By Chris Yee
Sometimes, a journalist has to drop everything when a major story breaks. But last year’s Occupy Vancouver protest was more than a huge breaking story; like the Arab Spring and the beginnings of the Occupy movement earlier that year, this was a historic event.
And so Matthew Van Deventer, a former Kwantlen student, started work on his first feature documentary, The Occupation, as a class project at BCIT. Working with fellow journalism student Rafferty Baker, it was a break from their usual routine of class work and internships.
The Occupation co-producers are fully aware of the constraints of conventional reportage in reporting an event like Occupy Vancouver, having worked in mainstream media outlets, with Baker at the CBC and Van Deventer at CTV.
“Usually… [the media doesn’t] have the resources to have one person down there all the time to cover just Occupy… they have to go out and do one story there and grab clips from another place down the road, and they may not be even involved with Occupy on that day,” Van Deventer said. “They’re just parachuted in, [and] the people down there don’t really know this reporter, so some people will stay away from the CTV or CBC character. So these reporters have to go out and find the quickest sound bite… they might end up getting someone who is not really fit to be answering the questions; they aren’t portraying the true ideals of this Occupy movement.”
But Van Deventer had a loftier goal than simply filling in gaps in the coverage of Occupy Vancouver.
“Our job as historians and journalists [is to] take a step back… and provide a definitive historical document of Occupy Vancouver,” he said. “If it goes unnoticed, that’s fine, because history takes time… I would love it if this thing bloomed into a respectable document… [a] well-documented piece of the history of Vancouver, a real local history of Occupy.”
Filming every day of the occupation in their spare time, Van Deventer and Baker traced the history of Occupy Vancouver as it unfolded, from the pitching of the first tents in October to the Occupy camp’s injunction-forced dissolution in November.
The two filmmakers yielded hundreds of hours of footage, with a broad cast of characters, such as occupiers, city officials, and reporters. Ultimately, after spending days getting to know Occupy’s participants, their main focus was on the tent city itself.
“That’s where the life was, that’s where the culture was, and that’s how the Occupy movement wanted to push their message, through this physical occupation,” Van Deventer said.
Van Deventer admitted that the term “occupy” is a word loaded with violent, oppressive implications, but added that the movement was a way to reclaim the word from these negative meanings.
“In a sense [the Occupiers] were overthrowing these… oppressive forces, and at the same time they were trying to strip this word down to present their own meaning for it – handing everything back to the people, not just a fortunate few who [are] in control of everything,” he explained.
Van Deventer continued: “We don’t get that deep into the message of Occupy, of the word, we don’t deconstruct it… [but] there would be no discussion about Occupy Vancouver, about the Occupy movement, if people weren’t occupying something , if people were not situated in this plaza, in Downtown Vancouver, in the heart of Vancouver… there would be no conversation about this. There would be no point in making a documentary if they were just meeting in a community center – but no, they’re setting up tents in fall, in solidarity with the movement around the world.”
Since its physical breakup last November, the Occupy Vancouver group continues to hold meetings and has taken part in such events as the Quebec student protest solidarity marches. “Occupy Vancouver is still around,” noted Van Deventer, but with a caveat: “It’s not occupying anything… it’s occupying an idea – but occupying an idea is not the same as occupying action… or occupying physical territory.”
Van Deventer hopes for wider distribution for the self-shot, self-financed Occupation, as long as he has the funds to do so. “This [documentary] was funded by student loans,” Van Deventer said. “I mostly want this thing to be seen. I really don’t care too much for the money.”
Having pitched the documentary to the Whistler Film Festival, the Canada International Film Festival, the San Francisco International Film Festival, and even Sundance, Van Deventer retains a sense of perspective.
“I’ll take it one step at a time; I don’t expect anything to come out of that but to say ‘I tried,’ and that someone out there has seen it,” he said.