Velcrow Ripper and Paul Jay discuss Ripper’s new film and movements, power and the synthesis of spirituality and politics
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
In his new film, Occupy Love, Velcrow Ripper sets out to answer the question, can the current crisis be turned into a love story. He frames the film with a quote from Martin Luther King.
Martin Luther King once said that love without power is sentimental and anemic, but power without love is reckless and abusive.
JAY: Now joining us to talk about the film from Brooklyn is Velcrow Ripper. He’s a Canadian Academy Award winning filmmaker. His latest film, as I said, is Occupy Love, and it’s the culmination of his epic Fierce Love trilogy, which began with the film Scared Sacred, winner of the 2005 Genie, which is a Canadian film award, for best feature documentary, but it won lots of other awards too.
Thanks for joining us, Velcrow.
VELCROW RIPPER, FILMMAKER: Hey. It’s great to be here, Paul.
JAY: So why did you pose this as the question, how do we turn this crisis into a love story? And I know lots of people you asked this question to thought you were nutty.
RIPPER: Yeah. Well, it was a–you know, the understanding of Fierce Light, the previous film, was about bringing together spirituality and activism in the vein of Gandhi or Martin Luther King. And I found when I used the word spiritual, people often have conflicting ideas about what that means. So I kind of boiled that understanding down to love. King talked about love in action, and Gandhi did as well. So I’m talking about love in that way, a kind of fierce love. And so the question was, you know, confronted with could this kind of love transform the crisis we’re facing globally.
JAY: One of the characters in your film, I believe it’s from a Spanish Occupy. My memory may be wrong. But he says that what–and I thought he kind of caught the essence of much of what Occupy was–he said the issue is the methodology, not the ideology.
ROK, 15M MOVEMENT: [incompr.] are puppets of banks, but banks are not democratic. Everyone thinks different, we know. But all the people are agreed that we are going to work with an assembly, we are going to work horizontally, we are going to work–everyone can speak, everyone can talk. Everyone. It’s very interesting. It’s not in the ideology; it’s the methodology.
JAY: So does that–is that a big piece of your thinking about what Occupy was? And what does that mean?
RIPPER: Sure. Now, just to be clear, the film–Occupy is just one thread through the film. Also woven through the film is the climate justice movement, the Arab Spring, the Indignados, who are their own entity. You know, it kind of tracks the movement, especially during the year 2011 to 2012. But yes. And that was someone from the M-15 movement in Spain, and he was getting at the idea that the movement, these new movements are very horizontal and are challenging the whole notion of vertical power. Yeah, that is an important aspect of the movement.
JAY: And in terms of the thesis of the film, isn’t that process part of what you’re saying is of what not just Occupy but these movements in general that you’ve described, that’s part of what their contribution is, and that’s sort of–you quote various people saying this kind of process is the vision for the future.
RIPPER: It’s something important that they add to the conversation. And that’s also the understanding that the means that we get to this sort of new world that we’re working towards is also important, not just the end goal itself. So incorporating the means into the journey to the ends.
JAY: So, I mean, the basic, if I get the film correctly, is you have this kind of explosion. And it’s actually probably not all that different than the movement that made up the early Christians as they fought the Roman Empire, which is this idea that love and sort of a sense of collective interest has to drive a movement that’s fighting against oppression. In fact, all through the film I kept asking myself, well, what is different about this than the movement of the early Christians?
RIPPER: Well, I’m honestly not familiar with the early Christians as a model, so I can’t really speak to that. But I do have a sense, having been in activist circles, you know, all my life, I did have an immediate sense when I started going into these movements that the things were different. There was a sense of inclusiveness that I hadn’t seen before. Many of the people involved were not activists at all. It was their first time getting involved in these kinds of movements. So I thought that was really new. And the attempt to try to do something without vertical structure was something I hadn’t really seen before in activism as well. So in general also the new social media tools that we have to organize allowed these massive global events to sort of unfold as well, all at the same time, which we’re also starting to see more and more. And I see this kind of organizing continuing with the Idle No More movement today and related movements.
JAY: So in the end, you end the film–I hope this isn’t–what do you call–a spoiler alert, but with saying that you found the love you were looking for. It was messier, perhaps, than some perfect version you had hoped for or thought you might find. So talk about what–in the end what–how did this change your view on movements and this kind of synergy or merging you’re looking for between politics and spirituality.
RIPPER: Well, there’s–I think that what we’re seeing, and I think this is getting more and more clear as, you know, we just passed 400 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere last week, and we’re really facing this undeniable sense that there is a crisis. And the hope that I find is that more and more people are waking up to this, and we’re drawing in people who were just not involved before. So there’s this sense of possibility in that, you know, we have in this sense, like, a movement of movements bubbling up around the world that together–and this is–when I’m talking about love, I’m also talking about interdependence–together has a possibility of making some real change. And I’m including especially right now a lot of energy’s going into the climate justice movement, which has never been stronger. So that for me is hopeful.
JAY: One of–I mean, my reaction to the film was that it sort of captured everything right about the Occupy movement and the other movements and revolutions that we’re talking about in the film, although they’re not all equal to each other. But it also kind of reflected to me something that’s wrong with almost all the movements you talk about. And I go back to the King quote that you used to frame the film with. And I’ll just–again, I’ll read it one more time: power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. And what I always thought about Occupy–and I’ll focus on Occupy now–I know–as I know–but I think this does speak to, to some extent, the Egyptian Revolution as well–is that it never had its eye on power, or it had a vague notion of what it is to have your eye on power. And what I mean by that is as something as straightforward as electoral politics of some form or the other. I’m not saying just play the game of Democrats versus Republicans. But what I always thought was interesting about the Latin American movement, which doesn’t show up as much in the film, although there’s this interesting question you asked Evo Morales at the beginning, does he think you could turn the crisis into love
RIPPER: Many people are losing hope, and they know how bad the situation is with climate change. But I see also an opportunity here. And my question is: how can the climate crisis be transformed into perhaps the greatest love story on earth?
You told me off-camera he thought you were nuts asking the question.
RIPPER: Yeah, he did. I’ll tell you that on-camera too.
JAY: Yeah. But the Latin American movement seemed to have more of its eye on actually taking power. Like, Greg Wilpert wrote this book about Venezuela, and the title of it is Changing Venezuela by Taking Power. And I’ve always thought that’s a weakness of the movement in North America, less so in Europe where they’re also–like, with the Green movement there’s been more a sense of trying to actually take power. In the film, Naomi Klein says, you know, we have to do more than just be against, we have to be for, we have to pose alternatives. But pose alternatives to who? Because if you’re just asking these elites, you know, the 1 percent, if you will, to take the grammar from the Occupy movement, if you’re asking them to be nicer, if you’re asking them to care about climate change, you’re asking them to be compassionate and to feel love, you know, you may knock off one or two people who see the light and become, I don’t know, baptized, but as a stratum, as a class, they ain’t changing their nature.
RIPPER: Right. Well, that’s a really good question. And it is a fascinating thing about the Occupy movement, in that it wasn’t particularly interested in the old divides of left and right and party politics at all. I guess, you know, many people from the younger generation have just been profoundly disillusioned with the electoral system, particularly this sense that it’s absolutely dominated by corporate power at this point. That said, there are, you know, people in the film who have been suggesting–like, Colin [dEv@n] at the New York premiere, theatrical premiere of Occupy Love brought this up and said he’s often unpopular in the movement for saying this, that he ran in party politics as a Green candidate simply to be a fly in the ointment and bring up all these issues that other candidates were trying to avoid, but because he was–in that context he was able to do that. So I totally understand that criticism, ’cause there is obviously some limitations to not. But the movement was not a supplicant movement. It wasn’t interested in being a supplicant to that system.
So can we change it from the bottom up? How are we going to take it? I mean, these are huge questions. But the top-down system has failed us again and again.
JAY: But this top-down system is–it’s not just, like, about top-down system, about process or how decisions are made. And this is something, again–it’s–for me it’s a critique of the film, and not just the film, a critique of the movement to some extent, although, of course, I’m generalizing, ’cause there are people very much involved in this movement that are probably going to agree with what I’m about to say. But two things. One is it’s also about how things are owned. Like, this top-down power is not just because there’s some process of top-down methodology. It has to do with people that own stuff. And if you own the commanding heights of the economy and you get the political power that goes with owning stuff and being able to shove money up the backsides of political representatives in Congress or Parliament or wherever, I mean, it’s that power that comes from ownership that I think that the Occupy movement and even further doesn’t challenge.
And then in terms of some kind of political side of that, if you don’t focus somehow on the issue of how at some point–I’m not saying it’s tomorrow, but at some point actually get hold of government and state and the power that goes with that, then unless you think you’re going to, you know, imbue these people that own the commanding heights of economy with love and turn them all into Buddhists, which I don’t think there’s evidence that could happen.
RIPPER: Yeah. I mean, you know, the Egyptian Revolution did succeed in bringing down power. You know, it did succeed. Now, what happened in its wake is not successful, you know, and is not satisfying yet, but it did actually succeed from a bottom-up movement in challenging power and bringing power down. So we have seen that. We have seen that happen.
JAY: I mean, that would actually–but to me that’s–illustrates my point. I think you could have–not could. We saw a mass movement of tremendous proportions bring down Mubarak. But two things. I mean, the movement–and I don’t critique the movement. The movement was what it was. The people were ready to do what they were ready to do, and someday they’ll do more. But that being said, they had no electoral strategy. So they demand elections. But who wins the elections? It’s the Muslim Brotherhood, the only ones that were actually ready and organized to take advantage of these, of open elections.
RIPPER: Yeah. I mean, the challenge there is that the Muslim Brotherhood was also the people that had that history of being in the neighborhoods and had built a tremendous amount of good faith through doing direct work in communities. And you’re up against a huge cultural shift there as well and a whole religious shift. You know, how do you transform entire societies? And really the questions are so vast. How do we actually–it’s not just about putting a new person in power in the same system. We saw what happened with Obama. He’s still locked into a neoliberal system. How can we actually change the whole system? This is not, I think, something that any of us have a real easy answer to.
JAY: Yeah. I mean, the question is how do you have a movement with candidates, I think, and I don’t think anyone’s quite figured that out yet, and candidates accountable to a movement, you know, ’cause I think you can see in the embryo of Occupy, you know, something about what a new movement could look like. But without–.
RIPPER: What do you think about the Idle No More movement and what its potential is and its Sovereignty Summer this summer?
JAY: Well, it’s a little different, I guess, in the sense that the Idle No More movement does represent nations that have–at least in the Canadian context have a somewhat–have a certain amount of sovereignty.
RIPPER: They have a rooted history as well.
JAY: Yeah, and they’re fighting for–you know, they have treaty rights and they have a–there’s a kind of a legal basis. Like, the Idle No More movement has a place to fight from that kind of doesn’t have to control the Canadian government in a sense. If they could win over the Canadian public opinion and much of it is in their support, you could see them win treaty rights, you could see them, you know, regain some of the power that’s supposed to go with that kind of sovereignty.
RIPPER: And for the rest of us it also could be very important in many of the environmental struggles we’re facing as well.
JAY: Yeah, although the real thing with the environmental struggle is going to come back to, you know, are you going to actually, if not at the national level, sooner than later, because it’s so paralyzed, the politics at the national level, certainly in the U.S., and more or less in Canada too, maybe at the municipal level, maybe some breakthroughs in states or provinces, where you could actually start passing regulation to deal with the issues of, you know, carbon emissions and such, because right now the whole thing is so dominated by either nothing at all or, you know, green derivatives, you know, cap-and-trade schemes to make speculators money.
RIPPER: M’hm. I understand that the blocking of the routes out of the tar sands is actually now almost completely enclosed by treaty nations that have actually come together in a way they haven’t before, just recently. So there could be some real direct action responses that they can accomplish through their nations.
JAY: Well, let me give you one other question that is sort of a knock on the film in a sense. And this is: you end by saying this film, if I remember correctly, this film’s for the 100 percent.
RIPPER: Yeah. M’hm.
JAY: I mean, I love the sentiment of it. You know, we’re for humanity. And you could say even the 1 percent, in the view, certainly of people like us, it’s even in their interests in the long strategic term for, like, if not them and their kids, maybe their grandchildren to live on a planet that isn’t–you know, it’s destroyed.
RIPPER: Yeah. And, by the way, it’s less and less about the grandchildren. It’s more about, like, right now. You know. Like, we used to think about future generations. Let’s talk about saving the planet right now.
JAY: Yeah. I’m just talking from the perspective of really rich people. They figure, well, I’m okay, my kids will be okay, you know, maybe a generation or two that–. You know, I mean, they really don’t believe there’ll ever be a time they’re not okay, which is kind of my point here.
One of the great achievements of the Occupy movement, I thought, was that they did two things. Number one, it actually said there are class divisions in the society. You know. I don’t think really it’s 1 percent versus 99. I think you could probably stratify it differently. You know, if you look at some of the stats, it might be the top 10 or 12 versus everybody else, but it doesn’t matter, the concept that we’re not just all the same. And I thought that was an important achievement of Occupy. And they also made it possible to talk about capitalism as a system and that the problem is systemic, and that was not a small achievement. That helped change the discourse of things. But [crosstalk] the film we’re 100 percent, which kind of goes against that whole notion that this is a class society and there’s a fight taking place here.
RIPPER: To me it doesn’t, because we do have–that is, I hold that, you know, and I hold that truth, and I’m working for and believe in economic justice. I believe in environmental justice.
At the same time, I’m coming from a spiritual perspective when I say something like that and the understanding that ultimately we are all interdependent, we are all interconnected, and we’re in this for everyone, and it includes the so-called 1 percent.
So how do you maintain–and this is spiritual activism–how do you maintain–and Martin Luther King would say this and Gandhi would say this–how do you maintain that need to create justice, at the same time recognizing the deeper truth? You know, this is my perspective. This is where I come from as a–.
JAY: Well, so answer the question. When you’re dealing–take climate change and there’s very entrenched interests. I mean, it seems to me–.
RIPPER: This is, like, love your enemy stuff, right? This is love your enemy stuff. And that’s my perspective.
JAY: Well, it’s–but you can love your enemy and still fight your enemy.
RIPPER: You don’t have to like them, you don’t have to like them, but you can still love them.
JAY: I guess I like the concept that we should not do this out of hatred, and I like the idea that if you’re going to fight against these entrenched interests, you don’t lose your humanity and kind of become like them.
RIPPER: That’s right. You don’t lower yourself to that level of humanity. You actually can stay at a deeper place.
Also, when you hate, when you hate, you’re actually giving away your power. You know, you throw your power away when you hate.
So I think we can be powerful in love. I actually–I believe that. I don’t think it’s a–I’m not–as I said, it’s not a sentimental, anemic love; it’s a fierce love. And that’s where I’m really coming from. It’s a Gandhian love. It’s a Kingian love.
JAY: Yeah. But what I’m saying is if it doesn’t go that next step towards actually, number one, having an eye on seeking and attaining power by a movement, not by some individuals who, I agree, you just elect one candidate, they’ll get eaten for breakfast by the system and they’ll–you know, or at best, you know, they’ll be able to speak out and barely be heard, but maybe heard a little more ’cause they’re sitting in an elected office, but an eye on seeking power. And then the other thing is, don’t we have to keep reminding people, even if you love your enemy–and I like the concept of love your enemy; I like that we don’t, you know, just replace one set of barbarians with another–but remind people that we’re not all in this together in a real, practical sense, that there’s people who have real interests, and those interests, they would rather see climate–you know, they would rather see two, five, six, seven degrees of warming than have to change the way things are owned and the way they do business.
RIPPER: Well, I think that’s pretty clear in the film. I mean, we look at market capitalism, we look at neoliberalism, we go to the tar sands, we see the destruction that’s happening there, you know, we have, you know, Jeremy Rifkin–and we talk about climate change, we talk about why–you know, how the economic crisis and the ecological crisis is completely rooted in a green-based, growth-based system that knows no limit. So, you know, I’m not–you know, and my–the spirituality I’m talking about is something that comes from going to places like Bhopal, seeing humanity at its worst. I’m not talking of featherweight spirituality here.
JAY: No. I get that. But, actually, let me play the Rifkin quote, ’cause actually I think my critique is actually mostly about what Rifkin’s quote says.
But here’s where I’m hopeful. We started off with limited empathic distress that extended to those at flood tides. And then we extended empathy to those who had similar religious affiliations. Then we extended our empathy to those who had similar national identities. Is it a big stretch to imagine the next stage, where we can extend our empathy to empathize with our entire species and our fellow creatures living in one biosphere, when we can go not just beyond political borders but beyond human borders and begin to see a borderless world where all life together is part of a single family? Then we really create a love story where the planet is safe.
JAY: So explain to me just where there is empathy across a whole nation. Which country is that? ‘Cause I missed it. I mean, where is the empathy towards nation in the United States or in Canada towards its native people and working people and on and on and on? Like, I’m getting back to my same point. But these are class societies, and the elites don’t have empathy towards their own nation.
RIPPER: I guess he’s talking about how society bonded together historically from small tribes to larger and larger units, and that the possibility is that if we could create a cohesive structure at a nation-state level, there’s–could we not extend this understanding. I think there’s definitely limitations, obviously, to the nation state. But his hope, and I guess my hope, is that could humanity–and I feel humanity’s in this kind of desperate adolescent stage where we don’t see things in systems, whole systems, and there’s no–at this point we–. Climate change is a great unifier in that way. We’re starting to learn that there is nobody else’s–there is not somebody else’s back yard anymore. You know, as we start to recognize that, then we can work across borders to try to come to solutions that could do that. This is the hope, that this crisis could actually cause that kind of a thinking, because we can’t keep thinking there’s an away. There is no away anymore.
JAY: So this is the end of your Fierce Love trilogy. What’s next?
RIPPER: Well, the next thing I’m working on is looking at basically what would a re-envisioned society look like on multiple levels. So this was more about social movements. And now I’m looking at–going to look at what is actually–what is restorative justice, what does an ecological-based society look at, what does an economically just society look like, and just going through the sort of pillars of a new paradigm and mapping that out.
JAY: Alright. Cool. Thanks very much for joining us, Velcrow.
RIPPER: Alright. Thanks a lot, Paul.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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