Our thanks to Maria Hernandez, reporter for The Envoy at Hunter College
On Feb 3, the City University Film Festival at Macaulay kicked off with a screening of 10 short documentaries on the Occupy movement. Drawing from the work of students across CUNY, the festival brings together student filmmakers, professors, and the public to watch and discuss some of the most fascinating work emerging from the City University of New York.
Nick Shimkin, the artistic director of CUFF, organized the event, saying “This was a chance to present strong student work in advance of our upcoming festival in March, and also give greater exposure to some of the amazing and inspired film and media coming from Occupy Wall street, a lot of which has been made by CUNY filmmakers.”
The program opened with a brief talk by Martin Lucas of the IMA-MFA program, who discussed the ways in which the media has followed and catalyzed international conversations about OWS. He cited the mimetic aspect of certain images, such as the pepper spraying incident at UC Davis this past November and videos of the student protests at Baruch. According to Lucas, the various media that have proliferated around Occupy Wall Street have produced both a historical and aesthetic framing of the events.
This framing is especially compelling in the context of student activism in New York City, where films such as Gabi Kozak’s timely and insightful CUNY: Tuition Despite Its Mission raise core issues facing academic communities by interviewing members of CUNY faculty, staff, and administration.
Issues surrounding education at all levels were a dominant theme of the evening. Alex Mallis’s Occupy CUNY showcased discussions amongst the occupiers about issues like the controversial supervision of Muslim students by the NYPD, public-private partnerships, adjunct healthcare, tuition hikes, and a question many students have started asking: who exactly is on the Board of Trustees?
Perhaps the most poignant moment of the night was the final sequence of Meerkat Media Collective’s Occupy the D.O.E., in which an 8-year-old girl leads a mic-check at a meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy and states her list of demands for a better school: smaller classes, more teachers and aids, more art classes, and fewer standardized tests.
Several of the films shown were documentaries of OWS in general, including Month One, which offered a day-by-day look at the first month of the movement. The short film quickly follows the development of the occupation, highlights pivotal moments, and showcases the opinions of various occupiers. The film closed with the now-famous speech by Sgt. Shamar Thomas to the NYPD in Times Square, criticizing violent tactics used in response to peaceful protestors.
Altogether, the showing was cohesive in a number of respects. Aesthetically, the passage of time, from day into night, was used powerfully and differently by each filmmaker. Often set in Zuccotti Park, with a ubiquitous soundtrack of original music from the park itself, the films flowed into one another with a crowded electricity and a dash of nostalgia. They illuminated the nature of occupation, as in the brief and lovely tour of Liberty Square in Right Here All Over by Lily Henderson and Alex Mallis. Martha Colburn’s Student Strike in Solidarity with Occupy Wall St., by contrast, conveys the energy of the marches in a montage of busy, time-lapsed shots and a few dazzling aerial shots without a single word spoken. The film plays like a music video, backed by the wild drums of Zuccotti Park.
By far, the dominant theme across all ten films is the sense of inclusivity that comes from the roots of the movement. These documentaries highlight the non-hierarchical sharing and collaboration inherent in OWS. There are no central characters, and some shorts draw from footage shot by various people at occupations across the nation. Meerkat Media’s Consensus opens with the “human mic” in Washington Square Park and goes on to explore the consensus-based direct democracy featured in the Occupy movement.
The passion for the material shows in the works. Messiah Rhodes offers an example of the commitment these filmmakers have in exposing political realities. His interest in documenting the current popular unrest began long before the Occupy movement, and he has toured occupations around the United States, volunteering his talents as a documentarian. It is this earnest eye for political projects that fills up his Vimeo account. CUFF screened his film Mayor 13%, whose title comes from a frightening statistic reported by the State Education Department last summer: only 13% of black students in NYC are ready for college when they enter it. The film investigates educational policy and student experiences in order to shed light on the nature and ramifications of this statistic. Rhodes is just one of the many artists to keep an eye on.
-Maria Hernandez, The Hunter Envoy