By mid-October the images of OWS had become so ubiquitous experimental filmmaker Jem Cohen produced a series of short experimental documentaries, what he refers to as “newsreels”, that screened before main features at the IFC theater in Greenwich Village. Cohen is perhaps best known for producing Instrument, his 1998 documentary on the DC-based band Fugazi. One of Fugazi’s members, Guy Picciotto, provides the soundtrack for many of the newsreels.
The newsreels take a more metaphorical stance towards OWS, less concerned with specifics than with the movements’ general messages, actions, and imagery. Throughout many of the newsreels, Cohen contrasts the distance and advertising-saturated world of Wall Street with the intimacy, familiarity, and do-it-yourself ethic of the Occupiers. Newsreel No. One tightly frames a series of electronic signs that dominate Times Square. Their flashing images fall out of the frame and reflect endlessly off the glass surfaces of towering skyscrapers. Times Square is awash in a vortex of advertising and swallowed by a throat of steel and glass.
The newsreel then cuts to the crowds protesting in Times Square. Hundreds of people suffuse the frame. Random figures cross our vision. As opposed to the ornate electronic signs, we see hand-written placards that shakily state: “We are the 99%” and “Stop Disaster Capitalism.” Although most of the framing is extremely steady and well-composed, revealing Cohen’s expertise in the medium, the sequence ends with the camera roughly dismounting from a perch that filmed a bed sheet that announces: “I Awoke In A Sweat from the American Dream.” The final shot has the camera immersed in the crowd, filming people’s jeans before cutting to black. It’s as if Cohen is intentionally drawing attention to how his professionalized gaze can also distance viewers from the actions taking place, so he intentionally disrupts or exposes it to remind viewers of the privilege that such short experimental films are premised upon.
Similar imagery weaves throughout Newsreel No. Four. Once again, we are immersed in carefully composed shots of wind-blown and rain-sodden crowds. A minor riff sounding like Middle Eastern music runs over the imagery of people covering their equipment with tarps, hinting at the links between the Arab Spring and the American Autumn. This connection is more pronounced in Newsreel No. Three, which shows graffiti scrawled upon the glass of a bus kiosk: “From Tahrir Square to Liberty Park [Zuccotti Park’s new name].” The music bridges geographical and cultural distances.
The end of Newsreel No. Four, however, ends on shots of towering illuminated skyscrapers, enveloped by mist in a dark sky. Televised voices suddenly appear on the soundtrack. One announces in generic news-anchor inflection: “I’m concerned about the growing mobs of Occupy Wall Street.” Herman Cain follows, chiding viewers to “blame yourself.” The imposing imagery of the buildings as the camera gawks up to their upper heights suggests not only the physical distance, but also the psychological and economic distance between the voices that represent the interests of the ‘1%’ and those on the ground. The tower’s magisterial illuminated windows are both beautiful and imposing—just like the “debates” and news being mass-distributed across commercial media. But both have little relation to the concerns and realities occurring to people on the ground. When it rains and pours upon struggling everyday people, the towers continue to bask in their own luminescence and power.
This imagery recurs once again but in a different format throughout Newsreel No. Two. The camera focuses steadily for 30 seconds on a corner of a shiny black building. Ambient guitar music plays over the scattered noise of the crowds passing by. We watch people’s images reflect off the building causing them to blend and separate as they round the corner. As the filming continues, we lose the distinction where the building ends and the people begin. The image in an extremely economic way suggests the collective transformation that OWS provides. It becomes a site where everyday reality gives way to utopian desires and the swell of converging autonomous actions.
This is followed by a shot of a lone cop on another corner, standing in front of a U.S. Armed Forces Career Center. The two repressive powers of the state—the police and armed services—are visually linked. Yet their power is undercut by the cop’s isolation and seeming irrelevancy. The Occupy Wall Streeters are not protesting his power, but more significantly simply ignoring it by operating on an entirely different script than those in authority are familiar with.
As one can see, OWS has captured the imagination of many different constituencies. With the recent evictions of Occupiers from their New York and Los Angeles encampments, the next stage of the OWS movement remains uncertain. Yet the rhetorical and visual power of its mass actions and subsequent videos strongly suggests that it is not disbanding anytime soon.
The movement’s strength might be how it enables diverse constituencies to seize upon its imagery and messages to engage with social justice concerns that had previously seen unobtainable both on the ground and within video, print, and music. The videos of OWS should not be conflated with the movement itself. Yet they remain valuable barometers in gauging some of the movement’s interests and contradictions, and they serve as a badly needed antibody to the toxic commercial messages that descend like rain from those distant, towering skyscrapers looming above.