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Free Trade Hits the Big Screen: Battle in Seattle

By Ben Beachy, Regional Organizer

Battle in Seattle, the new fictional film based on the very real 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle, is prone to incite nostalgia, indignation, joy, and perhaps even flashbacks in viewers who’ve taken to the streets at one point or another for economic justice.  The film veers from hilarious, such as when Starbucks calls the forced closing of its stores an “injustice,” to harrowing, when a riot cop nonchalantly removes a teenager’s mask so as to more directly pepper-spray his eyes.  Using manifold reels of actual footage from the 1999 protests, the movie captures much of the intensity of the historic clash—one often credited as the genesis of today’s global justice movement.  

But what about those who weren’t in downtown Seattle choking back tear gas in November, ’99?  What impact will the film have on those not at the center of the ongoing trade justice struggle?  Near the end of the film, Andre 3000’s character offers perhaps the most honest summary of the lasting effect of the 1999 WTO confrontation: “A week ago, nobody knew what the WTO was.  Now…well, they still don’t know what it is, but they think it’s bad.”  Andre’s analysis may be just as apt for the lasting impact of Battle in Seattle, the movie, as it was for the actual battle in Seattle—the film will likely remind people that there are many reasons to denounce the WTO, without actually delving into most of those reasons.  The film, following a vignette style similar to that of Magnolia, views the WTO protest through the lens of its motley characters who struggle to carry out their roles as mayor, cop, organizer, and reporter amidst the tear gas-infused mayhem of those five days in Seattle.  In telling their individual narratives, the movie largely forsakes the lens of the thousands of unionists confronting the largest threat to collective bargaining in recent decades, feminists decrying neoliberalism’s disproportionate imposition on women, small-scale farmers fighting back against an agribusiness-happy system that would prefer to see them disappear, et cetera.  

It is not as if, however, the movie’s makers were ignorant of the vast array of deep-seated beefs with the WTO.  Stuart Townsend, director and writer, explained in a recent meeting with trade activists that he had two options: do a multi-volume documentary on the injustices of neoliberal trade policy, which would be viewed by a small, already-informed crowd; or, do something less weighty with actual mass appeal.  The theory is that people outside of the trade justice choir, people attracted to Andre 3000’s Outkast rhymes or Charlize Theron’s aesthetic allure, will watch the film and be left, not with an informed analysis of investor-state dispute resolution mechanisms, but with a desire to know more about the WTO and why so many oppose it.  To feed such curiosity, Townsend’s crew created two websites (battleinseattle.com and whocontrolstheworld.com) that do indeed serve to educate viewers on many of the causes that descended on Seattle’s streets in ‘99.  The key question that remains is whether the film/website combo will be enough to effectively transform mainstream hots for stars like Andre and Charlize into new blood for the trade justice movement.  Will the film remain an entertaining, socially-conscious Hollywood flick, or will it become the educational gateway its makers wish it to be?  

This, in part depends on you.  The movie is being released in select cities throughout the US in late September and early October.  If it attracts large crowds, it’s likely to be launched into theaters nationwide and enjoy ample screen time.  If not, it will go straight to video.  So this is your chance to take your friends, family, and neighbors, whether seasoned activists or people who’ve never heard of the WTO, and head to the movies.  For family and friends not familiar with the WTO (probably the majority, given that trade topics are rarely broached at the dinner table), you may find the film to be the sort of opening you need (and the sort that it was intended to provide) to discuss justice issues that matter to you with the people who matter to you.  Showings scheduled thus far in the mid-Atlantic include:  New York City (9/19), Washington DC (9/19), Pittsburgh (9/25), and Philadelphia (10/3).  If your city/town isn’t listed for a showing yet, you can get one to come to your local theater simply by getting 200 people to request it.  Just go to www.battleinseattlemovie.com, click on the “Demand It” button, and enter your ZIP code.  Get 199 other people to do the same, and you’ve got a showing.  For more information, check out the widget below.  Happy viewing. 

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