Bringing Seattle to the screen

September 25, 2008

Leela Yellesetty reviews Battle in Seattle, a docudrama recalling the 1999 protests that marked a high point of the movement against globalization.

ON A gray morning in November when I was 16 years old, I boarded a rickety old van with a sign in the back that said "Our World Is Not For Sale" and headed up to Seattle.

In the preceding months, I had studied the World Trade Organization (WTO) and its role in the widespread abuse of human rights and the environment under the banner of "free trade." Nonetheless, I had no idea that those days in Seattle would change my life, turning myself and countless others into lifelong radicals and activists.

In the days following November 29, 1999, tens of thousands of environmental, human rights, labor and other activists descended on the meetings of the WTO in Seattle, unleashing a storm of police repression and ultimately forcing the disintegration of the proceedings. Seattle marked a turning point in the global justice movement, bringing the struggle against neoliberal trade policies into the belly of the beast while the whole world was watching.

Stuart Townsend's new docudrama, Battle in Seattle, is an attempt to bring these momentous events to life with an all-star cast. The film focuses on a number of characters who were impacted by the WTO protests in various ways, including a riot cop (Woody Harrelson) and his pregnant wife (Charlize Theron) who gets inadvertently caught up in the protests, a member of the African delegation to the WTO, a representative of Doctors Without Borders, a TV anchorwoman and a handful of activists from the Direct Action Network.

Protesters are teargassed in a scene from Battle in Seattle
Protesters are teargassed in a scene from Battle in Seattle

All of them are transformed by their experiences, bringing to life the human drama that animated the protests against corporate greed. Interspersed with these fictionalized characters and re-enactments is real footage of the events, including the direct actions which shut down the opening ceremonies at the Paramount Theater, the massive labor marches and the brutal police repression against nonviolent demonstrators.

The film does have its weaknesses. While it makes an effort to counteract the mainstream media's attempt to remove all context for the protests by providing some of the critiques of the WTO posed by those protesting it, viewers unfamiliar with the subject may want to know more.

The mayor of Seattle is portrayed a bit too sympathetically, leaving the impression that he was a somewhat naive champion of free speech whose hand was forced by higher-ups into unleashing police violence.

Sadly, the activist characters are the least developed in the film, and their personal stories and reasons for protesting are often vague or one-dimensional. Viewers are given little background as to how the protests were organized, and the major role played by organized labor gets only passing mention and is represented by no major characters. A love story between two activists feels tacked on.

Review: Movies

Battle in Seattle, written and directed by Stuart Townsend, starring Martin Henderson, Michelle Rodriguez, Charlize Theron and Woody Harrelson.

And some scenes contradict actual events, such as showing a group of demoralized protesters in a jail cell, when in reality the jails became sites of solidarity and animated debate. In response to the film's release, former WTO activists have started a project to collect stories from participants and provide a fuller context for the WTO protests, which can be viewed at

NONETHELESS, THE film clearly comes out on the side of those fighting for a more just world and will hopefully serve to introduce a new generation of activists to the history of these inspiring events. The message of the global justice movement, which unfortunately largely disintegrated in this country following September 11, is more relevant than ever.

Eight years later, the neoliberal dogma espoused by the WTO is collapsing in the wake of a global economic crisis of its own creation. The recent rounds of WTO talks in Doha were a complete failure, and activists in Seattle won a landmark lawsuit against the city of Seattle for violating their First Amendment rights through mass arrests.

The central message of the film--that protest matters--is one that is sorely needed today. Up against the combined forces of global economic power and ruthless state repression, activists succeeded not only in shutting down the WTO for a few days, but also putting a dent in its ideological armor. As an activist character (played by André Benjamin of Outkast) put it in the film, "A few days ago nobody even knew what the WTO was. Now, well, they still don't really know what it is--but they know it's bad."

Characters such as the police officer and TV reporter are forced to question their own role in the system and take to heart the message of the protesters. Those who had been fruitlessly attempting to work "within" the system are empowered to speak out and take a stand.

And millions on the streets of Seattle and around the world were inspired by the slogan, "Another World Is Possible." An alternative of a world based on human need and not profit is all the more urgently needed today.

The film's widespread release will depend on turnout at the handful of cities where it is currently showing. If it is playing near you, spread the word and go out to see it. Not only will it help promote the movie, but it can also be used as an organizing tool. Here in Seattle, the opening night crowd was filled with activists who networked outside the theater about helping build struggles against war and economic imperialism today.

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