Traverse City Film Festival 2012: In honor of the past year’s sweeping of protests and revolutions across American cities and abroad, the Traverse City Film Festival created a new category titled “Occupy the Cinema!” featuring many films related to the growing demands for social change. On Friday and Sunday, a double feature of “Poor America” and “Ashes of America” brought light to the dramatic effects of the United States’ growing gap between the rich and poor, the reality of poverty in this country, and the reaction that became the “Occupy Wall Street” movement.

“Poor America,” a BBC-produced short film, explores the increasing prevalence and severity of poverty in modern America and our government and culture’s refusal to properly address it. Telling the stories of poor Americans, including a couple living in the water drains under the city of Las Vegas, and a man in Tennessee who chose not to treat a life-threatening condition because he simply could not afford the inevitable hospital bill, this issue, seen through the eyes of a British journalist, shows a version of America that Americans try so often not to see.

Following “Poor America”—which is a traditional documentary in its interviews, statements of statistics, and clear point of view—was the entirely nontraditional, yet still incredibly effective feature-length documentary “Ashes of America.” Directed by one of the festival’s youngest filmmakers, 22-year old Michael McSweeney, the film is a lyrical and intensely visually stimulating tribute to both the beauty and the sadness that can be seen across the landscapes of a country amidst an economic recession. Much of the film also contains front-line footage of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, capturing the energy and passion of the protesters as well as the brutal reality of the movement’s authority-inflicted violence.

Following the screening, McSweeney responded to questions and comments from the audience, many of whom were pleased by the film’s concentration on aesthetics and artistic value rather than the need for a bombardment of facts and opinions, saying it was a refreshing approach to the political documentary genre. When asked why the film contains so little narration, but relies more on its montage on images and dramatic soundtrack, McSweeney replied that he wanted his audience to think for themselves, rather than be told. And in a profound final response to what the solution is for the incredible crisis facing this generation, McSweeney said, “As a whole human race, we need to take a step back and rethink what we’re doing. What we need is a revolution of human values.”

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