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A Bulwark Against Erasure: Jem Cohen’s Occupy Wall Street Newsreels

By Dean Otto & Paul Schmelzer

Just over a year ago—on September 17, 2011—filmmaker Jem Cohen grabbed a camera and headed to New York’s financial district to document the shaky first steps of what would soon become the global Occupy movement. As Occupy Wall Street grew and transformed, Cohen gathered footage, quickly editing it into his Gravity Hill Newsreels, which he’d drop off at the IFC Center to be screened before features. Although Cohen states that “frankly, I’m committed to being a political filmmaker,” the newsreels are light on polemic and heavy on observation. A day after the one-year anniversary of Occupy’s birth—and a day after Cohen returned to Zuccotti Park to film—he discussed his Occupy newsreels; the links between punk, folk, and social justice movements; and how these short “newsreals” served as a “bulwark against … erasure” by mainstream news outlets intent on declaring Occupy dead.

Paul Schmelzer

How did you get interested in filming Gravity Hill Newsreels: Occupy Wall Street, and what was it like going to Zuccotti Park one year after you first started shooting the movement?

Jem Cohen

The first day that I went, September 17, 2011, I have to admit that I was very discouraged. I went down with a Super-8 camera and only found a small group of people. Much of the Wall Street area was entirely locked off, and it looked to me like the usual suspects from the many protests I’ve gone to over the years. I left an hour before they found Zuccotti Park, which was unfortunate, because I didn’t realize that there was a change in the equation. Luckily, I went back within a week, and on that second visit I already sensed that something really unusual was taking place.

That initial impression and the impression within the next two weeks were already radically different, and of course going yesterday [September 17, 2012] was different as well. The media is setting up this narrative—and the New York Times was downright obnoxious in its reporting yesterday—that Occupy hasn’t had any effect and was basically a flash in the pan. But the truth is yesterday was actually a cheerful reconvening, not in the numbers that were once attending these Occupy events, but certainly thousands, not the hundreds that might have been reported. And they arrested 180 people, so obviously there’s still some serious resistance going on, to which they feel the need to call out a very militarized police apparatus. This would not be the case if Occupy had simply disappeared.

All of that said, my relationship to Occupy is to be both an observer and a participant, but in a way that is done without a lot of judgment. The issue for me as a filmmaker is not what the numbers are and whether the press and the world see Occupy as a successful movement. My interest is in documenting something that I found powerful, surprising, and in many ways extremely inspiring—and even to observe the flaws and the frustration, and perhaps the eventual diminishment, of the movement.

Schmelzer

How did you arrive at the newsreel format?

Cohen

I went the first day with a Super-8 camera to make documentation just for my own archive. The second day I grabbed a borrowed HD camera, but it wasn’t until a specific conversation with John Vanco at the IFC Center that anything solidified. He asked me what filmmakers were doing around Occupy, and then suggested that they might be looking for newsreels. When he said that word, “newsreels,” my mind just started racing, backward into the history of the newsreel and forward into the potential of getting these up on big screens in the time that Liberty Plaza and Zuccotti Park existed, which was a really fascinating proposition. And they lived up to their word. As soon as I started turning them around and giving them to them, they started showing them.

Dean Otto

How were they incorporated into the programming at the IFC Center?

Cohen

They just showed them, literally, as newsreels before each of the features. They have five screens, so it was completely surprising to a lot of the people who came in to see something else. IFC has been very good about showing shorts, including very interesting independent shorts, and it’s really the only venue in New York that does that as a regular thing before their features. Frankly, it was gutsy of them. I think they could have been attacked for appearing to support Occupy, but really I think what’s more fair to them is that they were supporting the spirit of newsreels. I had already expressed to them that I wasn’t interested in making strictly propaganda advocacy pieces for the movement; I was interested in taking on what I saw as a continuation of documentary tradition that has to do with observation and is engaged, but is not making propaganda.

Schmelzer

Newsreels, of course, are from the pre-television era, when people got their news during a trip to the movie theater. Compared to the ways corporate media was portraying this movement, your project presents a more direct documentation, more in the spirit of old-school newsreels.

Cohen

I think the pieces I did were observational in their tone, rather than being advocacy works or propaganda works. That said, they are also obviously sympathetic. The reference I found most vital was when Jean Vigo made À propos de nice, his first film. He made a declaration during one of his first screenings that documentaries should have a point of view. While my film doesn’t have the point of view of the Occupy movement media group, it does have a personal point of view, which is that Jem Cohen the filmmaker. And that is not in any way something that I would describe as objective or disinterested because, frankly, I’m committed to being a political filmmaker. I wouldn’t have gone down there in the first place if I didn’t feel a fascination and a desire to be one of the numbers there.

The original newsreels were, in actuality, very propagandistic, made by Hearst-Corp or whatever, but they also had a function, which was to say, “Something’s happened. Maybe you can’t be there, but here’s what transpired, here’s what it looked like, here’s what it felt like.” And that was very important to people. Even though we’re inundated with news and information and we can all just look at YouTube videos on the web, that is very different from just walking into a movie and having to sit through this large-scale window onto an event that many people who went into the IFC theater may have not had a real understanding of or interest in. On some level, it really was a way of presenting a newsreel, but I would add that there’s the nice possibility of spelling it “newsreal,” and having it present the news that you weren’t going to see on Fox or even in the New York Times.

Otto

You’re definitely invoking the spirit of so many socioeconomic, political documentary filmmakers too, who are dealing with labor and other issues, throughout this whole series. Sometimes the reference is quite literal: episodes are dedicated to filmmakers such as Chris Marker, Agnès Varda, and Dutch documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens.

Cohen

That was important to me, too, to sort of tip my hat and do a kind of homage. I liked the idea of people going into the IFC, and they’ve never heard of Humphrey Jennings or Santiago Álvarez, or they may barely have heard of Agnès Varda or Chris Marker. So, it was a way of suggesting that if you’re intrigued by this, then look these people up. They’re extraordinary filmmakers and they represent a very overlooked tradition, particularly in America, which doesn’t see this chain of remarkable renegades who had personal vision but also were politically engaged and unapologetically so.

Schmelzer

Can you talk about the role of music in the newsreels? Your film Instrument (1999) focused on the DC hardcore band Fugazi, and Fugazi’s guitarist Guy Picciotto did the soundtrack of the newsreels. Is there an affinity between the Fugazi way of running business and the Occupy way of running business?

Cohen

As soon as I started making these I approached Guy, who was in Fugazi, of course, and who also worked with me on a lot of my film projects. We started with an understanding that we didn’t want to make music videos together and anything we would do would be going in the opposite direction. We didn’t want to manipulate people with the music. On the other hand, I love the possibility of using music in an interesting way in film, and we actually landed on something that could be described as a dialectical approach to soundtrack, which was to have little bits of music used in unusual ways that actually opened up the imagery and suggested that there might be actually some other level that people might look for. Again, the music is sometimes supportive, but it doesn’t have that kind of rabble-rousing sense of, “Now we’re going to play Rage Against the Machine and see people fighting with cops.” It was a very different attitude taken.

In regards to Fugazi, parallel to their whole existence is that they were a political band, and part of that politic was a complete commitment to maintaining their own point of view rather than feeling like they had to express anybody else’s. It was a nice occasion to work with Guy, and even though the work was quite subtle and minimal, I think it really added to the pieces.

Schmelzer

One of the newsreels uses music not performed by Guy—a historic blues song. Is that a way of connecting up this movement with the older folk traditions?

Cohen

Yeah. That’s important too. I explicitly used an old blues track, so the connection was rather direct. It wasn’t a protest song; it was a blues song, but nonetheless that was a linkage that interests us because essentially what we’re talking about is that there’s ground-level music made by people out of necessity that’s not the music of the music business. If you look at it that way, then punk music has often been a kind of folk music, made by people operating out of their garages and neighborhoods, outside of an industry that doesn’t want anything to do with them. That’s the kind of punk world that we came out of, and it very much relates to folk as a grassroots way of communicating and spreading the news.

Otto

There was so much filming going on in Zuccotti Park, and I think you also made reference to everybody having cameras shoved in their faces when they’re going through the park. Why do you think we’re not seeing more completed work coming out of this?

Cohen

That’s a good question. I still, even yesterday, saw an astounding range of equipment, including some very high-end gear, being used to document Occupy. I’m assuming that those documentaries are still coming down the pike. But there is this insinuation in the broader media that Occupy is dead or that Occupy never counted for much, so that may give people some pause in thinking that, a year from now, they’re going to have a place to show their Occupy long-form films. I also think that an awful lot of people who were doing documentation were doing it as a tool for the movement and they’re still hoping that their work can be used in that way. Don’t get me wrong, I completely see the necessity for that, and I’m glad that people are doing that. But I was trying to do something a little bit different. I think we also live in a world where everybody documents everything, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are filmmakers or that they have the long-haul stick-to-it-iveness that is demanded for finishing longer pieces.

Schmelzer

I read yesterday that the police were confiscating cameras at Zuccotti Park. In 2005, you had a camera confiscated by Homeland Security because you were filming out the window of a train between Washington and New York. So, while there are so many people shooting today, doesn’t it seems like there are more police restrictions on the right to do what you’re doing?

Cohen

After that incident with Amtrak there came another thing, which was the battle that we had for more than two years about New York street photography and filmmaking, and that was a very interesting struggle that came about because the Mayor’s office of Film, Theater, and Broadcasting was very quietly working to transition what the regulations were for shooting in the city. And they would have been very restrictive if what they had initially proposed had gone through. This is actually one of the few things I can point to in my life where a small number of us made a ruckus—we put up a website and worked with the New York Civil Liberties Union—and, within the course of the next year or two, we managed to turn that around. Now New York has some very respectful regulations that allow a great deal of leeway for street photography and filmmaking.

The fact is, the police may not like it, they may still try to shut it down, they may not even know what the new regulations are, but the law is on our side in regards to that, and they don’t really have any choice. When a cop is threatening you to stop shooting, that’s one reality that you have to deal with, but in terms of what the regulations are in this city, we have rights that are not to be denied. I will say I have not seen, in regard to Occupy, much in the way of police trying to stop documentation, except in the sense that, when they shut down the park, for example, they basically tried to shut out all of the press, period. It wasn’t just isolated incidents of people with cameras. They basically tried to make it so that nobody could report on that event. A lot of the arrests have involved members of the press, and it’s completely outrageous that they’ve been trying to do that. But it’s one of those things that, on the street, you have to know what your rights are and insist on them, and that’s really the bottom line there.

Schmelzer

I started clipping anniversary stories from the weekend too see what kind of language the media was using about the Occupy movement. Occupy “has lost its ability to organize since Bloomberg shut down the Plaza,” the Associated Press posited. Then there were headlines like “Occupy Wall Street Movement Spent After the First Year?” (USA Today) and “A Look Back at the Rise and Fall of Occupy Wall Street” (Washington Post). I question the media’s measures of success, which seem focused on centralization: counting heads in Zuccotti Park, while ignoring the good work being done by, say, Occupy in Minnesota around foreclosures or Oakland’s particularly robust Occupy group

Cohen

And here in New York, for example, there’s extraordinary stuff going on about debt. Just yesterday a debt handbook was published that’s extremely thoughtful, well researched, and well put together. This is a really important step in terms of taking some of these issues into different areas, and also having some practical possible results, some of which are quite utopian and some of which are quite practical.

It’s so unfortunately, disappointingly predictable that we’ve been seeing the kind of headlines that you just mentioned, but I also think that they can say whatever they want: The simple fact is that, for years, nobody talked about income equality and nobody talked about corporate malfeasance as a kind of outrageous given. It was bubbling under the surface, but seen as something that could not be discussed, and after Occupy, it very much became something that was discussed.

There are so many ways in which the movement has its effect. Some of those ways are not measurable. You had a tiny part of one of the busiest cities in the world, in its incredibly busy downtown, which is right next to “Ground Zero” and also right next to one of the world’s most dominant financial centers, and that topography was totally changed—converted into a buzzing, bustling mini-metropolis that hundreds of thousands of people walked by, that thousands and thousands of tour buses drove directly next to. Even if they didn’t like it or believe in it, they all had to contend with this transformation that was just astonishing. Things like that don’t happen in New York, and it happened. Things like that don’t happen in many other cities, and then it happened. One of the reasons why we document is to prove that it happened. So they can now try to erase it, but that’s one of the reasons why I think I’m really glad I did the shorts that I did. They are a bulwark against that erasure.

Schmelzer

Your presentation also gave a real picture, not a caricature, of what it was. In the newsreels, we see cops and veterans, people in suits and ties, older people and so-called hippies…

Cohen

It really was everybody. If there’s one primary misconception about Occupy, it is that it was just a bunch of slacker kids or angry young anarchists. I have never encountered anything like it in 30 years—actually longer than 30 years, because when I was a little kid I was going to the really big anti-Vietnam protests in DC. So this is a history that I’m very familiar with, and I’ve never seen anything like this mix of people. It was beautiful, and it was really, really surprising. That’s one of the things I wanted to show.

Schmelzer

Zooming out a bit, what do you think is the special power that film, specifically, or art, in general, has in addressing issues of inequality or injustice?

Cohen

There are many ways to answer that, but one is that there’s a linkage made with resistance moments in the past. It’s particularly effective when it’s an audiovisual linkage. It’s a constant need to prove that things took place. You can and must write about these movements, but there’s nothing quite like seeing it. If we are given access to this secret history of actualities, it’s quite head turning. A lot of people know about it in terms of advocacy efforts made within movements, but they’re less familiar with it in regard to this tradition of engaged political filmmaking not done strictly as advocacy tools. It has a longer view that says, “This may not be the tool that the movement is looking for right now in terms of media, but it has a different strength,” which is that, in the long course of history, we also need to be able to see some of the complexities and ambiguities and even reveal some of the frustrations in the nitty-gritty of these events.

The work that Humphrey Jennings did in the UK—he really changed the language, bringing in lyricism as a way of having the British people understand themselves in a time of crisis. That they were capable of doing that, not just through having people hammer away at the fact that the Nazis were terrible, but also by realizing that there was a uniting poetry behind the British Resistance. So there are things like that that are not so noticed by a lot of people in looking back, but they’re really beautiful and really important.

Conversations in an Election Year

Based on the belief that artists’ voices are vital in the conversation about creating a better society, this series of discussions is interested in politics with a lowercase p—concerns about power, inequality, and participation—and ways that artists’ personal values interface with it.

Police barricade Wall Street on September 17, 2011

Still from Jem Cohen’s Gravity Hill Newsreels: Occupy Wall Street, 2011–2012

Photo: Jem Cohen, courtesy Video Data Bank

Occupy sign in Liberty Plaza, October 2011

Still from Jem Cohen’s Gravity Hill Newsreels: Occupy Wall Street, 2011–2012

Photo: Jem Cohen, courtesy Video Data Bank

Day 14 of Occupy Wall Street, in Zuccotti Park

Zuccotti Park, September 2, 2011

Jem Cohen and Fugazi

Photo: Michael Ackerman, courtesy Dischord Records

An Occupy activist in Manhattan wearing a #filmthepolice bandana, March 2012

Jem Cohen at a Picture New York First Amendment rally in New York’s Union Square, July 2007

“Rights of Filmmakers and Photographers in New York City” flier by Jem Cohen

Occupy Oakland, December 2011

A couple at Occupy in New York in October 2011

Moments later the couple is tackled and reportedly arrested

Still from Jem Cohen’s Gravity Hill Newsreels: Occupy Wall Street, 2011–2012

Photo: Jem Cohen, courtesy Video Data Bank