How soon is too soon? It’s the meta question posed by Fisher Stevens’ and Rebecca Chaiklin’s documentary “Another World,” which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival this week, and which, despite its thoroughgoing nature, unrivalled access and exuberant, pacy vibe, feels strangely out of focus. It doesn’t appear to be the fault of the filmmaking, although Stevens did mention in an introduction that the film was so hot off the presses that the Berlin screening we attended was pretty much the first time the directors had watched it in its finished entirety. Nor can the intention be faulted, because while it’s clearly delivered from a point of view sympathetic to the movement it documents, it makes no bones about that, and doesn’t shy away from covering the dissolution and disillusion that characterized its later stages. Really, it simply feels like the Occupy movement in its most recognizable form ended exactly long enough ago for it to be no longer hot-potato topical, and yet too recently for us to be able to gain any real perspective on its place in history.
The filmmakers do appear to recognize that issue to a degree, and focus instead on the lives and struggles of a select group of the movement’s initiators and leaders, but that does mean that the film falls into one of the same traps that movement itself did: for all the talk about “direct democracy” and absence of hierarchy, “Occupy Wall Street” became stratified into leaders and supporters, largely by a media that needed to put a recognizable face or two on the phenomenon if it was going to give it the coverage it so desperately craved. “Another World” is, after all, also a media product and, knowing that the best way to get anyone to understand an ideology is by putting a human face on it, the film comments on how making “heroes” out of some of the more outspoken members of the core group was a factor in sowing dissent and dissatisfaction in the ranks, and then proceeds to make heroes out of some of the more outspoken members of the core group. It’s a tactic that increases our engagement with the film, but at the cost of our appreciation of what made OWS so special outside of being a life-changing event for these five or six young, telegenic idealists.
The personalities we follow most closely here are compelling ones, and there is something exhilarating, in the first half of the film, in watching as-it-happens footage (Stevens and Chaiklin got permission to start filming at a very early point in the movement’s evolution) of the kind of youthful, engaged passion that saw an initially unstructured, disorganized sit-in become a zeitgeist topic of national debate. The bright-eyed sense of intoxicating hope, of the invincibility of their united stand, is beautiful and touching and something to which many of us can probably relate, even if it didn’t find its focus in this same moment. But it’s the sad kind of thrill that only reaches such a pitch because it must inevitably end, and that’s really the most interesting segment of the film—after the initial euphoria has worn off and suddenly the idealism of youth meets its greatest natural enemy: routine. Where before the days and nights were carried by sheer force of enthusiasm and a kind of make-do-and-mend pulling together, as time wears on, the practicalities of sanitation, noise violations and financing the continued effort begin to take their toll. The same “99 percenters” who a few days before were exulting in optimism (“I feel like this might be the most important thing I’ll ever do in my life!” says one of the interviewees) are suddenly riven with internal conflict and doubt about the movement’s future.
But aside from the anecdotes and personal stories (and some of those are very affecting, from Bobby whose father committed suicide due to overwhelming debt, to Husain who had been an activist in Palestine prior to coming to the states, to Hero whose natural performer energy saw him the most frequently interviewed and widely recognized face of the movement) the film is a lot saggier and less coherent—rather like the OWS movement itself, it could be said—when trying to grapple with the actual aims and effects of the phenomenon. It doesn’t help that in real life what did happen was a kind of depressing fizzle, and while the film manfully attempts to reclaim some long-lasting impact in terms of the communes, charitable organizations and Occupy offshoots that the founding members have gone on to spearhead, it can’t help but feel anticlimactic and artificially sweetened. They wanted to, and believed for a moment they could, not just change the world, but radically affect they way Western human societies interact. Yes, it was hubris, but we’re not cynical enough to enjoy the inevitable deflation and disillusionment of what were essentially noble intentions.
Most of all though, this fuzziness feels like a factor of being too close up to the events described to focus on them accurately. Like a shaky cam video of a riot scene, the impressions are jumbled, zoomed-in, when what we really want is some distance, a wide shot that takes in a bit of the surrounding landscape too. Without that context, the film feels slight, though energetic, and too often haphazard, not having that one overriding throughline to cling to. Such, we’d suggest, are the pitfalls of trying to document such recent history, especially a part of it that seems destined to become at best a footnote and at worst a punchline, and thats greatest legacy to date has been a few already overused catchphrases. [C+]