On the eve of Occupy Love’s world premiere, The Extraenvironmentalist interviews producer Ian MacKenzie on the journey of the film, his take on the Occupy movement, and why it’s the greatest love story on earth.
EXTRAENVIRONMENTALIST: Ian Mackenzie thanks for joining us, from the Toronto Artscape where you are editing down the final cut of Occupy Love for the Vancouver National Film Festival on October the 4th. If you can start out by telling us what the idea was when you started making the film. Were you just going around to all of these different Occupy sites as this was starting last year, and saying, you know we need to make a film or how did it really get started?
IAN: Well it’s interesting because the journey actually started 12 years ago, and just to be clear my role with the film is producer. I’ve been involved with a fair amount of the shoots themselves including a number of the interviews and shooting the Occupy movements and but prior to that working with the film’s director Velcrow Ripper, who’s a well-known Canadian director, and this film is actually the third and probably final chapter of his trilogy; which actually began in 1999 when he started shooting his film Scared Sacred which was his journey to all his ground zeros of the world.
He went to Hiroshima, he went to New York after 9/11, he went to the site of the Bhopal disaster in India. And he really wanted to figure out, you know ask people, and learn from them: what was the silver lining of these horrific incidents. The central question is how does suffering transform into compassion? That film, released in 2004, it won some awards; it did quite well. He followed it up with a second film which was called Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action.
And that film was actually the evolution of the previous film because it was sort of asking the question, what…People that are sort of activated and activists, and artists and these you know inspiring people what motivates them? Like where do they draw their power from? What pulls them to be active and change the world, in ways that they can? And he spoke with another, you know fascinating people, Desmond Tutu, Dharma punk Noah Lavine and LA. And Julia Butterfly Hill who sat in the Redwood tree for like two years to protect it from being cut down. So all these like fascinating people and you’re wondering, why do they do what they do? And how do they manage to fuel this activism? So that was the second film.
And the third film actually came to Occupy Love. And Velcrow actually had been shooting scenes, sort of following the trail of what he thought was going on in the world from 2009. So he had actually just been collecting footage from different spiritual teachers and activists. He was in Bolivia shooting, just trying to figure out, if you could look at the trilogy again as sort of a past, present, and future, where are we going as a species? What if all of us became spiritual activists? What would that look like?
And so the film itself had been in this stage of just sort of collecting. It wasn’t until Velcrow actually moved to Brooklyn a week before Occupy actually happened in September 2011. At the time it was kind of an interesting call to go down to Wall Street, you know bring a tent. So we went down there, and started shooting and immediately he actually felt that something was different. You know he’s been at activist events all over the world for years and years and years. And he said that this one, there was something different about it and he couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but it had a different energetic presences. The people he met there, like the workshops they were putting on, they had like a meditation area. This was at Zucotti Park.
And the signs even themselves, it’s hard to describe, but the typical sort of activist energy around it seemed to be grounded into something different. And so he actually called me like two days after he started shooting, and he said, “Hey, can you register the domain Occupy Love?”
I was like, “Really why?”
He said, “I don’t know. I just have a feeling.”
And because he wanted to just document the thread that he saw, of this sort of grounded energy of the Occupy Movement. And not even necessarily for the film per say. But he just felt like he wanted to start sharing it with others. And it wasn’t long before he realized, like this is the actual unfolding that we had been looking for, for years, prior to the actual thing happening. And of course he followed it all the way to the eviction, the first eviction, and that being has become the back bone of this new film, Occupy Love.
EX: That’s a fascinating story. So what’s your background in this whole movement here? And how’d you get… and how’d you come on board here as producer?
My first film, my first feature was called, One Week Job, which was about a friend of mine who traveled around the world doing 52 jobs a year, cause he wanted to find his passion. And after I finished that project in 2010 I was looking around at what project I could do next, and I heard that Velcrow was doing his third film of this trilogy. And I had seen his two films, I had been quite inspired by his work, and this intersection between spirituality and activism had always intrigued me. And so I actually went to a workshop that he was putting on in downtown Vancouver. And after the workshop the group of us went for some beers. And I got to chatting with him, and you know I learned that he was doing a third film, and he wasn’t quite sure what it was about, per say – yet.
But I asked him, “Can I be involved?” And he said, “Sure.” In the kind a way, you know, he gets asked a fair bit; the type of work he does inspires a lot of people, so he gets a lot of people saying, “How can we help?”but then often they either drop away or they get busy. So you know you sort of wait and see approach. But then he went off and started shooting again. And I just kept emailing him until he said, “Okay, this guy really wants to help and is willing to stick it out.”
So I ended up going with him to shoot at the Alberta Tar Sands; that was actually our first shoot together. And it’s actually become a key scene in the film. And we were shooting a peace walk by the local indigenous group there. And that was my first time shooting with him, and we meshed well on the ground. And he felt that we’re a good team, so I ended up sticking around and really becoming more of a key member I feel in the film; to the point where he felt – I initially came on as an intern and a little while into the film he said, “You know what? You’re not an intern. You’re…What about a producer? Because that’s really more fitting to the role you have.”
And I said, “Sure that sounds good.” So that’s how I became where I’m at now.
EX: And so the Occupy movement has evolved very rapidly, and that’s what was so amazing about it; watching it unfold last year. Suddenly it’s like in a matter of a few weeks it sprung up everywhere; so because it was such an evolving, rapidly moving uprising in so many different places, and as it’s evolved over time with all of the evictions and now more actions that are happening, how did you capture the evolution of the movement as you’re making the film? Because when you’re making a film you have to set an end date. Like this is when we’re going to the editing floor. Could you talk a little bit about that process?
Well you’re right because with these types of movements, it’s like life, like any documentation. Like when do we know we’re done? We’ll end the film here. It’s really hard to know even if you’re talking about a particular character for a documentary, even if it’s an event. It’s hard to know when you’re quote, done and can get into the editing room and craft the film. Well I think there is an arc or you could call it an ebb and a flow of everything. Whether it is in life or it is say a movement. And I think we felt for the purposes of the film that the ebb and the flow made sense to follow into what was sort of the natural tension I guess, when the authorities in New York finally decided to evict the occupiers out of the park. And it was sort of the biggest shift in the movement obviously from its inception, when it started out in the park, certainly there had been threats along the way. But it wasn’t until that actual eviction that it felt like there’s a transition in what the movement’s about and where the movement’s going and this and that. So that provides sort of a natural point of reflection in the film itself too. And also as a documentary you know filmmaker you need…you need to be able to say, “Okay, we can always keep shooting. But what story are we trying to tell?”
And that’s where we know, do we have enough to tell that story? And when you do, that’s when you get down in the edit room and say okay we have to craft a film. Often you get caught up in trying to continue to document. You can fall into the trap as a filmmaker or documentary filmmaker, of thinking that you’re like a news journalist, where you have to pump out ongoing coverage all the time. And it’s important I think that a news journalist and say a documentary are kind of different things. One is actually about on-going coverage of something say, as it unfolds, say the live sort of presentation of what’s going on. But then a documentary is more what I would consider about reflection and crafting a story around a movement or person.
EX: So I wanted to explore the name of the film, Occupy Love. Like you say there’s so many stories that are actually happening right here on the ground creating new narratives. Why did you guys choose to focus on the love aspect of this? And how can that…how did that shape that film itself?One of Velcrow’s central questions in the film that he’d been asking even prior to the occupy movement was, we’re facing all these crisis around the world you know whether it’s envirormental, economic you know, in many ways as a previous guest you’ve had on Charles Eisenstein “it’s not just peak oil it’s peak everything.” And so the central question that Velcrow’s asking is, how can these crises that we’re seeing be seen as a love story?
It takes people aback when they first hear it because you don’t usually apply that term to what’s going on. Where there’s crisis or whether it’s a breakdown of the economic system, you don’t think about love. What we realized is we had to look at, what is love actually? What does love mean to people when it’s stripped of Hallmark definitions of love? Or love that’s sort of an infatuation that’s pushed by say advertising. You know when you love something it just means you desire it, you desire to purchase it, or own it, these types of things. So we really have to strip back sort of say, what actually is love?
And we realized both through the process of the film and being in the movements themselves, that love is a form of active interdependence. Love is a verb it’s something you actually have to express. And it comes out in your behaviours, how you build a community. And that’s something we certainly experienced very much at Occupy certainly Occupy Vancouver; where the circumstances certainly of trying to exist right, with the tensions of the authorities, and the general people not understanding you, or the mainstream media painting a certain picture of you. Those pressures created an instant community where people actually had to depend on each other to find food, find shelter and help each other. So that itself is a deep form of love that a lot of us don’t experience very often anymore, certainly in our isolated existences.
Once people get connected to these movements and experience this interdependence, the natural out pouring of that was these, what I call the love thread of the movement itself, which came across in tons of the signage, like there was hearts everywhere. I mean one of my favorite signs was, “I love humanity let’s figure this shit out.” Right. What we don’t normally associate with the sort of activist movement which is against something, down with this down with that. But you have this whole wide spectrum of people who are engaging with the movement with a totally different type of energy. Which is for certainly the first I’d seen in a long time.
EX: So I’m wondering about your experience at Occupy Vancouver and at some of these Occupy sites. As you were going around to all of the different locations where you’re at in the film. Maybe you can talk a little bit about the different sites you were at, and I’m wondering how that experience was different from site to site or some of the similarities you saw that really tied the movement together.
I personally visited Occupy Wall Street …I shot there for a number of days around the 15th, 16th, 17th, of October. Which is also why I missed the initial outpouring at Occupy Vancouver cause the global day of action where a lot of the camps outside Wall Street were established was on October 15th. So I missed the initial Occupy Vancouver formation but afterwards when I got home I was definitely excited to come check it out. And I was pretty happy to see that a lot of what I saw on Wall Street, the connection between the people, and the feeding of the group there, and the workshops that were on, and the Peoples’ Library. It was like a mini city that sprang up. There was definitely a similarity at Occupy Vancouver, I went to Occupy Boston, I briefly popped into Occupy San Francisco. Velcrow actually shot at Occupy London, Oakland, he actually went to Tahir Square in Egypt as well, which certainly you can call the inspirer of the Occupy Movement. As well as Spain, Madrid, Barcelona at the Indignados meetings, community gatherings, which are extremely impressive. And again that’s where the worked out a lot of the democracy techniques and things that were brought into Occupy Wall Street.
So in many ways Velcrow actually followed upstream to what inspired the North American movements- but again the thing we found in all these things was this willingness to engage with others in community and to listen to what they had to say and to discuss and talk about. Like nobody had a sense that there was one person in charge right this idea of the non-hierarchal form of arranging leaders or deciding what to do. That was key with all the movements that we saw, that nobody had a sense that “follow me because I know what to do.” It was all about none of us know what to do but together we can figure this out. So that willingness and understanding that this is the only way to engage with the crisis we are facing us today that was very inspiring to see.
But having said that, a lot of same challenges cropped up in a lot of occupies – whether it was dealing with some people who had not been able to be heard ever, but as soon as they found a community of people willing to listen they would be unable to participate in a way that still held a lot of people up because they had a lot of their own inner wounding to deal with first. Or even just the inability of people within the Occupy movement, the challenges of specific groups. Whether it was like issues with women or patriarchy or all these things existing in our society already it’s just that in the Occupy movement it now became more obvious. There is also a willingness to actually deal with them. You can see that happening even now as people work out all of these different challenges. It was inspiring to see it in all of them those similarities and also those challenges.
EX: I was wondering if you could go a little bit deeper into that and just maybe talk about the different themes that you saw throughout. You mentioned challenges and that’s always a big one. I know people with mental illness and not always have places to live often gravitate to these Occupy movements because people are taking care of each other there’s free food and shelter. Perhaps you could go into a little about how they dealt with these challenges and maybe even greater than that just the common themes of this love throughout these movements.
It was interesting because Occupy Vancouver they followed a similar trajectory though to a lot of these other movements which was of course the initial outpouring of community support, and just a general excitement around tapping into something bigger because it was global; it was certainly all over North America, that was that initial outpouring on October 15th, but then a lot of the people that were first involved went home like because that’s typically what happens at marches right. You kind of go and you march and you do your thing and go home and continue working in different ways depending on what role you have or where your passion is but the idea of sort of staying right in a public space is not necessarily that common and then what’s what happened to Occupy Vancouver. A number of people stayed and they occupied.
I’m still trying to figure out the nature of why even friends that I would consider in the progressive activist world-changing realm they felt they shouldn’t have stayed say; that that was a mistake. What we are looking at and what we found in the movements is because they stayed there was something interesting was actually able to emerge. But of course as they stay in the public eye and as the media- in the absence of clear messaging and all those types of things that came up in the Occupy movement then they start creating stories about the challenges and scandals and all these types of things because they need something to write about, fair enough, then again the public opinion will rely heavily on the mainstream media reporting. There’s pressure from the city to clear them out; all these types of things.
So the trajectory became similar and it wasn’t until the overdose there that things reached a head. But again the movement itself really brings out the shadow of the city that’s already there. And I think a lot of people don’t want to acknowledge the fact that there’s a large population of people who have no homes in Vancouver, and that there’s a lot of drug use, and you know they called for the closing of Occupy based on the drug overdose, but the response they got from Occupy was “well that means you better shut down Vancouver” because there’s a lot of overdoses happen every day and you’d never hear about them but you heard about it because it was at Occupy. And that’s because she was in community.
The pressures then of trying to exist with all of these tensions going on and these pressures going on eventually, at least from what I saw of Occupy, it becomes harder and harder to actually maintain that sense of grounded inter-being and trying to deal with all of that and build the community itself becomes very difficult there’s too much pressure to go on, and so that lack of support in general from around the community then just kept the pressure going until eventually the police decided to move in and clear it out, and then we saw that happen in a lot of the occupations. Certainly a coordinated crack down happened down in Oakland and all these other cities to move them out. And the question we pose in the film is “what is so threatening about people occupying very small places in these cities?” I mean obviously there must be something about it if they decide to clear them out. But I think what we’re starting to see now is what happened was the diversification of the tactics and the marches and presentations and workshops and all these types of things have emerged because of the dispersion of the encampment themselves and I think a lot of what Occupy catalysed, even in the first wave the first year I don’t think we fully understand all of the elements that actually were catalysed because of it. I don’t think we can ever understand but I do think we are starting to see the second wave and I’m not sure exactly where it’s going to go itself but energy doesn’t disappear it only transforms. So I think we’re seeing it continue to transform today.
EX: So you hit on a few really great points that touched on what I wanted to ask you next which was, your experience verses what the news media was reporting? I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that. And then also if you could discuss…there’s a lot of people who see the problems in the world today and they recognize the value of the Occupy movement and yet they’re Occupy skeptics. What would you say to them?
I guess the difference between mainstream reporting and my experience in the movement…the truth is that yeah were there challenging inter-personal relationships and things like that, of course. Were there people who have never heard of non-violent communication and had generally troublesome personalities and had lots of their own baggage to deal with, again of course. Were there people that were deeply into meditation and spirituality and came from a different place, yeah of course. So I guess what I’m saying is: Occupy contains the entire spectrum of all these things and I do think though that there is a fundamental alignment which is towards unity, in terms of wanting to build a connection between these groups that have been disparate. You know the activist groups, the art groups, the spiritual groups, I think there is a collective alignment of the group as a whole. But if you go into the movement yourself, you can see what you want to see. I mean this in both ways, if you go in and say, “You know I bet they don’t even know what they’re talking about. They’re never gonna change the world.”
Then you know you’re probably going to attract a certain amount of people that have types of conversations, come at it with a certain energy, then you’re going to find elements of that, and that’s what’s going to happen. But you may have one of those conversations and say, well I guess that’s what the whole movement’s about, and not realising that the movement itself is inclusive of all of these perspectives. So the fact that you’re inclusive of perspectives, does not make you weaker, I think it actually makes you more resilient. And certainly the best thing for Occupy was to remain as an invitation for any of these groups to come in and get involved and participate. There was this sort of standoffishness that I experienced with different people who you know would have different opinions on you know what Occupy should do. Like oh they should do this, they should do that, they were using the term, they , they should do that. So I said, “What do you mean by they? Why don’t you go down and do that?”
Cause that’s exactly what it is, it’s an invitation to actually participate in the best way that you know how. So I guess what I’m saying is, the mainstream there’s a certain agenda involved, just given, I think the mainstream even has a difficult time even understanding actually what Occupy represents cause it doesn’t quite fit in to the typical way of reporting, which is to report on little bits of the whole picture. And what’s needed with Occupy is you really need to step back and actually see it as a whole and what it represents. And certainly I think Velcrow and I really tried to do that with the film Occupy Love, to offer a different perspective, so then when you see…whatever part you see of the movement and beyond in all of these movements around the world you can actually see that they’re all coming from the same source.
And to answer your second question. What I would say if someone is interested in getting involved with Occupy or has judged the Occupy movement. I would just say that social change it doesn’t look like what you think it looks like. I mean if you have a pre-conception how you’re going to change the world. Some people believe that you actually have to work from inside the system, so you actually have to work in a big corporation and actually start shifting the management and all the decisions and stuff from inside. And to be honest I think that’s fine, if you think that that’s the best way to change the world, then go do that. But I also think that once you go into certain organizations that the culture of the organization has its way of affecting your decisions. And I also think when you become part of an organization and the people in it become your friends or the closest thing to your friends, you certainly have a hard time going against the culture of the company. So it can be very difficult to change it.
Well I mean there’s other ways, I mean you can join a non-profit you can continue to do ground level activist stuff. I think that all of these methods have there merits, but they also have their shadows and they also have a limited effect, in that they don’t bridge all of the people who are trying to effect change in different ways. And so I think that Occupy certainly was one of the first times stepping towards a movement itself that involves other movements. And this goes again back to what I said: what is love and what is to Occupy? Early on in the movement I wrote an article called, “If We Get Occupy Right We Get Everything Right.” And what I mean by that is if we can figure out how to engage together in a community and to be inclusive of a multiplicity of perspectives, we can then apply this process towards any of the problems that we’re facing, both collectively at a nation level even global level. That if there’s a way to figure out these problems, engage with these problems, then we can engage with all of them because they’re all connected.
We started the film actually looking at the climate crisis and it was long before we realized actually that the climate crisis was actually directly related to the economic crisis and the social crisis. So Occupy itself is actually a deep understanding that all of these challenges are connected. And so for others look at the movement and say, “Well it’s not the movement I would get involved in.” or, “I don’t agree with this person and so therefore the whole Occupy movement is irrelevant.” I think they’re kind of missing the point because Occupy itself is an invitation to bridge all of the ways of changing the world and understanding that all of the challenges are connected.
And so that doesn’t mean you have to go down there and join, otherwise it doesn’t mean you’re not part of the edge. But I will say: try to see them as allies as you do the change in your own way and if you don’t join the movement directly, that’s not a judgement on what you’re doing isn’t good enough. I mean that’s my recommendation just to be open to understand it’s just an invitation to change in any way that you know.
EX: I wanted to close up by asking you something that kind of went along with your comments on how the media reports on how just bits and pieces of the movement. And the fact that there’s so many pieces that are left out. There’s just so many stories that are not reported. The Arab Spring movement influenced Occupy movement and Occupy movement started all sorts of movements around the world and around the country itself. Do you think that someone coming to your film can leave with a feeling that our global challenges can in fact be a love story? And unite humanity as a whole and change what it means to be a person living on this planet?
It’s certainly a big challenge for a film to do all that. One thing that struck me when we first started watching it, I started making linkages…also I just felt grateful for the amount of characters that are in there, certainly in the movement, out of the movement. We also interviewed activists, spiritual teachers, artists, scientists and all these different people that are all, quote, “trying to change the world”, for the better. And so on one hand it certainly gave me hope that we often fall into thinking, you know, “I’m the only one that cares.” “I’m the only one that wants to do something about changing the world.” But I think it’s important to realize there are so many people who are also trying to. And even the people you don’t think, it’s too easy to judge others, you see them on the street you know, you don’t know what that other persons doing say in their spare time, they’re just trying to make a difference, you don’t know any of those things.
And that the Occupy movement when it first emerged…I think it was like these people who had been sort of toiling away in mostly isolation all of a sudden were able to see each other for the first time. And I think it’s like this underground network of roots suddenly flowered in a certain spot. And that in itself was really powerful I think to be able to find each other, to be able to see other people who are also trying to make a difference and form connections with them. And so what we’ve tried to capture in the film is that sense, 1) there are so many people engaged in this type of work and trying to alter this course from destructive paradigm to a life-affirming paradigm. And also I really want people to walk away with just this sense the staggering beauty of both the planet itself but the people in it.
And that we can often fall into this sort of self-loathing that goes around with being human because we kind of look around and see the destruction and the media reports on a lot of this negativity, the hatred, the violence and all this type of stuff. But there’s so much it’s just heart breaking and just to consider the beautiful acts that go on all over the world every day that we never see. And the film really is meant to be a portrait of all of these people, the change they’re trying to do reflected certainly in the Occupy movement and without. But it’s also meant to inspire a deep love of humanity and of simply being alive. That in itself is such a profound gift, that if we all resided in that space we would change the world in a moment.
Check out Occupy Love for upcoming screenings.