Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2013: ‘An Unreal Dream’ + ‘99%’

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival opens in New York City this week, with a variety of movies focused on how ordinary people react to extraordinary but also systemic abuses. Screening during the Festival’s first days, both An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story and 99% — The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film take up the remarkable stories of people fighting back.

An Unreal Dream, which premieres at the Festival on 16 June, follows a familiar strategy in nonfiction filmmaking: when in doubt, comb through the files of the Innocence Project. Like too many victims of the US justice system before him, Michael Morton discovered the need to avail himself of the services of Barry Scheck and his team of DNA test-wielding legal crusaders after the state of Texas decided to have its way with him.

What happened to Morton is absurd on its face. As chronicled in Texas Monthly in November and December of 2012, his story begins in 1986, when Morton was living in Round Rock, Texas, with his wife Chris and young son Eric. The day after Morton’s 32nd birthday, Chris was found bludgeoned to death in their bedroom. Police discovered a note to her from Morton in which he jokingly expressed his disappointment that she had fallen asleep before they could have sex the night before. Based on that note and a district attorney’s wild hunches about Morton’s behavior, he was charged with and convicted of the murder. Looking back during an interview in this film, one juror says that she thinks one reason for the vote was that “There was no one else to suspect.”

The lack of any evidence connecting Morton to the crime, unfortunately, was just the beginning of the travesty of justice explored in An Unreal Dream. Director Al Reinert (a screenwriter on Apollo 13) doesn’t show much interest in sensationalizing events. Rather, he has Morton himself narrate: while sitting in the sunny, ornate old courtroom where he received a life sentence, he calmly relates each step in his odyssey with the pacing, measured insight, and eye for detail of a natural-born storyteller. Reinert builds a gripping saga around this spine, using interviews with character witnesses who range from Morton’s long-estranged son to his legal team and several of his fellow inmates. (According to Morton, “Some of the best people to be friends with [in prison] are the murderers.”) The emotional arc of this film, from calamitous wrong to belated vindication, couldn’t be simpler, or more justified.

Sadly, the last couple of decades have brought us too many stories of cases like Morton’s, where authorities lazily target a close-at-hand suspect and then fight like terriers for years afterward in order to cover their tracks. What is most frightening about the Morton case, as detailed in An Unreal Dream, is how much effort and time it took a squad of highly motivated, expert lawyers to claw Morton out of prison, even after the truth became widely apparent. If a respected, responsible citizen like Morton can be thrown in prison for decades based on such a feeble case, the film asks, who among the rest of us can consider ourselves safe?

That same sense of powerlessness against implacable forces permeates the sprawling yet masterful 99% — The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film, premiering at the Festival on 14 June. Here, though the scale of effect and number of makers are explicitly macro. Even as it’s clear that the documentary means to offer a summation of the Occupy movement’s beliefs, we are well aware that this project is complicated by the non-hierarchical group behind both film and the movement. The film begins with the now familiar specter of protestors occupying Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan for a couple months during 2011. Before it’s done, 99% has turned into something of a manifesto for the current American age of disaffection and inequality.

99% — The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film (2012)

99% starts slowly, assembling news clips and interviews to declare a hard-to-swallow connection between the comparatively tiny Occupy movement with the no-holds-barred anti-authoritarian rage that toppled governments in Egypt and Tunisia. But then an interview with Monique, a middle-aged woman from north Minneapolis who lost her job and within a mere two months of missing mortgage payments was being threatened with foreclosure, reveals designs on a more detailed story. Her narrative catapults the film into an explanation (mostly via Matt Taibbi, who’s made a career out of excoriating the more nefarious practices of Wall Street) of how financial industry corruption brought about the crash of 2008.

From here the film highlights some participants’ self-aggrandizing memories of how the protests in downtown Manhattan came together. One organizer talks of seeing the serried ranks of police and fearing that he and his fellows would be “massacred,” while the comedy of massed protestors bellowing at Wall Street office buildings, on a Saturday, when the markets were closed, is priceless. The movie wastes too much time during its middle sections on the mechanics of the Zuccotti Park protest village, parsing the formation of all the different action committees and ways of forming consensus to make sure that everybody’s voice is heard. Here we’re reminded that, like too many well-meaning liberals, the Occupy crowd has a counterproductive affinity toward focusing on the process of the protest rather than the purpose of the protest itself.

But then something unexpected happens. In between all the celebrations of people power and denunciations of the heavy-handed police response and clueless mainstream media coverage, 99% starts delivering an impassioned argument against the status quo, organized from a seemingly disorganized, seemingly ever-digressive movement. The film arranges connections among images and ideas, cutting to scenes outside New York to show people eating at a food kitchen in desperately poor Mississippi, or students in Pittsburgh looking at a lifetime of indentured servitude to pay back their student loans, or protestors in Oakland who took a much more aggressive and anarchic approach to their occupation than did the New York incarnation. In fact, the farther the film gets from the physical environs of Wall Street and makes the argument that a corporate-government complex physically and spiritually impoverishes those who are not at the top of the ladder, the richer and bolder a manifesto it becomes.

Against the backdrop of Occupiers and their supporters discussing how they don’t need to create a clear-cut set of demands — their refusal to do so being the primary reason the protests were dismissed by so many observers, even those who might have been inclined to sympathize with its premise of outrage — Naomi Wolf pops up to say, only seemingly simply, “Bullshit.” She means that only messaging about inequality means nothing without concrete action. Like the protests themselves, 99% prefers to identify larger systemic problems instead of advocating for specific remedies. But unlike the media-circus version of the protests that were visible to most people, the film also manages to show small solutions, like the moment when Monique asks some protestors to “Occupy my house,” that actually feel revolutionary.