Audrey Ewell and Aaron Aites, the team behind 99 Percent: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film, initially attempted to adopt a filmmaking model as decentralized as the Occupy movement itself. However, the pair soon discovered that the consensus decision process is as complicated for directing films as it is for orienting political movements.
“It just didn’t work. We couldn’t get anything done,” Ewell tells Rolling Stone. “At least with the Occupiers, [they] were in one physical space together. We didn’t even have that; we had an email list with hundreds of emails.”
99 Percent, which premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival, began to form after Ewell and Aites grew interested in the movement after the October arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge. “I was watching the live stream when they started to cattle them and started arresting them. I turned on the TV, and there was nothing,” recalls Ewell. “There are like a thousand people being arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City in broad daylight and that’s not news.”
So the filmmakers, who previously made Until the Light Takes Us – a 2009 documentary on black metal – went to lower Manhattan and began shooting. ”We had three rules when we started the film,” Ewell says. “The first rule was that anybody was welcome and that meant any perspective, any skill level, any format. But we couldn’t get anything done.”
To move the process forward, the pair created an outline to add structure and adopted leadership positions. Many Occupiers were reportedly frustrated with this shift and left the project as a result, but Ewell explains that the decision felt necessary. “It was actually possible to make a movie this way, still having the collaborative process and many people’s voices, but we had to do a 180 from where we started on consensus.” The result was a national filmmaking network with four directors, five co-directors and more than 100 contributors divided regionally who regularly uploaded footage to a daisy-chain of hard-drives crisscrossing the country.
The documentary chronicles the movement with on-the-ground footage, protestor interviews and perspectives from commentators including Naomi Wolf and Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi. ”We’d set up these maps basically of where people were and how much they’d shot at that point because we couldn’t wait until the end to collect, so we were constantly swapping out hard drives,” Ewell explains. Eventually, each director prepared a segment of the film and Ewell and Aites went back over their pre-edit.
“It felt very much like this parallel experiment really was paralleling the movement,” Ewell says in retrospect. ”[Occupy] was so intent on having their voices heard, but they took it to such an extreme. What we found was that you didn’t have to give up, you didn’t have to abandon hierarchy and structure. You could still have that and, in fact, that would facilitate more voices being heard because the structure would be there to create space for those voices.”