Occupy Everything: An Interview with Velcrow Ripper

CANNABIS CULTURE – Velcrow Ripper is rapidly becoming one of Canada’s best filmmakers.

He’s been compared to Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky for his incisive observations about the state of the world today. Like Moore and Chomsky, he pulls no punches and shows no fear in exposing our society’s myths and putting our sacred cows under the microscope, but unlike them, he often looks for spiritual solutions to social and material problems.

Skeptical of party politics and dogmas of all kinds, Ripper deeply believes that people can create their own solutions. This is an idea he has explored in his previous films Fierce Light and Scared Sacred. Occupy Love completes the circle that Velcrow calls the “Fierce Love Trilogy”, and is his finest film to date. Cannabis Culture‘s Dale Rangzen caught up with Ripper at his Brooklyn apartment where he was unpacking after premiering Occupy Love in Montreal.

Cannabis Culture: So, you’ve just been in Montreal previewing Occupy Love. How did that go?

Velcrow: It was fantastic. They have such a strong student movement in Quebec so they really loved the film. We also did a small free screening as well outside of the festival at a co-op that was specifically for that audience. That was really an amazing experience.

CC: Did you visit Quebec while the whole occupy movement was in full swing and you were filming?

Velcrow: No, we would have liked to have gone there. There are a few shots in there, but we were so close to finishing the film by the time we could have gotten there. It was tempting, but at a certain point, history keeps happening and you have to say “enough!”

CC: I know, there were probably a hundred different places you could have been at any given time and all of them would have been worthwhile and worth capturing.

Velcrow: That’s so true!

CC: Did this film get its start as a happy accident? The way the film begins with you cycling to the tenth reunion of the 9/11 incident, it seems like you were in the right place at the right time.

Velcrow: Well, I did happen to fall in love with someone who is from Canada, but who lives in Brooklyn and is going to school in New York. So, I moved to New York and happened to be in New York for that tenth anniversary, and six days later for the beginning of the Occupy movement. I call that serendipity, but I guess you could say that all documentaries are accidents! Actually, I did have a plan. It’s interesting. I just looked back at an early treatment for the “Fierce Love” trilogy which was originally called the “Scared Sacred” trilogy. I’d just finished Scared Sacred when I was mapping out Fierce Light and the next film in the series was going to be called Evolve or Dissolve. I looked at it and thought, “Damn, I’ve just made that film!” When I looked at the synopsis, Occupy Love really achieves what I’d set out to do. Over the course of twelve years, it happened. I didn’t know what I was going to find, specifically, but I knew what I was sensing. So, I was on its trail.

CC: Could you feel the Occupy movement in the air before it officially hit?

Velcrow: Not in New York, but I felt it in Spain and in the Arab Spring. I’ve been tracking movements for so long, and the anti-globalization movement is really the largest movement of any scale right now. After 9/11, those movements were effectively quashed and shut down. Activists were labeled “terrorists” and they were basically shut down in North America. I don’t think it ever really stopped in Europe, but in North America, activism really went into a hibernation period. So, what’s happened since the Arab Spring and the European Summer and the Occupy Movement is a revitalization coming through a new generation with more information that we had in 2000. It’s more of a cultural shift than anything.

CC: What do you attribute this wisdom to?

Velcrow: I think we’ve evolved. I think culturally, we soak up everything that comes before us. It’s not conscious. But, I think the kids that are coming up today have the Internet at their fingertips, so they’re much more connected with each other. They’re not reliant on top down sources of information anymore. They’re reliant on their peers, they’re connected with people all over the globe, so they have a different level of wisdom. In the past, to get that connected, you really had to do a lot more work.

CC: It used to be really hard to reach the people you wanted to reach, or to even know who those people were.

Velcrow: Yeah, as a documentary film-maker who worked all over the globe, I was that connected and I saw part of my job as coming back to share with people. I’ve always felt the importance of these global connections, but the new generation cuts through boundaries and borders of all kinds. From race to religion to sexual preference to spirituality, they’re cutting through all these divisions. They’re crumbling away, which I think is a wonderful thing.

CC: I see the truth of what you’re saying, but I’m also aware of the other side of the population that is more rigidly adhering to the myths and the structures while it’s all slipping away. Is there a danger of getting too utopian and thinking that things are changing faster than they actually are?

Velcrow: Definitely, and I think that’s a natural reaction. Fundamentalism really takes root in times of crisis and fear. I always see two graphs in my mind. One has the evolution of consciousness and the other one represents a kind of contraction. We’re seeing how they can exist side by side being played out in places like Greece right now. There’s a rise of progressive social movements based on mutual aid, and at the same time one can see the rise of The Golden Dawn, a kind of neo-nazi group that is also getting traction. People are afraid and looking for someone to blame.

CC: It’s evident in our society, too. These divergent perspectives, I mean. I’ve sat at dinner parties and listened to people in the financial industry grow red in the face when talking about Greece and how they won’t tow the line or act responsibly. To watch them sputter and rage, you’d think the Greeks were all child murderers and cut throats. There are very tight ideologies on either side.

Velcrow: I think that ideology itself is a problem.

CC: I couldn’t agree more, but the bad guys have all the money, as my daughter says.

Velcrow: Ha. It’s a little more complex than that. I also think that if you look at some of these people, they’re absolutely ethical within their own paradigm.

CC: But, they don’t look outside of it, allowing them to maintain a sense of right or righteousness. I find that so infuriating.

Velcrow: Yes, they’re loyal to their shareholders or whatever their moral imperative is, but what we have is a problem where people think in isolation. We’re back to the problem of separation; when you don’t see things in whole systems, there will be huge problems. A lot of the movements today are based in the idea of inter-connectedness and they’re able to see things as systems. The whole system needs to be healthy. This idea of the 1% and their willingness to do anything to maintain profit can cause the whole system to fall apart. The problem is that these people are often very insulated from the havoc that is being caused to uphold this.

CC: I’ve thought about this for years. If we are all somewhat guilty of surrounding ourselves with ideas that reinforce what we already believe, how do we truly reach the one percent with something that speaks to them in a realistic and appropriate way?

Velcrow: I just met someone who had watched Occupy Love. You could say he was part of the one percent. He was a management consultant who worked very closely with them. We were at a conference on Science and Spirituality. He stormed out at the beginning of the film. He was just outraged. He went back to his room and while he was brushing his teeth, he told me later on, he wondered why he was so upset. He decided that he’d better go and see the end of it. He sat back and watched the whole film and it literally transformed him. He came up to me afterwards and said, “I’m transformed. I get it now. What can I do?” It was really quite amazing. He went around telling everyone at the conference about the film after that. He was a hardcore, dyed in the wool, ideological right wing kind of guy who was totally rooted into his mentality.

CC: So, what in your film reached him? What got through the cracks?

Velcrow: I think, ultimately, it’s the idea of what love really is that got to him. It’s a universal thing and people in every situation feel love. Right-wingers love their families and their families love them. But, that’s small love and if you look deeply into it, love goes well beyond our families, beyond our tribe and beyond our country club. When you can actually get a taste of what that’s like and feel the connection, you get a sense of meaning and a connection to something that is larger than us.

CC: I do share your utopian ideals, but I have to say that when I’ve tried to get certain people to watch your film, there was a lot of resistance. The walls that get thrown up are extremely thick.

Velcrow: (laughs) Well, we can’t necessarily always succeed in that department. You can’t put too much energy into it if it’s not going to work. When you encounter people who are very ideologically rooted, you don’t know where they are on their path. They could be clinging on to rigid beliefs, but something may come along and it will all click. In my belief, that’s waking up.

CC: Others may think they’ve totally lost it! (laugh)

Velcrow: (laughing) I have people in my family like that. It’s hard to know what you can do, but families are great because we’re stuck with them.

CC: They’re very loving and kind within the circle, but anything that falls outside of that bubble of agreed upon beliefs is seen as “other” and necessarily troublesome or suspect.

Velcrow: It’s a big can of worms to open if you start to question everything. We can understand why people are reluctant.

CC: …to embark upon it. I know. Change is exhausting to ponder, but that’s why we’re in so much trouble. We’re having a vision crisis.

Velcrow: Well, I don’t think change is coming from within the structures. It’s coming from the ground up. We’re no longer asking for permission. That’s why the Occupy movement isn’t particularly interested in party politics. We’re not supplicants anymore. We’re trying to figure out our own solutions and that’s much more empowering. We can knock on those doors of power forever and get nowhere, but we can have immediate successes from the ground up and realize the power of our numbers. The number of people who do care is really large.

CC: One of the biggest criticisms that has been leveled at the Occupy movement is that it is so diverse. So many people that have become part of it have very disparate needs and areas of concern. In Vancouver, for instance, there was a large contingent of people whose primary focus was to request free injectable drugs from the government. The cannabis movement had a significant presence. Do “fringe” groups like this take away from the power or credibility of Occupy as a whole?

Velcrow: I don’t think they did, because “Occupy” is a means. You can occupy anything. In fact, one of the posters in my edit suite says “occupy everything”. So, this criticism of “what is your demand?” doesn’t bother me because one of the beautiful things about this movement is that it’s about inclusiveness and not any one thing in particular. It’s a radical concept – even amongst activist groups. There are lots of people in the left – especially the old guard left – who don’t get it either. People on all sides can be very ideologically based. I think that this is one of the greatest messages of the movement – inclusion and that there’s room for everyone at the table. The core uniting principle comes down to the idea of mutual aid. It’s all being clarified now. I feel like the Occupy camps were like laboratories – and there were lots of problems! We were all bumped up close to each other and each camp represented a microcosm of the area it was in. So, of course the Vancouver camp grappled with ideas of homelessness that another camp may not have focused on. How inconvenient that it wasn’t tucked away in the downtown east side and that it was right in our faces at the Art Gallery! How threatening that it became visible! Now, with Occupy Sandy for example we’re seeing a very real world crisis that the governments aren’t meeting – as usual. It’s being called another Katrina. The first respondents on the ground were people from the Occupy movement and they’ve been incredibly effective at offering mutual aid rather than simple charity. They’ve articulated this very clearly because charity can be top down and very patronizing. Because the movement is based in an anti-hierarchical approach, it doesn’t have that problem. It’s more like community support designed to help each other rise up. It allows people who have lost their homes to feel less like victims and more like survivors.

CC: When did you realize all of this? Was there a moment during the filming of Occupy Love that you saw that what you were chronicling was very special?

Velcrow: It happened on Day One at Zuccoti Park. I saw people sitting in circles and discussing what their purposes were in gathering there. I’d never seen anything like that. Any activist campaign that I’d been a part of had already been pre-organized. The demands and course of action had also been pre-determined by a small group of people. Another of the criticisms of this group is that there are no leaders. They call it a leaderless movement, but I think it’s a leader-full movement.

CC: I agree

Velcrow: It’s about participation and engagement. People tried to figure things out for themselves. I don’t know how many people have passed through all of those camps around the globe, but I’d say that millions of people took part in these collective processes. It was transformative for those people and all people who tried to understand it.

CC: How will the beliefs of these groups manifest in society in general?

Velcrow: As much as I said that most Occupiers don’t engage in party politics, the terms “one percent” and “ninety-nine percent” have been thrown around by everyone and of course those terms originate with Occupy. Wealth inequality wasn’t even on the table before. I think that real world shifts in consciousness take place and that we underestimate their importance. Every real thing in this world began as an idea or a thought. I think we’re seeing these ideas gain importance – first in people’s hearts and then in their heads. We need to challenge these undemocratic governments that are trying to dominate, especially in places like Canada which has become an embarrassment on the global stage. At every UN Conference in recent years, Canada has been getting the “fossil of the year” award….

CC: When Forbes and The Economist – hardly magazines with a progressive view – call Stephen Harper a dinosaur, we know that we’re going against the grain that the evolution would suggest and that much of the world is at least attempting to travel towards.

Velcrow: Right. And, if we’re going to challenge such views, we’re really going to need to mobilize at a grassroots level and work at consciousness raising. The name doesn’t matter. It’s people’s energy that matters and we’re seeing a lot of this positive energy being directed towards the struggles in the Tar Sands. The climate change resistance movement is stronger than it’s ever been and a lot of that energy comes from that same spark that was lit through the Occupy movements.

CC: Yet, at the same time, the government is also savvy and understands the power of communication. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have dismantled the networks of scientists and environmentalists who could have mounted credible resistance campaigns within the systems that most people recognize.

Velcrow: The more extreme they get, the wider the popular support to real change becomes.

CC: I’d like to believe that. Let’s talk about the mainstream media. Can they even be trusted to report what’s going on, given that most media outlets are owned by corporations that are very resistant to your ideas? At what point will a tilt occur when we see ideas fostered by the Occupy movement filter and integrate into the mainstream? I know you’ve said that it’s happening already.

Velcrow: The mainstream media is an ongoing issue. There are a lot of great journalists working in those institutions who want to get these messages out. The New York Times did some great coverage of the Occupy Camp at its height. In general, I think we need to do end runs around all these institutions. I don’t need to tell you that alternative media and social media is becoming increasingly powerful. The corporations are trying to get a foothold in social media, but whenever I see an ad for Mastercard on Facebook, for example, I think it looks weird. They’re not really welcome. Social media is a forum for the people. I think it’s people power that’s on the rise.

CC: The language and image is already being co-opted. I read an ad for a New York based “alternate investment” company yesterday that had the slogan “close to Wall Street, but not too close.”

Velcrow: Yeah. It’s so interesting. So, so, interesting. My job as a documentary film maker is to connect all the dots, and there’s so many of them out there now to connect, that I think I’ll be busy with this for some time to come.

CC: I’m glad you’re out there to try and help make sense of everything for us. I know it’s a cliché, but shit Velcrow, things are changing fast out there.

Velcrow: Mmm Hmmm…. Thanks! It’s been great to talk with you.

Occupy Love is playing at select theatres and festivals around the world. It will go into wide release in Canada early in 2013. Visit www.Occupylove.org for details about screenings and the DVD release.

Watch the Occupy Love trailer: