Film revisits the Battle in Seattleby Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
As debate continues over how police handled demonstrations in the Twin Cities during the Republican National Convention, a new movie opening this weekend examines incidents in Seattle in 1999 that helped to shape the way authorities now manage security at big protests.
St. Paul, Minn. — "The Battle in Seattle" explores the causes and the consequences of the violent confrontations outside the 1999 Seattle World Trade Organization talks.
The world watched as tens of thousands of demonstrators tried to shut down the conference.
Stuart Townsend says his interest in the WTO protests was sparked by what happened after 9/11. He moved to the U.S. from Ireland just days before the attacks.
"Understandably, Americans were very shocked and quite fearful after that event, but I was also shocked at the lack of dissent and the media getting behind the administration and off they went to war," said Townsend.
Townsend had been researching the effects of globalization and corporate control of international trade while looking to develop a film project. The WTO protests in Seattle offered both conflict and philosophical debate, which he thought would make a good movie.
"It was obviously a very dramatic event," he said, "where things escalated out of control and riots turned this downtown American city into something that looked like Beirut."
In 1999 the anti-globalization movement was huge and gaining strength. Tens of thousands of protesters traveled to Seattle to demonstrate against what they saw as a misuse of the World Trade Organization's powers. As the film shows, the media anticipated there would be trouble.
Townsend says the popular image of the WTO protests is of anarchists smashing up downtown Seattle and the police responding. But he says what actually happened was very different.
Instead of random acts of violence, he found non-violent protesters carefully planned ways of preventing delegates from getting to the meetings. For example, protesters chained themselves together at key points throughout the city.
"Their tactics were just so effective that they shut this conference down, and that was unacceptable to the authorities," he said. "And they responded with non-lethal weapons. They basically went for these protesters who were completely peaceful. Only after the fact did downtown start to get smashed up, and the response grew even stronger."
The violence on the streets of Seattle played across the world's TV screens. Stuart Townsend says he believes in the importance of dissent, but he stresses what happened in Seattle was very complicated, and he tried to cover as many viewpoints as he could.
"There isn't even a bad guy. as such; there isn't one particular antagonist in this piece," said Townsend.
He says just as the authorities were divided as to what to do, so were the protesters and the media.
While the protesters succeeded in shutting down the WTO talks, it may have been a Pyrrhic victory. Having caught the police off-guard, Townsend says the WTO protests changed the way the authorities now plan for big demonstrations.
"And so G8 meetings, IMF meetings, World Bank meetings, protests at the DNC and the RNC, there is a tremendous police presence that is hugely intimidating and that really stifles dissent completely," he said.
Townsend was in Minnesota during the Republican National Convention, and he almost couldn't get to the Minnesota Public Radio studios because of police blockades during the march on Labor Day.
It's taken Townsend six years to make "The Battle in Seattle."
He is best known as an actor, but he doesn't appear in the movie. Like many independent filmmakers, he struggled to find financing. As a result he had problems casting the film.
He did have one not-so-secret weapon. He lives with Oscar winning actor Charlize Theron, and she was interested in a role, but he had 10 other major parts to fill.
"We were actually a day away from shutting the whole film down," he admited. "And Woody Harrelson said yes, and it was suddenly a snowball effect. There was Woody and Charlize and then Andre Benjamin jumped in and Ray Liotta jumped in, and then everybody suddenly wanted to be in the film, and we went from zero to 100 very quickly."
Some critics have said that the all-star cast undermines the film by making it less believable. However, Townsend sees it differently. He says having big stars will draw the younger audiences he wants, and perhaps get them thinking about the lessons for everyone from "The Battle in Seattle."
- All Things Considered, 09/19/2008, 4:49 p.m.