Battle for the spirit of the Seattle demonstrations

Reviewed by Dani Barley
Battle in Seattle
Written and directed by Stuart Townsend.
Starring Woody Harrelson, Martin Henderson, Michelle Rodriguez and Andre Benjamin.
Australian release date unknown

Nine years after the massive five-day demonstrations in Seattle against the 1999 World Trade Organization ministerial meeting, the protests are getting some Hollywood attention. First time director and writer Stuart Townsend, probably best known as the actor boyfriend of Oscar winner Charlize Theron (who also appears in this film), takes on the ambitious task of giving a multi-character account of the protests. Thankfully, Townsend and his all-star cast of Martin Henderson, Woody Harrelson, Michelle Rodriguez and Outkast’s Andre Benjamin succeed in both telling the story and recapturing some of the spirit of the protest actions that gave life to the worldwide movement against corporate globalisation.

The film begins with a two-minute primer on the history of the WTO and its global agenda and succinctly explains why there are so many people who have an issue (or many) with the organisation. The first scripted scene gives a dramatic interpretation of how the iconic banner depicting where “Democracy” and “WTO” are located in the city was hung. It’s there we meet the three main protesters of the film — Martin Henderson’s Jay, Michelle Rodriguez’s Lou, and Andre Benjamin’s Django (who arguably steals every scene he’s in with an infectious positivity) — all of whom are veterans of major protest actions throughout the US in the late ‘90s.

Also introduced is fictional Seattle mayor Jim Tobin, interestingly portrayed by Ray Liotta. Tobin is shown as a man with conflicted interests in having lobbied heavily to bring the WTO meeting to Seattle but also determined to allow demonstrators the right to protest during the meeting, even when other officials demand the intervention of the US National Guard. (The real mayor of Seattle in 1999 was Paul Schell and this is one of the few obvious liberties taken with the actual events.) The entire film is a five-day snapshot of the events in Seattle surrounding the November 30 (N30) protests.

Rounding out the cast are Seattle riot squad member Dale (Harrelson) and his wife Ella (Theron) who is four-months pregnant with their first child, and Dr Maric (Rade Serbedzija), a physician from Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders). Maric is determined to lobby the attendees of the WTO conference on behalf of AIDS patients in Africa who are unable to afford the expensive, patented medications used to treat the disease. His story arc is probably the most frustrating one out of the entire film because, while he clearly sympathises with the demonstrators’ causes he disagrees with their aim of shutting down the meeting precisely because he intends to lobby on behalf of his patients. Two-thirds of the way through the film, he reaches his breaking point and exclaims, “Isn’t it time that people mattered more than profit?” Herein lies the entire question that engulfs all of the main characters.

Make no mistake, it’s clear where Townsend’s sympathies lie, but he does a compelling job in portraying all of the people wrapped up in the situation, especially once it devolves into a series of violent police attacks on otherwise peaceful protesters. (An important sidenote — some of the scenes of violence are difficult to stomach, particularly the one where pregnant Ella gets caught in the street as the riot squad moves through.)

Another memorable scene between protester Jay and policeman Dale sums up the problem with those demonstrators who only focus on fighting the police — such actions are not targetted against the “true evil” (the global capitalist system of exploitation of labour) or those who are really in control of the world (the super-rich families that own the big corporations). Jay realises that Dale is just a pawn of those Jay and his compatriots are really trying to fight against. A number of minor characters undergo similar revelations through the course of their own personal story arcs, though some of these conclusions feel slightly forced.

Out of the developed characters, there are really no true winners or losers. The evil behind the WTO and its pro-corporate profit policies are never given a proper face so you’re left with no one to really direct your anger at. In some ways this is positive good because you finish the film feeling angry and energised. Hopefully viewing it will spur its audience to learn more about the world and take action towards changing it. Django, while sitting in a jail cell explains that, “A week ago nobody knew what the WTO was and well, they still don’t know what it is, but they know that it’s bad”.

As stated before, the film takes some dramatic liberties from the actual people and events. Townsend completely glosses over the involvement of the US trade unions, depicting their involvement merely as unintended or even hoodwinked as a result of our three main protesters redirecting their union-official sanctioned march route. Some anarchists from the Seattle Black Bloc have decried their depiction as wanton thugs aimed solely at destroying property, but I’d argue the film uses them more as window dressing than actual characters. The main organiser of the demonstrations, the Direct Action Network, never gets an explicit mention, though its style of consensus organising was instantly recognisable. (I also had a hard time stifling a snicker when I heard the term “affinity group” used again in a serious context.) Honestly, as someone who became radically aware in early 2000, this film left me with a feeling of energised nostalgia.

In response to the film, which Townsend spent six years researching, writing and financing before filming for a mere 29 days, real-life protest organiser David Solnit founded the Seattle WTO People’s History Project (www.realbattleinseattle.org). He’s also just published The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle (AK Press). The website explains: “In fall ‘08, a major motion picture, ‘Battle in Seattle,’ will be seen across North America. It’s a huge improvement over corporate media lies, but won’t tell the motives or thinking of the people who shutdown the WTO. Only we can do that. Stories are how we understand the world and thus shape the future- and the story of Seattle ‘99 shapes what people think of protest, corporate globalization and repression. It’s time that we in the social movements tell our own stories, reclaim our own histories, and publicly fight damaging myths past and present.” It’s certainly an interesting and compelling read, worthy of a look from both new and seasoned campaigners.

The anti-globalisation movement collapsed after the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Many of the leaders of that movement became involved in the anti-war movement. However, the issues surrounding the 1999 WTO protests are just as relevant now as they were nine years ago. With a billion people in the “developing” countries forecast by the UN to face hunger next year, lack of access to medicines and health care for those who need it and the elevating of corporate profit over the needs and rights of workers are even more urgent matters of concern today than in 1999. The current global capitalist financial crisis just illustrates this fact in neon flashing lights.

The film is currently in limited US release with no word as to whether or not it will receive a nation-wide screening. Australian readers wishing to see the film will probably have to wait for the DVD release or see if it’s available to stream on the internet. It’s worth the hassle and it would be worth the wait, if only to inspire (or re-inspire) those who are left wondering why our world is in its current disastrous state.