Kevin Breslin's movie shows the passion, and sophisticated propaganda-making skills, of the Occupy Wall Street media operation
12:24 pm Dec. 14, 20112
Kevin Breslin was at home in Rockaway Beach one evening in early October, a few weeks after several hundred people started camping out in a park to protest corporate greed, when the phone rang.
“Hey mate!” he recalled hearing from the voice on the other end of the line, a guy from the Sydney-based production company 8com, for whom Breslin, a director, had previously shot a commercial.
At first, Breslin had trouble deciphering his caller's thick accent. It seemed like he was muttering something about “the occupants.” Do-you-wanna-do-something-about-the-occupants, mate?
“Yes!” Breslin eventually replied when he realized he was being asked to make a movie about Occupy Wall Street.
Breslin, 52, has a portfolio that ranges from public-service announcements, to corporate promotional videos, to documentary films, including last year's Living for 32, about a survivor of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. (It was picked up by Showtime and landed on the 2010 "Short List" of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.) He'd been following coverage of Occupy Wall Street since day 1. His father, the legendary journalist Jimmy Breslin, had filed some Occupy Wall Street dispatches for the Daily News, including a column in which he likened the rebellion in Lower Manhattan to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
“Fifty years later on Broadway, the issues are different, but the cause remains the same,” Jimmy Breslin wrote. “One percent of the country gets the best of everything. The rest gets the shaft. Funny how some things never change.”
The younger Breslin likewise felt that the people down in Zuccotti Park were onto something.
“I didn’t even think twice,” he told Capital the other day.
Two months and 50 hours worth of footage later, Breslin is gearing up for tonight’s debut of #whilewewatch at Albert Shanker Hall, where it will get a private screening a few blocks from the former encampment that gave rise to the Occupy Wall Street movement. The film was shot over the course of more than a month on what Breslin described as an “austere” budget. (He had to break open his piggy bank after burning through 8com’s initial funding, he said.)
"It is the story of how many people came together in the sun and rain, day and night, broke and loaded with energy and hope to get their story out to the world,” the blurb on Breslin’s Vimeo page explains of the 40-minute documentary short.
“When regular media paid no attention to this movement they decided to tell the world their story."
The world, as it turned out, had no choice but to listen. (That "The Protester" was just named Time magazine's "person" of the year is evidence of that.)
Occupy Wall Street managed, ultimately, to make itself the big story while at the same time eschewing the usual paraphernalia of social uprisings: Official demands; organizational hierarchy; strategic messaging.
But alongside the vast professional news coverage, there were other signals being beamed out into the ether around Zuccotti Park: Live streams, YouTube clips, cell-phone video, Tumblr posts and a constant stream of tweets and status updates that seemed to proliferate by the second. Not to mention the spontaneous launch of a 17- by 22-inch protest paper, the satirically titled Occupied Wall Street Journal, which became news itself.
The independent documentarians who transmitted on these platforms arguably shaped public opinion about Occupy Wall Street as much as their counterparts in the establishment media did. And even if they weren’t relying on mainstream outlets to get their stories across, there were certainly times when mainstream outlets relied on them. (Remember that shaky footage of NYPD officer Anthony Bologna dousing several protesters with pepper spray during a Sept. 24 march on Union Square?)
It was this cadre of amateurs, recording the movement on their own terms—which is to say the most sympathetic—that caught Breslin’s eye when he first showed up in the park one morning in October.
“I went there, right, and I watched it,” he said Monday, sitting at a table in the back corner of a cafe on 6th Avenue and 11th Street. “I realized everyone was talking about the same thing: Issues.”
Breslin, sporting spiky dark hair that looked sufficiently slept-on and a pair of aviators dangling from the “v” of his brown sweater, was on break from an editing session in his nearby West Village production space. The waiter was taking forever to bring the coffee, but Breslin's mien suggested that there may already have been some caffeine in his veins.
“Issues and issues,” Breslin went on. “Whatever your issue was, they were expounding on it. And rightfully so: Mortgages. Hatred of banks. Hatred of corporations. Despising the cops that roughed them up. It became redundant. Not that it wasn’t legitimate. It’s just that I realized I needed something better than that to tell their story.”
He started lurking at the Occupy Wall Street press table, chatting up people who seemed like they were always zipping from one spot to another to document the latest Zuccotti Park happenings. He wasn’t very warmly received at first, he said; but before long, he began to win their trust, cultivating a network of sources and characters as the days went on.
Breslin and his crew (including a cameraman whose enthusiasm wasn’t dampened by a recent surgery for advanced thyroid cancer) went down to Zuccotti Park and the surrounding streets every day. They filmed the marches, the placards, the protest songs, the drum circles, the banalities of park life, and the anger and frustration of the assembled. But most of all, they filmed the people who were filming, both those who were on assignment for some TV network or another (CNN, Fox News, NY1, Russia Today), and those who were simply shooting from their smart phones because they felt like the real reporters were misrepresenting them.
“People have the power to tell stories that beforehand, only large institutions could tell,” an Occupy organizer and former New York City teacher named Justin Wedes says in the film. “I don’t need a press pass, brother. I am a citizen journalist.”
Another of Breslin's stars is Jesse LaGreca, the protester who got feisty with a Fox News reporter in a segment that never aired on the network, but was filmed by an onlooker and leaked to the press on Oct. 3.
"It’s fun to talk to the propaganda machine of the media, especially conservative media networks such as yourself, because we find that we can't get conversations for the Department of Justice’s ongoing investigation of News Corporation, for which you are an employee," LaGreca says in the exchange, which made it into the film, "but we can certainly ask questions like, you know, why are the poor engaging in class warfare?"
Speaking with Breslin about #whilewewatch, there’s no mistaking his admiration for the people in it. (“Did you ever know anybody who slept in a park in the rain and snow, dead broke, with no power, and still got an idea out to the world?”) Or that he supports the spirit of the thing. (“When you listen to them, you’d have to be deaf, dumb and blind to say they’re not legitimate, or that you don’t support the issues they’re espousing.”)
But Breslin’s documentary includes something that his subjects’ accounts probably do not: A keen skepticism for propaganda, even in the service of a movement he supports.
“Of course they’re putting their own spin on it,” Daily News metro editor Ian Bishop says in an interview that's part of the film. “They’re less ‘media’ than they are like a P.R. department. I mean that’s what they are. They’re championing their issue, making it look good. They’re almost like a religious missionary. They’ve so bought into it and they’re just espousing their message. And any questioning of it, and challenging of it, or getting the other story to it, which we have to do, they’re not happy with.”
Breslin sought participation from the city’s other dailies, too. Col Allan, editor-in-chief of The New York Post (whose Occupy Wall Street coverage was about as aggressive and skeptical as it gets), ignored his requests, Breslin said. As did several journalists from the New York Times metro desk, he said. (A spokeswoman for the Post did not respond to a request for comment; a Times spokeswoman declined to comment.)
He did, however, land what some journalists who cover 1 Police Plaza would surely consider a coup: A 40-minute on-the-record interview with Paul Browne, the police department’s often laconic press liaison, whose email inbox Breslin bombarded until a filmed sit-down was agreed to.
“You’ll see a lot of the camera work that’s submitted by protesters and advocates [doesn’t] show everything,” says Browne in the film. “They’ll cut out, like, our announcements to leave or face arrests.”
Following Browne’s quote, Breslin gives an example of such selective editing, showing a visibly agitated protester ignoring police warnings to vacate a tent. The frame prior to Browne’s comment shows footage of the same young protester being pinned to the ground by several officers, screaming that he can’t breathe because he is having an asthma attack while other demonstrators film the incident with their phones.
“This is going everywhere!” one of them yells at the cops.
Breslin enlisted some of his contacts to shoot footage like this when no one from his production crew was around.
“We had people coming in with new footage all the time,” said Karen Brown, the film’s associate producer. “It was fast and furious for a solid few weeks.”
The system proved particularly useful on Nov. 15, the day Zuccotti Park was cleared by police before the sun came up. That morning, working journalists were restricted from observing the raid. But Breslin’s plants managed to capture some rare close-ups.
“We had two cameras going,” he said.
Alas, he stopped shadowing the Occupiers after the raid and the ensuing melee that transpired over the next two days.
"I was trying to find everybody," he said. "For a couple of days it was very scattered. And then one by one people started calling me back. 'Hey Kev, I'm in Buffalo. I'm in Santa Cruz. I'm in Washington D.C. I'm in Brooklyn. Everybody was somewhere else."
He’ll reunite with some of them at tonight’s screening, which will also include a panel discussion and Q-and-A with cast members. The event will be live-streamed here.
Next? There’s the 2012 film fest circuit, which Breslin hopes will include stops at South by Southwest, Nashville and Berlin.
“If we sell it, hallelujah,” said Breslin. “I don’t care about the money aspect of selling this. I do certainly care about it being seen. That’s the most important issue. You ain’t making money of off something like this. But you are spreading a story.”
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