform how they move forward. I think it inspired a real activist sense in a lot of people who maybe didn’t have that before. I think we’re going to continue to see the effects of the Occupy movement, but they may not be in the recognizable Occupy form. Now, it’s a thing that’s weaving its way through our society, but not in the form of people camping in a park.