Saturday, March 18, 2017

WHEN WE FOUGHT AND HOW WE LOST: a review of "Divided We Fall"

Written and Directed by Katherine M. Acosta
**** (four stars)

"You can't wait for the leadership to catch up to the people."
-Harriet Rowan, Wisconsin State Capitol Occupation Organizer  2011

This film very nearly brought me to tears. Tears of anger, disappointment, and profound sadness, and entirely due to the sheer potential of all that could have been.

The year 2017 will mark my 30th anniversary as being a resident of my adopted city and state of Madison, Wisconsin. I arrived here at the age of 18 as a college Freshman at the University Of Wisconsin-Madison, graduated in 1991 and have since made my life and family here in this beautiful city, a location that has consistently spoken to and enriched my spirit to degrees that I would never fully be able to recount to you.

In February of 2011, when Governor Scott Walker first released his so-called "Budget Repair Bill," known forever as Act 10, his initial shot at the dismantling of Wisconsin, I found myself compelled to join my fellow Madisonians and Wisconsinites overall in the protests designed to stop this destructive bill from coming to pass. I joined the protests somewhat early on, yet after the State Capitol building was fully occupied by protesters. As with my love for Madison itself, I am simply unable to fully express to you the seismic emotional impact I felt during that extremely intense, undeniably angry but also, powerfully extraordinary time.

Twice a week, for weeks upon weeks and soon months upon months, I stood side by side with all manner of people aligned in solidarity and protest. I met so many different people from within state and soon from out of state of various ages, races, genders, economic classes, and so on and despite the fear of the unknown, I felt a tremendous uplift and after a time, the weight of the historical impact that was occurring right in front of my eyes.

I documented the experience through hundreds of photos and countless conversations. I signed petitions. I stood and walked in the bitter cold weather around and around the Capitol. in addition to traveling thorough the entirety of the building, often standing directly in the epicenter of the Capitol Rotunda, cheering, playing in a drum circle, uncharacteristically speaking myself hoarse on the "People's Mic" and listening to others perform the same. The sheer power unleashed during that time felt as if it would shake the sky and as the crowds ballooned upwards of 200,000 people, the mythical moral arc of the universe felt as if it would bend in the direction of justice and fairness by the force of good will that was happening all around me.

And after all of the speeches and signs, the music and the messages, the solidarity and camaraderie, all presented with a fever pitched urgency, Act 10 was passed anyway. Scott Walker avoided being re-called anyway and furthermore, he was re-elected as Governor for a second full term despite all of the broken promises, factual evidence of his failed policies and even the criminality of himself and his inner circle due to a John Doe investigation. Every tactic of protest, every inspiring moment contained in what is now known as the "Wisconsin Uprising" was trampled with such painful finality, that even now, as we live within a President Trump America, with all manner of protests consistently occurring across the country, I question whether if there even remains any point, as the obstacles feel more insurmountable and the past defeats were indeed so crushing.

To screen a feature film documentary about the massive initial waves of the Wisconsin Uprising, especially having played a tiny role within it first-hand, was not the sort of thing that I was necessarily anxious to re-live. Frankly, I can see the results of that time each and every day, just by still living in Madison and working a few short blocks from the Capitol, so cinematic reminders of 2011 and the hopes for what could have been are truly unnecessary for me.

That being said, "Divided We Fall," is a stunning, sobering documentary from Writer/Director Katherine M. Acosta, and proved itself to be a riveting, compulsively watchable experience. Yes, as previously stated, viewing the overall failures of this specific protest movement nearly brought me to tears but even so, I could easily tap back into those awesome emotions I felt from 2011 quite easily, as the passion and commitment of so many people truly felt as if it could move mountains.

Even while feeling discouraged, the importance of speaking truth to power, peacefully and by whatever means necessary, remains crucial to maintaining any sense of democracy. Acosta's film is extremely wise to this conceit but even wiser when it showcases the mistakes, the pitfalls, and the ways progressives and liberals can be apt to become lost in the weeds of their own making, as well as how agendas can clash even when working on the same ideological sides. As a document of the recent past, and as a simultaneous warning as to how we approach the nature of protest and resistance in a Trump America, "Divided We Fall" makes for difficult and unblinking yet gripping and ultimately, essential viewing.

With the deeply rooted resentment of benefits received by state and public employees within some Wisconsin communities presented as our contentious historical backdrop, Katherine M. Acosta's "Divided We Fall" opens with Governor Scott Walker's first political victory in office with his signing of the 2011 Act 10 bill, which consisted, among other items, the stripping of collective bargaining rights of state and public employee unions. Additionally, Acosta gives us a front row seat to ominous, chilling footage, obtained by filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein, of Scott Walker callously expressing to billionaire donor Diane Hendricks that he would easily be able to transform Wisconsin from a Blue to Red State via his self-described "first step" of "divide and conquer" politics contained within the aforementioned Act 10 bill, which was introduced on February 11, 2011.

From here, and over the course of 90 briskly presented yet meticulously detailed minutes, Acosta's "Divided We Fall" chronicles the origins of the Wisconsin Uprising protest movement, which began innocently enough with a UW-Madison Teaching Assistants Association Valentine's Day protest march, complete with a collection of valentines to be delivered to Walker's desk, and how it rapidly ballooned into a full blown occupation of the State Capitol for seventeen days, a protest which was further compounded by the 14 senators fled the state to stall the crucial Budget Repair bill vote, therefore temporarily stopping Act 10 in its tracks.

Even with all of the first hand knowledge I gained from my time at the protests, Acosta consistently delivered information and perspectives that I otherwise would never had known. I found it deeply fascinating how the Capitol occupation began so organically and so swiftly, suggesting that this was a movement that was indeed just waiting to happen. In fact, the occupation itself was never even designed to be anything more than what one of the interview subjects referred to as a "sleepover," an almost quietly passionate stall tactic that was supposed to last for one night to just allow public testimonies against Act 10 to continue into the morning when the Union representatives would arrive and possibly take the reins.

Truth be told, when I was spending my time experiencing and documenting the protests, the historical impact of what was occurring really didn't dawn upon me until I was deeply ensconced, many, many visits later. For so many of the participants who actually organized and did essentially live within the Capitol during that period, I gathered the strong feeling that many of Acosta's primary interview subjects in "Divided We Fall" may have held similar feelings regarding any role they played that could be construed as "historical."

Yes, Acosta does include moments and individuals from when our state-wide struggle became national and even global, with images of filmmaker Michael Moore and former MSNBC host Ed Schultz's visits to our state making the cut in this film. But, Acosta very smartly never slides her subject matter into any sense of celebrity. She elicits a razor sharp focus upon the common, everyday Wisconsin individuals who found it within themselves to rise to this unprecedented occasion, and in doing so, all of them (in my opinion) became Civil Rights heroes in the process, for solely the reason that their tenacity and steadfast nature created and enforced a presence that was representative of so many people within Wisconsin, who by the nature of their respective lives, would simply not be able to make the exact same physical commitment as the occupiers. Because the occupiers were there, so were we all.

Within "Divided We Fall," I deeply appreciated Katherine M. Acosta' presentation of the Capitol occupation itself, as it was the first media representation that I have seen that I felt correctly presented the sights I experienced week after week first hand, a representation that was consistently misrepresented or misreported--from the intentions of the protesters, to the cleanliness of the Capitol, the overall temperament to even the sheer numbers of the protests at their highest--by the local media.

In that respect, Acosta's film powerfully corrects a variety of serious wrongs, allowing viewers to really see the protesters as they truly were. People who were not interested in causing damage and destruction or instilling a sense of political and societal mayhem. While emotions were undeniably intense, the nature of the protests were doggedly peaceful and feverishly respectful to all individuals and the environment of the Capitol itself, viewpoints and images that Acosta shares over and again throughout the film. And frankly, I do feel the need to list several of these individuals, Acosta's interview subjects, as their efforts were indispensable to the longevity of the Capitol occupation.

Michael Billeaux, Teaching Assistants Association Co-President 2013-2015
Rahul Mahajan, Sociologist and Author
Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, Teaching Assistants Association activist
John Matthews, Madison Teachers Inc. Executive Director 1968-2016
Matthew Kearney Activist, UW-Madison PhD Candidate, Sociology
Charity Schmidt, Teaching Assistants Association Co-President 2012-2014
and the late Marty Beil, AFSCME Council 24 Executive Director 1985-2015, who was led out of the Capitol in handcuffs, a profoundly sorrowful ending to a mighty career. 

All of those individuals present themselves in the film with an open, honest professionalism and candor that was indicative of the masses who took part within the protests, and Acosta delivers them all to the viewer without any manufactured hyperbole, forced melodrama or feigned heroism.

For all of the invigorating protest footage, Katherine M. Acosta's "Divided We Fall," succeeds greatly not just as a document of a specific socio-political time period. As previously stated, the film serves as a template combined with an urgently solemn warning for the mistakes to be avoided now that we are not only living in a two-term winning Scott Walker Wisconsin but more grandly, a President Trump America. What made Acosta's film so shattering, and without utilizing any sense of political dogma, she not only demonstrated precisely how rebellions can rise and fall but how the politics of self-preservation, especially from those who are fighting upon the same political sides, can negatively affect and ultimately derail the movement.

In the case of the events depicted within "Divided We Fall," we have Union leaders, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin and the Capitol protesters all with differing agendas and no means of consolidating a variety of messages and approaches into something unified. The local Madison Teachers Inc. organization felt betrayed by the union of Wisconsin Education Association Council, essentially losing whatever foothold the protesters may have obtained initially. Protesters felt abandoned by Wisconsin Assembly Democrats, who seemed to favor a certain status quo at the expense of innovation.

And Acosta captures one infuriating moment late in the film featuring former Wisconsin Assembly Democrat Brett Hulsey took to the "People's Mic" during a stage when Walker's Department Of Administration increased a state police presence designed to move the protesters out of the Capitol and announced to the crowd, "We are winning! We are winning! And one of the things winners do is they know when know...when to back off just a little bit." Hulsey's condescension, his own misconceptions about the occupation, even alleging violence that never happened, was deplorable and indicative of the lack of solidarity that ran against the words of solidarity people like him spoke of. Furthermore, Acosta gives us the trepidation and uncertainty of the protesters themselves, people forced to police themselves to the point that they felt unsure as to how far they should fight this battle.

The defeat of the protests and the uprising in full was profound in its symbolism as Madison, Wisconsin was the birthplace of progressive politics and now, under the Walker regime, those politics have effectively been killed here, thus setting the table for the national wave to enact the very same policies under the Trump presidency. With the Republicans, it can be expected for them to lie, cheat and steal their way into power and unapologetically so--and in the case of the events during and after the uprising in 2011, the Republicans handled themselves with an unprecedented degree of rapacious disregard for any political decency. That being said, the Democrats and the Union leaders made the grave error of placing all of their political eggs in the recall Scott Walker basket, thus forcing everyone to again trust in a specific system that had already let so many down--precisely the stage where liberals and progressives find themselves in 2017, and with a new Wisconsin Governor's election set for 2018 with no clear opponents to Walker in sight. Divide and conquer indeed.

Katherine M. Acosta's "Divided We Fall" is truly remarkable work. After two viewings, and with a myriad of narratives at her disposal to chose from, it amazes me how Acosta kept her film from being bogged down and cluttered, ensuring that her presentation contained a clean, clear-eyed focus that always kept her cinematic eyes upon the prize. Her film is emotional, certainly. Informational, definitely. But it is first and foremost an impassioned piece of journalism merged with a history lesson designed for understanding how to proceed with our political battles in the future by regarding the triumphs and most importantly, the missteps of our recent past.

Katherine M. Acosta's "Divided We Fall" will be screened on April 2, 2017 during the annual Wisconsin Film Festival at the Barrymore Theater in Madison, WI.  Tickets are NOW on sale and can be purchased at the following website:

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