The days of civil rights sit-ins and anti-Vietnam marches are long gone, even our memories of ACT-UP or demonstrations against the Gulf Wars have gone a little blurry. Challenging the status quo through banner-waving and synchronized chanting has been replaced by all cap pronouncements on blogs and viral videos -- forms of protest which may reach a global audience, but lose the sense of community and power that masses of actual human bodies provide.
It's refreshing, then, and simultaneously troubling to see an account of a massive street protest in Stuart Townsend's Battle in Seattle. The story of the 40,000-person protests and riots that engulfed the 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) presents an almost nostalgic image: idealistic marchers braving tear gas and billy clubs to shut down the machinations of corporate greed and globalization.
The movie weaves together archival footage taken from the WTO protests with the fictional stories of four protestors, two riot cops, a newscaster and the mayor of Seattle. Battle in Seattle creates a portrait of the city as it was during the talks -- a violent and dramatic battleground between governments who support free trade and individuals who believe that global trade policies sacrifice human rights and environmental concerns to the bottom line.
An ensemble cast featuring Woody Harrelson, Charlize Theron, Michelle Rodriquez and Ray Liotta lends insight into the personal dramas underlaying one of recent history's most important events. And, ultimately, Battle in Seattle delivers an inspirational message: activism can succeed. The protestors who block off intersections and infiltrate WTO meetings break down talks meant to establish a new set of trade agreements for the 21st century.
Battle for Seattle simultaneously presents the tragedy inherent to civil disobedience in the sacrifices the protestors must make to get their point across. Protestors at the WTO conference suffered through brutal and often unprovoked attacks by heavily-armed policemen and National Guardsmen. Over 600 protestors, many of whom had done nothing wrong, were arrested. And for what? For practicing their right to free speech? For standing up for the African children who couldn't receive AIDS medication because of its prohibitive cost? For speaking on behalf of an endangered turtle whose habitat was being threatened by shipping lanes?
Though the protestors shut down the WTO in 1999, the organization met in Qatar two years later to hammer out almost the exact same policies. The fact that the movie Battle in Seattle exists at all is proof that activism is a costly and losing fight: nine years removed from the WTO riots, the world needs a movie to remind it that the protests even happened. Moreover, the film is a sad reminder of the current state of our world, where terrorism is never far from the mind. Watching Battle in Seattle, I couldn't help but wonder when something was going to blow up, or envision the shifty-looking Doctors Without Borders representative as a secret agent sent to teach the world's powers a lesson about getting involved in the affairs of others. As difficult as it is to admit, if some of the declarations made by activist characters in Battle in Seattle were made today, by people with a different skin tone, Homeland Security would go into Orange Alert.
Ultimately, the average people who stand toe-to-toe against riot police, chanting peacefully and preparing to be attacked, get their voices heard. In that way, there is something beautiful about Battle in Seattle. The movie reminds us that people can make a difference, that nonviolent protestors can make a stand for what they believe in, and can open the world's eyes to the important and troubling decisions being made behind closed doors.
Battle in Seattle opens Friday, September 19, 2008.