NEW YORK — David Sauvage stands on a sidewalk in SoHo, whipped by a cool autumn wind. He wears a black T-shirt and blue jeans. Dark, curly hair flops over his ears, and thick, rectangular glasses frame his brown eyes. He is 31 and thin as a filmstrip, casting-call perfection for the role of the struggling documentary director. At the moment, he is talking about stories and choices: purity, effectiveness, and truth.
“You can only tell people’s story from the inside, in their words,” he says, “or you can tell your story, and use people as pawns.”
Sauvage is breaking from hours of video storytelling slog, splicing clips of protesters from the Occupy Wall Street gathering in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park into a slick, quick package to beam out to the masses during football timeouts or cop-drama cliffhangers.
(RELATED: Raging Against—and Working Within—the System)
The work is unpaid. It is his contribution to the Occupy movement, a personal protest against a system that seems to have lost interest in the stories he wants to tell, because, he says, all anyone cares about is telling the stories that people with money want to hear. But that’s not the case in Zuccotti Park, he says. Not amid the throngs of protesters who have caught the nation’s attention by force of presence alone, but have vexed so many Americans by refusing to articulate a set of goals or demands that their movement hopes to achieve. The presence in the park has energized Sauvage. The muddled message from the protests has jarred him to action.
“That feeling, that connection of human beings to one another, it’s alive down there,” he says. “I want to get that out. It’s unfair to expect the people who are angry and outraged to express their desires in the language of politics and power.”
A woman rushes up to Sauvage on the street, pink-cheeked, cradling a flower bouquet wrapped in plastic. She hugs him. He introduces her: the creative director of Bon Appetit magazine, one of his more steady sources of cash. To pay the bills, to afford to pursue the stories he wants to tell, Sauvage cuts commercials for big corporate clients. Now here is one of them — a friend, but also a reminder of the power that money holds over his storytelling — gently intruding on his labor of love. She chats for a second, then darts away.
He ducks inside to escape the chill.
Occupy Wall Street is a Monet protest: The closer you look at it, the less sense it makes. Upon inspection, the tidy caricature of neo-hippies raging against the financial system melts into a dot matrix of social, economic, and political anxiety. In Zuccotti Park on a recent afternoon you could find signs that said “Capitalism is Cancer” and “Free Empathy” and “I am the 99%” and even “Zionists Control Wall Street.” A woman was singing Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror”(Gonna make a change/ For once in my life) in a seemingly endless loop.
In the month since it sprang to life in the park and inspired hundreds of similar protests across the country, Occupy Wall Street has reveled in the opacity of its message. The outcry itself is the point. To focus it risks diluting it, or splintering the group, or opening it to co-option by entrenched political interests. It’s all very Tao Te Ching: The message is the message, and the message that is spoken is not the true message.
Confused? So is the country. Opinion polls show wild fluctuations from one to the next on the simple question of how many Americans support Occupy Wall Street. The protesters’ critics, meanwhile, are happy to stick with the hippie caricature in mocking the movement. Whether they like it or not, the Occupy crowd is rolling up to a crossroads. How far the movement will spread, and how much it will influence the public debate during a time of wrenching change in America, almost certainly depends on how the protesters reconcile the competing demands of telling their story on their terms and of telling their story in terms that the masses can understand and connect to.
As it happens, David Sauvage has wrestled that problem for much of his life.
Sauvage grew up in Los Angeles, living the life, as he puts it, of “the perfect spoiled white kid.” He attended Harvard-Westlake, an elite private high school, and then Columbia University in New York. In college, he dreamed of writing plays. When he graduated, all he wanted to do was find a way to make a living out of telling meaningful stories. Instead he found a constant friction.
He finished at Columbia in 2002 and left New York a couple of years later for Los Angeles, where he worked four months as an assistant to the executive producer of CSI: Miami. He left, returned to New York City, wrote a couple plays, crapped out, went back to L.A. again, and earned an M.B.A at the University of California (Los Angeles).
In business school, Sauvage shot a 23-minute documentary, Carissa, about one of his business-school classmates who was forced into prostitution at age 12. He found an executive producer — and mentor — in documentarian Davis Guggenheim, who directed An Inconvenient Truth and Waiting for Superman, two of the higher-profile American documentaries of the last decade. Carissa was distributed by a studio and won awards at several film festivals. Sauvage thought maybe his long-running battle between storytelling and moneymaking was ending. And then … nothing else came his way.