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Sundance 2012: An Occupy movement (sort of) takes hold

January 29, 2012 |  4:57 pm

Occupy protesters
On a snowy day last week in Park City, Utah, about 10 activists outfitted in costumes such as the Statue of Liberty and a Boston Patriot materialized in the parking lot of a Wells Fargo outside the city's Old Town. The Sundance Film Festival was taking place, and there was no better place for Occupy-style activists to deliver their message to the 1%.

The flash mob burst into a waiting area on the bank's ground-floor offices and began chanting "Pay your taxes, Wells Fargo" and "We are the 99%," marching in a small circle before reading a list of Occupy tenets.
 
The scene went on for about five minutes as employees and customers looked on. Then a branch manager came out of his office and asked them to leave. They agreed, and the protest moved to the corner of a busy intersection where snow was driving pretty hard. A policeman used tape to cordon off an area, keeping a stoic face as one of the protesters tried to give him a quick primer on the prison-industrial complex. 

The protesters started up the chants again. Cars passed by — some drivers honking in solidarity, others waving their middle fingers.

"We feel that way about you too," activist Justin Kramer yelled back when given the bird. Then he turned to a reporter and said, "That doesn't seem like a good way to go about it. At Marmot [a clothing and equipment store on the city's Main Street] they put out a sign that said, 'Hey Occupy people, we're hiring.' His voice took on a rueful tone. "It's nice when they at least try to be creative."

Though filled with glitz and celebrity, the Sundance Film Festival, which wraps Sunday, has been a minor bed of activism over the past 10 days. In addition to the protests — several others were held on Main Street during the festival — director Jonathan Demme came to the Slamdance Film Festival (held in Park City concurrent with Sundance) and screened a short he shot at the Occupy Wall Street protests in October.

The effect of these events was to create an unusual contrast: inside the city's high-end restaurants, fine food and wine were being consumed by some of the entertainment world's richest and most influential people. On streets and screens, however, were persistent reminders of the economically disadvantaged, a juxtaposition we explore in this Times story. (Other films included the documentary "Detropia" and the corporate-tax investigation "We're Not Broke," the latter of which some of the Wells Fargo protesters were affiliated with.)

The activists explained why Sundance was an ideal forum for their message. “What were trying to do is reach the 1%, and there’s no better place to do that in Park City during Sundance,” said Kramer, 28, a Salt Lake City resident who has been active in the local Occupy movement.
 
The protesters said they had chosen Wells Fargo, they said, because of the low taxes the company paid, and generally thought Park City was a good choice because of the concentration of high-end brands “There are so many corporate sponsors here during the film festival,” said Kira Elliott, 29, an activist from Chicago. “We’d be crazy to be anywhere else.”

Demme's short, "Hyptnotic Fierce Drum Circle," was shot Oct. 15, and the title sums it up well: It captures dozens of percussionists — black, white, asian, male, female, young, old — plus people playing horns, whistles, guitars and cymbals. Without a conductor, they somehow improvise a melodic cacophony.

In an interview the day after the screening, Demme, who lives in New York, said initially intended to go check out the Occupy Wall Street protest for about an hour. "I was obliged to go down there," he recalled. "I've been complaining for years about the lack of a protest generation." 

He stayed for an hour and then another, and then another, and then when he started to leave, a march started coming his way, so he stayed longer.

After his first visit, he and collaborator Shane Bissett, 25, returned a dozen times and shot footage at Zucotti Park and of other Occupy-related activities. They estimate they've collected more than 40 hours of footage, including some one-one-one interviews with individual protesters.

Their primary interest has been putting footage on the Internet, Demme said. "The premise is that if more people know what Occupy was really about — how positive it is — more poeple would join. So we've been supporting that as outsiders."

But they are also intending to go back and shoot more footage focusing on the stories of individual protesters. Ultimately, Demme said, they may cut together a couple of hours into a longer film (though he's also busy now trying to get two long-gestating projects, the animated "Zeitoun" and the adaptation of the Stephen King novel "11/22/63"). "People of my generation, the hippie generation," he said, "have been waiting for this."

You can check out another of Demme's Occupy shorts below:

 

RELATED:

Sundance Film Festival: A lavish scene for on-screen struggles

Sundance 2012: Is 'Arbitrage' this year's 'Margin Call?'

Sundance 2012: Queen of Versailles keenly eyes the rich and struggling

Photo: Occupy protesters outside a Wells Fargo in Park City, Utah. Credit: Steven Zeitchik.

 

— Steven Zeitchik and Julie Makinen


 
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