We the People: Documentary Filmmakers Capture the Power of Protest

A still from Karin Hayes and Victoria Bruce’s ‘We’re Not Broke.’

Bridgette Bates

Editor’s note: This story was originally published after the 2012 Festival in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street Movement and the Arab Spring. We’re republishing it this week as we witness the power of protests and activism to combat the systemic racism that has long plagued our country and its criminal justice system. There is still much work to be done.

The Arab Spring, global warming, and the ninety-nine percent are buzzing in the mass consciousness. In fact, the mass consciousness in itself is buzzing—never before has our world been so hyper-aware of such widespread unrest. And never before have we been so desperate to find solutions to make a better world.

This surge to create positive change in society is reflected in quite a few documentaries in the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, many of which offer inspirational stories of people who change history and provide insight into how these activists achieve change.

“We really have something to learn from each of these stories,” says Caroline Libresco, a senior Festival programmer. “Each one has a different set of tools, approaches, and historical and cultural circumstances that determine the different responses.”

While several of the films look back on activism from a historical perspective, most focus on the present. Chronicling crises in the environment, health, human rights, and the economy—together, these docs craft an evolutionary story of activism on a global scale.

“These films feel particularly potent because they exist as a reflection of what is happening all around us,” explains Libresco, who has never witnessed such a broad sense of urgency in the documentary lineup. “These stories aren’t coming out of nowhere. They are very specific to a time and a consciousness we are living in now.”


Mark Kitchell’s ‘A Fierce Green Fire’

Beginning with early conservation activities of the 1960s, Mark Kitchell’s A Fierce Green Fire frames the environmental movement in five acts. Kitchell is a self-proclaimed Berkeley radical who was captivated by activism even before he made the Academy Award–nominated film Berkeley in the Sixties.

His film was inspired by the realization that what was missing from the history of environmental films was a piece that tied it all together. “I knew what I was doing was the first big-picture synthesis,” he says of his new documentary. “I was going to have to leave things out and tie things together.”

Berkeley in the Sixties covers the full scope of this epic: the Sierra Club’s fight against damming the Grand Canyon, Love Canal, the birth of Green Peace and saving the oceans, the rise of Chico Mendes’s following to preserve the Amazon, and present-day climate change.

The portrayal of each movement is especially fascinating as Kitchell captures the process by which everyday people become agitators for their cause. When you think of Love Canal, do you think of housewives holding EPA agents hostage? The film is not simply about the outcomes, but rather shows how individuals developed evolving strategies over time to fight back.

“We all want to deliver the solutions, but it has to be within the context of movements,” Kitchell says. “There’s a theme running through the film about how far you go and how radical you are—whether you put your body on the line or get arrested or whether you move from trying to save a place to trying to save the whole world.”


David France’s film ‘How to Survive a Plague’

While Kitchell’s film provides a broad overview, David France’s How to Survive a Plague narrows its focus onto one specific movement’s groundbreaking advances, many of which were captured on video.

“One of the interesting facts about AIDS is that HIV and the camcorder are about the same age. They both came to the market 30 years ago,” remarks France, who began reporting from the sidelines of the AIDS movement in the 1980s. “People were dying left and right, and their deaths were going unremarked.”

One of the interesting facts about AIDS is that HIV and the camcorder are about the same age.

—David France

There was a dire need for the activists to document their movement. And his film, which he describes as “a story about activism shot by activists,” unveils over 800 hours of archival footage. “I wanted to explore how people affected by AIDS responded to AIDS,” France recalls. While so much of what we’ve seen before is about the tragedy of the AIDS story, this film shows how people worked together to create change and the ingenuity of their efforts.

Among the AIDS activists he follows in the Act Up movement is the Treatment Action Group, which pioneered the way for scientific breakthroughs.

“How do you go from knowing what you don’t want to engaging people with what you do want?” France asks.

None of the activists came from a science background yet they learned the language and did the research in order to protest and eventually work with the government and drug companies to transform the way healthcare is delivered and regulations are practiced.

“You think that taking on economic injustice is too global and too enormous? Well, how about trying to be the first people to wrestle a virus?” says France, whose film shows how the accomplishments of audacious individuals who formed a collective movement created massive widespread change. “It is possible to take on an enormous problem and do something about it.”


Ai Weiwei in Alison Klayman’s ‘Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry’

As How to Survive a Plague intimately reflects on a single movement, another film intimately portrays a single person who is making headlines today. Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry looks at the makings of a dissident artist—from growing up the son of an exiled poet, to gaining international accolades as a political artist and activist, to being detained without charges for over 80 days in a Chinese prison.

Klayman, who worked as a journalist in China, captured many private moments with the very public Ai to show how his politics, art, and identity are wholly intertwined. Through his much-read blog (which was shut down by the Chinese government) and Twitter (in a country that blocks Twitter), he has reached millions around the world.

You can’t just say the system is flawed. You have to work through it and show it’s flawed.

—Ai Weiwei

“There wasn’t another side—what was there was true compassion, and he believes he has a responsibility,” says Klayman. “He has a megaphone, so he’ll use it.”

Ai began to garner more attention when he protested that China was using the 2008 Beijing Olympics to glorify its party; but it was his response to the Sichuan earthquake later that year that catapulted his popularity. Outraged by the government’s lack of transparency in reporting the earthquake’s death toll, Ai took it upon himself to collect the names of the children killed.

In addition to creating an installation project called “So Sorry,” constructed of thousands of children’s backpacks, Ai memorialized the dead by publishing the 5,000 names on his blog. “You can’t just say a system is flawed,” Ai says in the film. “You have to work through it and show it’s flawed.”

Ai is currently under investigation by the Chinese government, and it remains unclear if and what charges will be filed against him. “He is invited to Sundance, and he’s not allowed to come. How many other films have that problem?” Klayma asked.

Klayman has mixed feelings about her film’s premiere, but she is hopeful that the platform Sundance provides will help raise international awareness about Ai’s art and his plight in order to strengthen his case. She is also hopeful Ai will serve as a conduit to help audiences better understand China.

“It’s not an anti-China message,” she says of her film. “It’s about the incredible diversity of opinion and vitality of creativity that exists in China.”


Omar Shargawi and Karim El Hakim’s ‘1/2 Revolution’

The dramatic effects of a country uncensored to the world have rarely been as poignant as was the live footage from the Egyptian uprising.

Almost one year ago, directors Omar Shargawi and Karim El Hakim found themselves documenting the beginnings of a revolution. “We knew something would happen in Egypt after the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia and decided to film whatever may happen—for history’s sake at the very least,” says El Hakim, describing the genesis of their visceral film, ½ Revolution. “I kept my camera batteries charged and ready.”

The filmmakers, along with a group of friends and family, hunkered down in El Hakim ’s apartment near Tahrir Square to witness the events as they unfolded. “Suddenly on Police Day, January 25, 2011,” recalls the filmmaker, “a call was made on the Internet for all Egyptians to take to the streets to protest against police brutality and Mubarak’s 30-year dictatorship.”

Initially the filmmakers were surprised by the bold mobilization against Mubarak and the passive reaction of the police, but the police became increasingly aggressive. “We ended up getting grabbed and beaten and arrested and later released on the edge of the desert at four in the morning,” describes El Hakim. “We were lucky they had no idea we had been filming or even that we had cameras in our pockets!” There was no turning back. Armed with their cameras, they returned to the epicenter of the protests each day.

Because Facebook and YouTube helped to launch the uprising, the government quickly shut down the internet and mobile phones. However, that plan backfired. “We simply went out into the street to see what was happening and get word-of-mouth news,” says El Hakim, who insists it wasn’t technology that made the Egyptian Revolution, but rather “good old-fashioned people power in the streets.”

If it wasn’t for the proliferation of cameras and brave individuals wielding them, perhaps events would have turned out differently in Egypt and elsewhere.

—Karim El Hakim

For El Hakim, the thousands of cameras held by protestors had the biggest impact on history. “International public opinion continues to be a powerful force in effecting political outcomes,” he says. “And if it wasn’t for the proliferation of cameras and brave individuals wielding them, perhaps events would have turned out differently in Egypt and elsewhere.”

As cameras became a considerable weapon against the police state, so did the overwhelming number of people uniting for the same mission. “People banded together instantly to help each other, offer vinegar (to counteract the gas), or onions to clean ones eyes with.”


Karin Hayes and Victoria Bruce’s ‘We’re Not Broke’

The power of people to assemble is equally central to Karin Hayes and Victoria Bruce’s We’re Not Broke, which confronts issues of inequality in America’s economy. And, in this case, social media and the internet play a pivotal and ongoing role in the events they documented. As originally conceived, the film was to be an exposé on corporate tax loopholes, but quickly became a human story.

“We were doing a lot of interviews and a friend forwarded me an article in The Nation about a group called U.K. Uncut,” Hayes recalls, “a group that started to protest big corporations who were not paying taxes in the U.K.” She was interested in their creative tactics, “like turning a bank into a hospital to highlight the fact that social services were being cut.” Through an online search she found there was a U.S. Uncut starting up, so the filmmakers reached out.

They began to document many activities of U.S Uncut in 2011. The group was highly organized through social media, and even the filmmakers benefitted from the tech savvy of the members. If the filmmakers couldn’t make it to Hawaii for a protest, an Uncut member would film for them.

Bruce not only thought they had found their story, she also thought they had discovered their ending. Uncut had slowed down, but the people felt a satisfaction in sparking a grassroots effort. The filmmakers shot what was supposed to be their wrap interview in August 2011. Seventeen days later, the first Occupy Wall Street protest took place.

This movie shows that things can change. … You can’t say that things can’t change when people demand it.

—Victoria Bruce

“I had a feeling the revolution was coming,” says Bruce, who now sees OWS as the new mobilization, “The idea of economic equality can’t be stopped.” Hayes, who lives in New York City, grabbed her camera and went down to the first Wall Street protest and started filming.

Although the long-term trajectory of this movement is unclear, Bruce is optimistic. “This movie shows that things can change,” she says. “We used to have slavery in this country, child labor, women didn’t have the right to vote. You can’t say that things can’t change when people demand it.”

As we have spent the last year consumed by the media’s coverage of protests across the world, these films have the power to reach audiences at a time when we are acutely attuned to the potential to disrupt the status quo. Outrage, inspiration, and ‘liking’ these films on Facebook may all be part of the audience reaction.

However, Kitchell doesn’t think docs are meant to be sounding-calls to act on any given issue. “Film works in a more complex and deeper way and it gets people looking at issues and thinking about issues,” he says. “I want to give you a lot to think about, but I’m not so foolish to think I’m going to change your mind and get you out there. That’s up to you.”


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