Progressive cinema: Occupy stars in Traverse City

The Occupy Wall Street movement was one of the main themes at Michigan’s Traverse City Film Festival this year. Not a surprise, since activist Michael Moore picked the films and also appeared at many of the rallies depicted on the big screen. He even presented his latest short film prior to one of the screenings. The inspiring 29-minute speech, “America is NOT Broke,” to an impromptu crowd of 40,000 Wisconsin activists, can be viewed or read here.

We Are Wisconsin, despite the well-known loss of the governor’s recall campaign, is a powerful, uplifting and essential film for activists to see. The “power of the people” has rarely been captured on film as convincingly as this relevant testament to struggle. Brian & Melissa Austin, police officer and assistant producer, play key roles in the production, planning on touring with the film into the battleground states during the fall election campaign.

Brian, a rare police officer who identifies himself as progressive, helped form Cops for Labor, a group of unionists who showed up in force during the occupation of the Wisconsin state Capitol. Despite the exemption of fire and police from the bill that destroyed collective bargaining, the police chose to remain supportive of the movement. Brian describes their arrival en masse into the Capitol as “a life-changing moment, as hokey as that sounds.” As one of the leaders of the group, he says, “as many as 200 officers have marched in the rallies.”

Although the traditional role of police is to protect the status quo, Brian says, “I see the role as completely different. I’m actually a lawyer by trade. I see no contradiction in being a police officer and being a protestor. None. Zero. In fact I think they’re complementary. Fundamentally I’m a protector of society, of our constitution, people’s rights, justice, civil liberties, that’s how I view my role. I’m not there to protect the power structure.”

Reflecting on the image of police commonly seen by protesters, he acknowledges, “Historically police are conservative. But more officers are starting to see the hostility from the GOP towards police unions.”

The film is artfully directed by Michael Moore disciple Amie Williams, who’s touring with the Austins, hoping to influence electoral activism at special screenings across the country. As a final compliment at the screening, she praised the full house of cinema enthusiasts by saying, “Traverse City, to get up at 9 a.m. to see this film, in the rain, you must really care about the state of this nation.”

With the advent of the digital age, cheaper access to equipment has resulted in a glut of films ranging from cellphone to HD camcorder quality. Michael selected four representative films of the new citizen filmmaker phenomenon in New York’s Zuccotti Park, and invited the artists to present their projects. They ranged from tedious narcissism, My Occupy by activist Sandi Bachom, to a series of stark observations, Gravity Hill Newsreels, done in the style of acclaimed documentarists Dziga Vertov, Joris Ivens and Agnes Varda, to #whilewewatch, a finely polished account of the realities of the Occupy Wall Street confrontations with the New York police.

This new ability to make films without money or the dictate of the corporate market “is revolutionary,” Michael said. “Our ability to talk to each other over the gatekeepers is a new opportunity.” Thee examples of the burgeoning power of social media inspire people to pick up cameras. And hopefully, they’ll study the art of filmmaking at the same time.

Payback is a Canadian documentary based on the highly acclaimed book by Margaret Atwood, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, and on the meaning of the often-heard statement, “He paid his debt to society.” The film creatively entwines a public reading by Atwood with real cases demonstrating how debt is created. This complex and probing examination of the roots of social inequality deserves several viewings to get the full impact.

The mysterious but appropriately titled Anonymous movement gets a fantastic filmic treatment in an insider look at the phenomenon of web activism. We Are Legion: The Story of the Hactivists interviews key figures in the important struggle to protect the freedom of the Internet from corporate takeover. Entertaining and informative, the film covers the major characters from its inception to present day.

The most stunning cinematic poem regarding the U.S. economic crisis is offered by the young, talented filmmaker Michael McSweeney. Ashes of America takes us on a visual exploration of the meanings and causes of the downturn, a moving and thought-provoking work of art representing the 99 percent.

Two extremely creative and unique films by Tony Gatlif, Roma/Algerian actor/director, were screened at Traverse City this year. Freedom, a rare, well-acted drama depicting the tragic oppression of the Roma people (Gypsies) during World War II, reveals the forgotten history of this great culture. Gatlif’s newest film, Indignados, is a visual poem on the world’s economic crisis and the powerful movements challenging corporate power. The film, equally as effective as Ashes of America, follows a young immigrant woman washed up on the shore of a nameless country, who gradually finds her way into the protest movement. It’s a hopeful, beautiful film about the emerging struggle for social change, represented so abundantly and artistically at this year’s Traverse City Film Festival.

For more information about the 2012 Traverse City Film Festival go to

Photo: Traverse City Film Fest Official Site


Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer

Bill Meyer frequently writes movie reviews for People’s World, often from film festivals. He is a keyboardist at Bill Meyer Music and current member of Detroit Federation of Musicians. He lives in Hamtramck, Michigan.