Like a good movie house, a movie column worth the price of admission ought to offer a feature presentation, some short subjects, a musical performance and maybe (to cushion the Depression’s blows) a raffle for a set of dishes. I can’t do anything about the dishes; the music I leave to you. But with gratitude to the IFC Center in New York City, I start this column with a newsreel—several, in fact. On October 26 IFC began opening all its shows with a brief documentary by Jem Cohen—a different one each week, for five weeks in a row—rushed to the screen from the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park.
Strictly speaking, the first two of these newsreels were rushed from Midtown, where Cohen recorded the main local event of the October 15 Global Day of Action. Newsreel No. 1 begins on the subway, with images of the young members of an Occupy Wall Street affinity group crowded together as they ride into Manhattan. The scene shifts to the sidewalk outside the New York Public Library’s main branch, which served as an assembly point for the day. Shots of relaxed and amiable demonstrators greeting one another and chatting on the steps alternate with pictures of police officers at the ready. (The camera lingers on the strands of plastic handcuffs dangling from one officer’s belt.) Then, with an abrupt shift, the newsreel moves into Times Square for views of the rally.
Cohen makes much of the contrast between the immense, smooth, shimmering corporate advertisements in Times Square (such as a crawl-letter display of financial news) and the human-scale, handmade signs carried by the demonstrators. The former are shown in screen-filling close-up, so they swallow all context; the latter appear in the hands of figures captured in medium and long shots to emphasize not only the impressive number of protesters but also their sociability. They patiently shuffle along, penned in by the police but maintaining a calm demeanor, as they apparently go nowhere but actually make good on the French term for a demonstration: they manifest themselves. No doubt that’s why you see so many of them photographing one another or taking videos of the mass they’re in, just as Cohen was doing.
Newsreel No. 1 has no voiceover narration and no intelligible talk—a trait that mostly holds true for the other films as well. In the fifth newsreel, shot at Zuccotti Park, you see moments from a group discussion (one of the General Assemblies) and hear a few snatches of the speeches. In the fourth, recorded on a rainy day and evening, excerpts of cable-news remarks by Eric Cantor and Herman Cain overlie the images at the end: shots of the financial district’s towers disappearing in the mist, and of demonstrators on the ground getting drenched under their plastic ponchos, accompanied by the sound of the politicians’ warnings of a growing, destructive mob. Apart from these exceptions, Cohen’s newsreels are free of argument and commentary. You see whatever was available to be seen—the makeshift medical dispensary and library at Zuccotti Park, people producing silk-screened shirts, a demonstrator tidying up the site, a middle-aged man sitting alone and pondering the situation—as you listen to a complex but nondirective soundtrack, designed with the help of musician Guy Picciotto. Until the end of each newsreel, you don’t even get a title to identify what you’ve been witnessing. You’re more or less thrown in and asked to perceive.
More or less—because Cohen’s newsreels are too patently structured to be mistaken for a mere assemblage of actualities, and too well composed, shot by shot. All the same, they remain reportorial in purpose and immediate in effect. I can imagine no better match for the strategic spontaneity of Occupy Wall Street.