This may the best documentary to date on the Occupy Wall Street movement, especially for one that explores the fundamental concerns of the movement. Some documentaries have focused more on questions of tactics or process—which are of key importance, but may be of greater interest to those who are already activists. Instead, American Autumn focuses on a variety of issues that cropped-up repeatedly throughout Occupy’s short history, including police brutality, housing inequality, unemployment, environmental devastation and hydraulic fracking of the Canadian Tar Sands, and the corporate influence upon elections (represented best by the Citizens United legal decision). For outsiders looking to understand Occupy, this is likely the most accessible documentary.
The graphical style and design is compelling, including words printed on the screen as the narrator gives polemical speeches. The best example is a critique of the usually unperceived irony of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street movie, in which the stock broker criminal Gordon Gecko gives his infamous “green is good speech”—the film responds forcefully saying: “Fuck you, Gordon Gecko!”. There is a pleasant selection of music to accompany these sequences and the rest of the film. And, of course, this reviewer was pleased and excited to hear (count ’em) two Fugazi songs. While interviewees talk, there is ample footage of protesters—either bearing signs or grappling with police lines in riot porn-esque fashion. Some of these interviewees are immediately recognizable, such as Michael Moore and probably Cornel West. To the more activist-oriented audience member, they may notice Medea Benjamin or Carl Dix. Few, except his kindred professionals, may identify Todd Gitlin (who appears with discomforting, swaggering bravado) as a sociologist.
Problematically, however, there are far too many male voices throughout. Many minutes-worth of interviewees proceed by before the first woman appears. For those with any experience with Occupy, this will seem odd, since there was often evenly-balanced gender participation, even over female-representation amongst organizers. Apparently (and unsurprising) progressive men (and male documentary directors) still like to hear themselves talk at greater rates than their women comrades. It was also strange to see so many sectarian socialists appear (especially the entry-ist Revolutionary Communist Party); this is equally odd given how small their role was in Occupy. The sizable anarchist contribution seems completely (but predictably) absent.
In terms of activist strategy, American Autumn focuses heavily (maybe even obsessing over) those who disrupt official government meetings and get arrested. There is no discussion of general assemblies or consensus decision making, or the use of cascading protest tactics to swarm and swamp city streets and law enforcement. Unfortunately, some footage in the film will be unintelligible to those who are unfamiliar with Occupy (or who possess poor long-term memory), such as the police violence against veteran Scott Olson in Oakland or the then-infamous pepper-spraying of women who were corralled in New York City. To many, these scenes would make more sense if they were explained as some of the key moments that helped to turn public opinion toward Occupy, that also radicalized the movement itself.
But, for a documentary that explores the topical issues that Occupy tended to concern itself with, this film gives a fair, albeit often progressive more than radical, representation of the movement. While there are some curious editing choices and a Michael Moore-ish director who has integrated himself (and his two arrests) into the story of Occupy, it does help to correct key myths about the movement and present it in an attractive light, while spending ample time discussing inequality and injustice in America.
Topics: social movements, social class, social change, inequality