The Occupy Wall Street protests that gripped the public consciousness last fall for a few months was unusual among such movements in that it was centered not around a specific threat or action, but around an idea—and even then, that idea was possibly too broad to be able to make for a sustainable cause. 99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film, then, could be seen as a wide-ranging statement of purpose, going behind the demonstrations and “1% vs. 99%” rhetoric to articulate the deeper societal dissatisfaction motivating the protesters.
Coming almost a year after a mass of people pitched tents and occupied Zuccotti Park in New York City’s Financial District, 99% also plays as something of a nostalgia trip—a feeling enhanced by the means by which this film was made. Borrowing a page from the collective approach of the 1967 anti-Vietnam War film Far from Vietnam, directors Audrey Ewell, Aaron Aites, Lucian Read, and Nina Krstic culled footage on the ground taken by Occupy Wall Street protesters, civilians, and journalists during the months the movement was at its peak, mixing it together with talking-head interviews. Such an approach fits the utopian vision of an equal society that the movement tried to demonstrate with their occupation—one in which everyone tried to work together for a greater good and no one was discriminated against on the basis of income level or class.
Because of the inside-baseball nature of the enterprise, 99% doesn’t always escape a propagandistic feeling, however relatively nuanced. Occasionally, the filmmakers are canny enough to include dissenting voices: Author/activist Naomi Wolf pointedly contradicts an Occupy Wall Street organizer who, just a scene before, expressed contentment that the movement had fulfilled its mission of “changing the discourse”; Wolf, on the other hand, doesn’t believe that that’s enough to consider it a success. Such potentially dialectical moments, though, are usually not elaborated enough to puncture the feeling of hagiographic back-patting that the film exudes more often than not. Even when, toward the end, various Occupy protesters admit the movement faces an uncertain future, the filmmakers are nevertheless inclined to end on a note of optimism, surging Philip Glass music and all.
If you grant the film its slanted perspective at the outset, however, 99% works well as its own state-of-the-union address. In touching on a wide variety of economic, social, and topical matters, from the U.S. financial meltdown to the plight of Iraq War veterans, the filmmakers make a compelling and occasionally devastating case against a broken nation in which the so-called American dream has become more of a fantasy than ever as the gulf between haves and have-nots continues to widen. Perhaps the sheer existence of a film like 99% is ultimately more important in the long run than whether it’s necessarily an accomplished piece of cinema. Through the film, the Occupy protesters make their voices heard, loudly and passionately; it’s up to individual viewers to decide what to do with the vision they set out, both of what America currently is and what it ought to be. Such is surely the prerogative of members of the kind of genuinely democratic society that the movement is trying to reclaim.