5 Questions: ‘Divided We Fall’s’ Katherine Acosta

Katherine Acosta Wisconsin Film Festival

Fittingly, the thoroughly-researched Act 10 documentary lets us patch up a few disagreements of our own

Between Forward, Madtown, Citizen Koch, and Wisconsin Rising, we have at least four films that touch on Wisconsin’s 2011 Act 10 protests. So when director Katherine Acosta reached out to me last year before premiering Divided We Fall at Sundance, I wasn’t keen on covering what felt like an important message but one audiences had already heard. In an email to me, Acosta argued that “several things” distinguished her film including its “critical look at the occupation and Uprising.”

It’s hard to argue with that. Twelfth House has certainly done their homework, and the mind boggles at the sifting and sorting editor Gretta Wing Miller surely endured throughout the production. While I still harbor reservations, clearly the Wisconsin Film Festival saw something in Divided We Fall, giving it a cozy late-morning screening at the Barrymore on Sun, Apr 2. Wanting to preserve our connection (and maybe learn a thing or two), I picked back up on my conversation with Acosta, who was gracious enough to answer “5 Questions:”

1. I’ve been open with you in the past about my general feelings on Act 10 films. You’ve argued that among other things, Divided We Fall looks at the protests from a sociological perspective. Apart from analysis by a social scientist though, it’s not all that clear to me that this is what the film is doing. And aren’t all films about protesting sociological to a degree?

I want to take this opportunity to emphasize, if I wasn’t clear before, that the key difference between our film and those that came earlier is that, rather than focusing primarily on what is being done to the protesters (effects of Act 10, money in politics, etc.), we focus our critical lens inward on the Wisconsin Uprising itself. So our film is a kind of case study of a social movement, highlighting some of the successes and failures of the Uprising, as well as some of the tensions among various groups.

Honestly, it is an experiment of sorts, where I tried to stake out some middle ground between sociology and filmmaking. I did not use sociological jargon and I did not want the film to read like a PowerPoint presentation. I hoped it would play like an engrossing story, yet at the same time, I wanted to convey critical analysis. The TAs we interviewed are ideally positioned to give us a useful account. As scholar-activists, they were at the center of the action, but are also trained to analyze sociological phenomena. Their commentary is meatier than, for example, [former Wisconsin State Employees Union leader] Marty Beil’s.

2. What changes have you made since your premiere at Sundance?

We eliminated about 10 minutes by tightening up the story line, especially at the beginning of the film, during the discussion of the run-up to the protests. We also moved a segment discussing potential work stoppages to earlier in the film, to improve the story arc. And we made the wrap-up statements at the end a little more coherent.

3. You choose audio and black-and-white photos when recalling public testimony against the bill. It’s a very striking contrast to the actual footage. Why that stylistic change?

I found the public testimony very powerful. At the time, I wasn’t really focused on the hearing, but once I started researching the film, I watched the entire 17 hours. I was struck by how much thought so many testifiers put into their statements. They referenced labor history, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Abraham Lincoln, etc. These were intelligent, engaged citizens attempting to influence their government.

In an earlier edit we had at least twice as much of the testimony but had to cut it down in the interests of time. And there is a lot of activity in the hearing room that can be distracting. So the black-and-white images in the later edit serve to emphasize the statements that did make the cut, allowing us to focus more on the words. It also gives the feel, I think, of an historic event.

4. Towards the end, you show a scene from a Tea Party counter-rally where the cameraman reminds a Tea Party protestor that the labor movement is responsible for giving workers the weekend off — and that it’s a relative luxury that he’s able to take that time to protest. It’s an engaging moment and a glimpse at the “Madison bubble” the film acknowledges. What made you include this footage specifically?

The scene illustrates the difficulty of talking across party lines in a polarized electorate. It immediately follows a statement by Senator Chris Larson that a better strategy than protesting is talking to people who don’t agree with us. Following the scene, [former The Progressive magazine editor] Matt Rothschild acknowledges that there is a percentage of those who don’t agree with us that we’ll never reach, but that we can find common ground with some.

Billions of dollars are spent annually on political propaganda and I think it’s glib to suggest that individual citizens can effectively counter that during an election season by just talking with people who don’t agree with us. And yet, as Professor Cramer says, talking is the answer.

5. Prof. Katherine Cramer makes an excellent point about politicians perpetuating divides, which might feel even more true in 2017. How do you see Divided We Fall in relation to those differences that are so often exploited across identity politics?

Divided We Fall is primarily about the tensions within one side of the Democratic/Republican divide. But it is book-ended by images representative of the larger political divide within which the 2011 Wisconsin Uprising occurred. Ultimately, this larger divide has to be addressed if we are to make any headway in pushing back against the corporatocracy.

As I mentioned earlier, Cramer says that talking to those who don’t agree with us doesn’t always work, but that talking is the answer. Or at least honest listening. My own view is that this talking across the divide has to begin where there is pre-existing common ground. It has been done – Bold Nebraska, for example, brought together people on the right and left of the political spectrum to organize together against the Keystone pipeline. Ruth Caplan, of the Alliance for Democracy, has spoken about successful organizing of left and right to resist corporate control of water in rural communities. The two sides usually have different reasons for pursuing their common goals but, through working together, often come to understand the other side’s reasons as well. I actually interviewed Caplan because I wanted to get to this point, but that was beyond the scope of this movie as it evolved. I might take it up as a subject for another film.

Divided We Fall suggests that we have work to do on “divides” within our movement. Perhaps doing so will not only make future actions more successful, but also teach us something about addressing the larger divide as well.

  • Divided We Fall plays on Sun, Apr 2 at 11:00a in the Barrymore Theatre.