“The greatest love story ever told”

A new documentary on the Occupy movement puts a decade of work by an acclaimed Canadian filmmaker into perspective. Occupy NL organizer Tom Clarke, Indy editor Justin Brake and Velcrow Ripper talk about the movie and the Occupy movement.

Romeo and Juliet. Antony and Cleopatra. Tristan and Isolde. Jake Doyle and Leslie Bennett. Danny Williams, Kathy Dunderdale and the Lower Churchill.

Adversity is almost always part of the greatest love stories. Two (or three) lovers must overcome some obstacle in order to be together, whether it’s negotiating the differences between feuding families, keeping network executives happy or hiding the truth from the public.

But what about the global love story that’s unfolding right now? In the midst of all the suffering and our apparent inability to break free of old habits and ideas – fighting wars, burning fossil fuels, propping up a flawed economic system, to name a few – some are responding in a uniquely different way.

Acclaimed Canadian filmmaker Velcrow Ripper started documenting this phenomenon more than a decade ago when he embarked on a journey to the ‘ground zeroes’ of the world to document how people were finding “hope in the darkest moments of human history”. Scared Sacred was released in 2006 and was followed up by Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action in 2009.  Ripper had begun documenting the third and final film of his Fierce Love trilogy when the Occupy movement began on Wall Street in downtown Manhattan, and everything suddenly came into focus.

On this journey the 49-year-old  B.C.-native asks, “How could the crisis we are facing become a love story?” Without hesitation, many of those interviewed replied, “It already is.” Is it possible the Occupy movement a defining moment in human history?

Occupy Love is not only the film Velcrow Ripper had been wanting to make his entire life, but perhaps also the one many had been waiting to see. If you’ve ever had the slightest suspicion that things are changing in a profoundly positive way, Occupy Love is but one affirmation. It could be interpreted as a visionary artistic expression of tomorrow’s possibilities, but in reality it’s just a snapshot of today’s reality – just not one many of us have been looking at.

In advance of the film’s St. John’s debut, Occupy Newfoundland organizer Thomas Clarke, Velcrow Ripper and I had a chat about the film.

Interview with Velcrow Ripper

Velcrow Ripper. Occupylove.org.
Velcrow Ripper. Occupylove.org.

TC: Occupy Love, being the third film in the Fierce Light trilogy, where Scared Sacred took us on a journey to ground zeros all over the world and you showed how people’s tragedy gave them a sense of meaning and compassion to take action – (and) in Fierce Light you showed how spirituality and activism come together – where does Occupy Love take us on the journey?

VR: Well, with Occupy Love I started off, actually before the Occupy movement, shooting the next and final film in the trilogy, and I kind of threw out the word spirituality and got down to something even more basic, more essential, and that’s love – this idea of love. Martin Luther King talked about love in action and Ghandi as well. And so I set out looking for this – with this question in mind, which was how could the crisis of today become a love story. At first, everyone thought I was crazy. I would ask that question and they’d laugh. And then as I went along shooting the film, suddenly the Arab Spring happened and then the European Summer with the Indignados movement in Spain, and on Sept. 17 Occupy Wall Street began. I went there to continue filming, and then when I started asking the question at this incredible encampment at Occupy Wall Street everyone said, “Of course. It already is a love story. This is it happening.” And that’s really the genesis of Occupy Love, then and there.

JB: Velcrow, the other thing that the Occupy movement did very quickly and very effectively was start a conversation about capitalism. And here in North America it’s still pretty taboo to talk about it, let alone to question it. We don’t find our mainstream media leading an effective public dialogue about our economic system and how it relates to our place in the world … (and) it seems as though the principles of that economic system are pretty deeply ingrained in our beliefs. One big example being the idea that if you’re not financially successful you’re either not trying hard enough or not smart enough. So since the Occupy movement did do a good job of sort of facilitating that conversation, what did you see with respect to people coming together to talk about the global economy during the movement? And how do you think the effects of that dialogue will reverberate?

VR: Well, everything has changed in the world since the crash in 2008. We began to realize that the entire economic system is a house of cards, that the global economy is being run by greed-praised gamblers essentially, and that we’re all being held hostage. We’re seeing an enormous debt crisis happening. So, clearly, neoliberal capitalism, which is the technical term for this form – Pierre Trudeau called it savage capitalism, which is actually a little more catchy a phrase. It’s really a parasite that’s destroying the host, which is the entire planet.

Occupy really brought that conversation to the clear, pointing out this incredible widening income gap. They say in the U.S. there are no poor people, only temporarily embarrassed millionaires, which is a Steinbeck quote. This is a myth. The chances of you becoming the one per cent, it’s like basically nil. There’s only a few hundred people in that category. We’re actually losing a middle class altogether. So the situation in general for the economy is terrible, and it’s a myth anyways. It’s just a fabrication. It’s a cultural paradigm that needs to shift.

“I think the Occupy movement, and in general the consciousness that’s shifting, is really looking to totally rearrange our priorities and what’s important.” – Velcrow Ripper

What is the true meaning of wealth? What is real wealth? One of the things the film does is take us to Bolivia, and we look at their understanding. They talk about living well, not about living better, not about having more, not about being richer, but actually a quality of life, a sense of living well. How can we shift our entire understanding of our values?

And that’s actually a big part of the film – a whole paradigm shift. I think the Occupy movement, and in general the consciousness that’s shifting, is really looking to totally rearrange our priorities and what’s important.

TC: You say when we visit Bolivia in the film we do take a look into the indigenous system that they’re using down there. What could Stephen Harper learn from Evo Morales? And even more so, what could the citizens of Canada learn from the citizens of Bolivia?

VR: I would say we could also learn from our own indigenous people who are rising up right now with the Idle No More movement, which is for me a very exciting continuation of this spark of revolutionary change that’s sweeping the planet. Indigenous values in general, the core indigenous values, are based in interdependence and an understanding of the whole. We in the West really see things as separation, and we can be very isolated and also very selfish. But I think traditional indigenous wisdom really sees things: that I can’t be happy if you aren’t happy; my well-being is directly interrelated to your well-being; the planet’s well-being is directly intertwined with my well-being. So there’s none of this isolation.

And science actually shows that to be true. Western science understands systems theory: we’re all part of interconnected systems of systems. And we’re not isolated. There is no ‘somebody else’s backyard.’ We all need to thrive on this planet or no one is thriving, and that’s a whole new paradigm.

TC: I really like how Charles Eisenstein really bangs that point through. I really like and respect his opinion on things.

VR: Yeah, Charles has a brilliant analysis. He’s becoming kind of a visionary in this movement and a thinker.

JB: As a journalist I was down to the Occupy encampment here in St. John’s a lot. This was the last one in North America, as far as I know. It went right through the winter and was shut down in May of 2012. But the big problem that they faced – and following along on Facebook and online through social media it seemed like other encampments faced the same thing – was sort of bridging that gap between what many, who were not part of the movement, perceived to be these far-fetched ideals. Bridging the gap between the ideals and the so-called real-world application. What are your thoughts on the challenge of bridging that gap between what the majority, I think, perceive to be far-fetched ideals and then the real-world application?

VR: The ideals that we have of creating a world that works for everyone are not actually far-fetched because we actually are in a state of crisis right now, where we actually need to solve these problems. So this isn’t just some distant pie-in-the-sky hope. We need to change the way things are going or we’re going to face systems collapse here. So this isn’t just a lofty experiment. The time’s they are a changing and we’re in a time of accelerating crisis. So we all need to come together to try to figure it out.

And if we are the minority, which we are perhaps – that can become a spark that can sweep through and change consciousness. The fact of the matter is the conversation has shifted, even at the highest level. Income inequality is now in the conversation: the term 99 per cent and one per cent is talked about everywhere. So we have changed the conversation with these movements.

Now, the Occupy movement in particular was like a laboratory to birth these new ideas. In Occupy Wall Street, a lot of the visions of the future that we wanted to see today were being tried out. And that’s a really important thing, to just see how they work, and the possibility to do it because the alternatives are out there. If change is not going to come from the top down, it’s going to have to come from the bottom up then. If we have an absolutely intractable conservative regime in power in Canada – and an even somewhat more progressive government in the United States, which is still completely locked into the neoliberal system and unable to really make substantial change on the level it’s needed – we’re going to have to create the change ourselves.

“If change is not going to come from the top down, it’s going to have to come from the bottom up then. If we have an absolutely intractable conservative regime in power in Canada … we’re going to have to create the change ourselves.” – Velcrow Ripper

We can’t wait around anymore and it’s going to have to come from the bottom up. We have seen vast changes through people power. We now have the power of the Internet and social media and ways to connect that were just not possible years ago. We’re seeing a global scale change happening.

JB: To follow up from that – the practices of our federal government here in Canada – our provincial government in Newfoundland and Labrador is following a very similar regime with imposing austerity measures. They even, through an omnibus bill last year, imposed a new secrecy law that prohibits anybody, even the media, from accessing information – things discussed in Cabinet, for instance. We’re not allowed to ask about any of the relationships or dealings between the provincial government and private interests.

Given what you just said, that it is ground up, it seems there has to be a level or a degree of comfort or convenience taken from people in order to prompt them. It’s sort of been slower in Newfoundland and Labrador it seems, because given everything the provincial government has done over the last couple of years … we are in the middle of an oil boom. We weathered the storm of the recession better than most places in Canada. The people that are interested in creating that spark and growing it are maybe perhaps a (greater) minority here. What do you think about that idea that it takes losing a degree of comfort and convenience to prompt people?

VR: Well, I think that that is one way, and that’s what I discovered in Scared Sacred, travelling to the ground zeros of the world. I found people who face incredible crisis and they were able to rise to their highest self, in some way. Newfoundland has faced a lot of hardships, especially with the collapse of the fisheries, but the question is, what do you do in the face of that crisis? Do you find that way to transform it? Or do you fall into despair? Or do you look for a way to numb it out?

“Newfoundland has faced a lot of hardships, especially with the collapse of the fisheries, but the question is, what do you do in the face of that crisis?” – Velcrow Ripper

So the trick is to have the tools to really use that crisis as an opportunity, because there’s two different ways to go about it, right? But the change isn’t just coming through being in the streets and these kinds of things. We can only sustain that for so long. Change also is happening in our consciousness. It’s happening in the way we live our lives, and there are ways to move communities in a community direction, which I think are equally important to any kind of social action agenda: things like the transition town movement are really important, moving towards restorative justice, and the permaculture and techniques like that we can actually begin to just look for ways that we can start living a new way that’s consistent with the values of interdependence.

And that’s also really important, and we are seeing that in Spain, where the crisis is so intense, where there’s cities going bankrupt – that’s happening in the States too – that are now moving into a moneyless economy, moving into a barter system and a gift economy. And the European Indignados movement there is in the neighbourhoods and is really providing actual, tangible support on the ground with community organizing.

So it is true that in the face of these intense crises new models kind of come into existence out of necessity.

TC: We know we have the tools and the technology and the know-how to benefit all who share this planet. Occupy Love shows a strong collective will that’s been developing for a long time now, but sometimes it’s without the participants from around the world even knowing that they are rising together. I think we can change things through this collective love, but we’re running out of time.

VR: Yeah, there’s a sense of urgency and that’s a good thing. The key is to maintain your spaciousness and your urgency. How do you hold those things together? That’s a spiritual practice, because there’s a real danger of us burning out, and that’s not sustainable.

“Anger is great because it gets us out and gets us active. But running on anger is like running on fossil fuels: eventually it will burn you out. We need to find sustainable power, and that’s what love is all about – coming together in community.” – Velcrow Ripper

That’s why love is so much more powerful than anger. Anger is great because it gets us out and gets us active. But running on anger is like running on fossil fuels: eventually it will burn you out. We need to find sustainable power, and that’s what love is all about – coming together in community. And when you actually live the new world you want to see on the way to creating that world, you can’t lose because you’re already living it.

JB: One of the points brought up by one of the people you interviewed in the film was the separation of humanity and nature. Do you think it’s possible to overcome this widespread delusion, even though we’re continuing to industrialize and urbanize, centralize in cities?

VR: I think so. I think that urban sustainability, green roofs, the whole greening up the city movement is key. And it actually isn’t going to help if everyone were to move to the land because the land couldn’t handle that population base. So living in cities isn’t so bad; we just need to really green them up and get us in touch with the nature that is everywhere. And it is our natural urge. These are filters that are being imposed on us through the drug of television and indoctrination and complacency. These are all kind of the signs of a dysfunctional cultural pathology that we’re in.

So we are on a path of healing, and there’s a lot of healing that needs to happen because we’ve had a few hundred years of industrial capitalism, which has really changed us from a community-based society to a me-based isolated, atomized society. And we really need to come back into community.

TC: I’d like to know, if someone who hasn’t really been involved with the Occupy movement and hasn’t seen Scared Sacred or Fierce Light, when that person watches the film Occupy Love and their fierce light goes off inside of them for the first time and they don’t really know how they could be a part of creating the change that they want to see, what advice would you give that person?

VR: I would say the Occupy Love movement is really taking off now and we have lots of resources at OccupyLove.org. Go to the website and just browse around. Go through the visionary section. Everybody who’s in that film has their own page on the website and they have so many resources. The film is chockablock full of people with great ideas of how you can be part of this change. So check that out. And join us on Facebook and Twitter as well. The hashtag is #OccupyLove and OccupyLove.org is where to find us.

Members of Occupy Newfoundland at Harbourside Park in St. John's. Photo by Seamus O'Neill.
Members of Occupy Newfoundland at Harbourside Park in St. John’s. Photo by Seamus O’Neill.

One of the best ways you can be of service personally is to find out what your gift is and bring it to the table; bring out your own gift and let it shine and be of service. Bring that together with being of service to the planet and to yourself. Those two things, when those all align – your gifts and a service to the planet and your community – you’re going to find the deepest source of meaning possible and you’re going to be part of this change. It’s unique for each of us, but I think each and every one of us has a gift to offer.

JB: I’ve got one last question for you, Velcrow. The movement really highlighted classism as the sort of ‘ism’ of our time, even though other ‘isms’ still exist, like racism and sexism and so on and so forth. The film ends with the text coming up on the screen, “This is for the 100%.” That was an idea that actually surfaced. I imagine there was probably some individuals in most of the Occupy groups that brought up that idea up at some point in time, because the 99 per cent versus the one per cent was still a divisive thing and it was playing into the idea that classism existed. And not that it was okay but that there was still some kind of fundamental difference between the rich and the poor, the one per cent and everybody else.

The idea of the 100 per cent is obviously a very beautiful idea. I personally don’t think it’s an idealistic thing. But in reality, I guess, it would mean – if we were to achieve something closer to a global acknowledgement of fundamental sameness between people of different nations, of different religious backgrounds, to overcome gender inequality, these kinds of things. What are your thoughts on that? Do you think we will reach that point where we can still maintain our cultural diversity and appreciate each other’s differences, but at the same time understand each other as fundamentally the same? Be the 100 per cent I guess?

VR: I think that that is happening right now, especially in the online world where my community is probably global. I have no idea where most of my friends on Facebook are from. It’s very important to acknowledge diversity; unity and diversity go hand in hand. There’s a real strength in unity and diversity. Like a rainforest, which is very diverse – the biodiversity is a beautiful thing – but we’re interconnected. We are the same and we have the same rights, but we are also different and each and every one of us is unique. So it’s, again, holding those two things together. Will we get there as a planet? I just feel it’s our natural state and it’s a truth – it’s a deep truth.

In terms of the idea that we are the 100 per cent, we definitely want to bring the one per cent in and free them, and ourselves, from this division. We don’t want this division. In compassionate activism, we don’t hate. It’s a challenge, but hating actually gives your power to those people that you hate. So you can love somebody without liking their actions or approving of their actions. Instead you see that divine spark within – that’s what Martin Luther King taught. Even the police. It gives you much more power. It’s a challenge but much more powerful to come from that place, understanding there’s a deeper truth, that in fact we are the 100 per cent, we are all interconnected, and let’s move to a world that really lives that truth.

TC: And could you speak to the role that forgiveness is going to have in us coming together, in order for us to come together as 100 per cent? Could you speak to how important it is for forgiveness as a part of that?

VR: Forgiveness is a beautiful thing. I’ve dealt with that in Scared Sacred quite a bit. Forgiveness, as Michael Henderson says, does not erase the past; it gives you back the future. It releases you from holding the burden of hate. I’ve seen remarkable stories where people came together, in say Israel and Palestine, where families of the children who have been killed on both sides came together to try to stop the insanity of that war. And they chose forgiveness. And when, say, your people killed my son, or your people killed my daughter, two parents can come together and say yes, and we need to stop this and we need to forgive in order to move to a better place.

Forgiveness is deeply powerful, and I’ve seen it at the most highest levels. So we can probably do it in our usually more abstract spaces as well. It doesn’t help to hold onto hate. It doesn’t mean you have to approve actions. It does not condone actions. That’s what restorative justice is about. It’s a new model; we’re moving out of the old-school punitive justice. We don’t want to fill up our prisons. We want to actually heal. That’s a whole new paradigm.

‘Occupy Love’ screens April 11/12 at The Lantern on Barnes Road in St. John’s. Showtime is 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 and available at Fred’s Records on Duckworth Street, or at the door if there are any left. A limited number of free tickets have been set aside for those who can’t afford the price of admission. Contact Thomas Clarke: [email protected]

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