The issue of income inequality came to a head in 2011 when the Occupy Wall Street movement erupted. Through widespread protests, attention was drawn to the yawning gap between the super rich and everyone else, and a new, polarizing vernacular was born to describe it. Suddenly, it was all about the 99% versus the 1%.
During those protests in New York’s Zuccotti Park, comedic actors Jason Selvig and Davram Stiefler took it upon themselves to enter the fray, adopting the persona of investment bankers who’d come to protest the protesters. They said some pretty outrageous things, got protesters riled up, and then filmed it. This stunt—which was assumed to be legit and landed the duo on national news—inspired friend and filmmaker Brendan Gibbons to take their footage and parlay it into a satiric feature film about income inequality.
Preoccupied, which is now showing at the Brooklyn Film Festival, is a film about two young, brash investment bankers who through a combination of hubris and naïveté find themselves leading the charge of an anti-Occupy movement. Seamlessly incorporating the real footage of Selvig and Steifler at the protests, Gibbons weaves a fictional tale of two very self-centered, misogynistic, money-hungry dudes just trying to get by in life . . . my making as much money as possible. For the first half of the film John and Robert are two of the most despicable characters you can imagine, particularly the boorish and philandering John. But as Gibbon’s story plays out, the results of their anti-Occupy antics begin to reveal the roots of their motivation.
Gibbons, who also works as a commercial director with Station Film (the company also produced this film), says the intent of the film was to use comedy as a way to explore "one of the defining issues of our times."
"As a comedy director, I wanted to do something that was unique on this broader topic of income inequality. Everything coming out of this world comes out of the perspective of the left or the right, and there’s not a lot of sense of humor coming through," he says. "I wanted to tell a story that was fresh. I don’t think you see anything about income inequality that doesn’t take a serious tone and land squarely on one side."
And land on one side is definitely not something Preoccupied does. Aside from leaving the story on an ambiguous note, John and Robert’s characters—which are amalgamations of real-world Wall Street types, albeit extreme versions thereof—evolve to the point that they actually generate sympathy. Gibbons also populates the film with a variety of characters that paint a fuller picture of the investment banking world.
"I wanted to create a cast of characters that showed the nuances of the whole thing. The two guys are fighting for what they think is right but then we learn that they’re mistaken, not only in their motivation, but also in their understanding of who they are, and suddenly they have to look at this whole world with a new perspective. That’s what this film wants to do—open up the possibility of looking at everything from a slightly different perspective and understanding the other side a little bit," says Gibbons. "I didn’t want this film to be a hatchet job on bankers. I wanted it to have some grey areas and hope for redemption and ask some questions about this bigger issue in a way that makes people think . . . and laugh."
The film doesn’t end on a didactic note, as one might expect from the topic. In fact, this ability to leave the narrative open to interpretation was a key factor into Gibbons’s decision not to make a documentary, which could have been too serious, or a mockumentary, which could have been too silly. Instead, it reflects the reality and complexity of the topic; that there is no one right answer.
"I have a realist perspective about our capitalist society," Gibbons says. "It is inherently unfair because those in power will keep and use their power to their advantage. But at the same time I believe it’s the best system that we’ve ever come up with so it needs to be protected and watched. That’s the point I wanted to make in the story: we have a good system and it doesn’t need to be destroyed but it needs to be taken care of because the opportunities for abuse are everywhere and it will be abused."
The film is showing June 6 at the Brooklyn Film Festival.