"The Battle in Seattle," a feature film based in the 1999 WTO riots in Seattle, opens this Friday. Reporter David Postman, who covered the riots for The Times, has seen the movie and talked to writer-director Stuart Townsend.
When I went to the premiere of “The Battle in Seattle” at the Seattle International Film Festival earlier this year, I did not expect to see a historically accurate depiction of the street protests that shut down the 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization.
It wasn’t a documentary. I went to the premiere figuring there’d be a geographic faux pas or something Seattleites would laugh at.
But mainly I wondered whether the film would accomplish what writer-director Stuart Townsend hoped it would. When he began the project several years ago, he said he wanted to make something that would show “the meaning and limits of democracy.”
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I think “Battle in Seattle” does that. It is an ensemble movie featuring Charlize Theron, Andre Benjamin and other stars. But the WTO unfolds as the major character. Townsend does a nice job of creating scenes evocative — though this isn’t photo-realism — of those days at the end of the last century that changed the politics of international trade.
The meetings were billed as an important step in the World Trade Organization’s efforts to create a new set of international rules for global commerce. Massive protests broke out from the start, lasted five days and shut down the city. More than 500 protesters were arrested.
My job during the WTO meeting was to cover the protests. I spent those days on the streets, chasing protesters, running from tear gas and trying to get a handle on a situation that very quickly — it literally seemed to happen in minutes — went from organized protest to mass chaos, the shutdown of the city and the collapse of the trade talks.
That was a very different view than Townsend had at the time. He was an apolitical Irish actor in his 20s and had no particular interest in the WTO.
“I remember the coverage. But all I saw were anarchists and riots and I didn’t really learn anything about WTO,” Townsend told me earlier this week.
He became politically aware after the election of President George W. Bush. In learning about international trade, he realized the protests were a watershed event.
The WTO was never the same. Neither was the art of street protest or the chore of policing major political events. Now, at events like the Republican and Democratic national conventions, protesters are put in fenced-off areas. After Seattle, no mayor or police chief would allow their city to be shut down on their watch.
I don’t think there is any doubt that WTO protesters won the battle in Seattle.
There’s no doubt from the opening of the movie that Townsend is sympathetic to the opponents.
The film does a good job of showing the chaos that erupted in the city. One scene in particular struck me as realistic: when a bystander is stuck between advancing police in riot gear and the crush of protesters.
Townsend says he sees the movie as “sort of an action film, but with something of substance in there.” He wanted the movie to carry a political message, but didn’t want to make a documentary or a feature film just about politics. He wanted to craft a story “about human beings and characters that people will connect with.”
Some nice little touches add realism. A scene with an undercover policeman smuggling extra tear gas through the crowd shows Townsend spent time reading news stories of the event.
Seattle-area residents will groan at some moments. The actor who plays the governor is of Asian descent, as was then-Gov. Gary Locke. But Tzi Ma speaks with the Chinese accent of a more recent immigrant, not the perfect nonaccent of a man born, raised and educated in the United States as Locke was.
Connie Nielsen plays a TV reporter who starts out quite cynical about her assignment to cover the protests. She evolves into a much more interested player. The awakening — both the speed at which it happens and how far she moves — is a bit hard to swallow. But I can believe a reporter spending days in the streets could grow frustrated and eventually angry with editors in comfy offices who fail to grasp the significance of what was happening. At the height of the drama on the streets, when the city imposed a curfew in a move to stop protests, I blew a gasket over this Times headline: “Shoppers Barred in Retail Core — Schell Edict Puts Tighter Restrictions Downtown.”
The movie’s romance subplot might bug you if you did jail time that week. Two lovestruck protesters hold hands through the bars of adjoining jail cells.
The icky jail scene transitions into one of the best of the movie. While the lovers are inside the jail, other protesters surround the jail and the street outside. The demonstrators sent news and encouragement through shouted call-and-response. That faceoff — which in my memory stretched out for much of a day — led to negotiations between cops and protesters, and it was one of the few tense confrontations that ended in a peaceful and mace-free atmosphere.
Townsend said he was glad not to have personally experienced the WTO in Seattle. That would have handicapped the film.
“It would have been smaller,” he said. “By not being there I was able to take a bird’s-eye view.”
Interestingly, for all Townsend’s solidarity with protesters, he understates the failure of Seattle officials to keep peace on the streets. In reality, the poor preparation was laughable. Ray Liotta, as Mayor Jim Tobin, could have been shown threatening to destroy the political career of the local sheriff. That’s what real-life Mayor Paul Schell did to then-Sheriff Dave Reichert in a strange altercation while the two waited for Nelson Mandela to arrive at the airport.
But Townsend didn’t see Schell as a villain. He says the mayor wanted to have it all: protesters expressing themselves on the street while WTO delegates met in high-rise hotels.
“I just felt like it’s too easy to call him the enemy, to just criticize him,” Townsend said. “He’s a good guy, basically, not some fascist. He makes the wrong decisions and he makes them too late. And I think he’s somewhat of a semi-tragic character.”
Townsend sees the police in much the same way. The movie uses some real footage of clashes between demonstrators and police. That, Townsend figured, does the best job of showing how police reacted.
But he also read about how police weren’t trained properly for the scale of the protests. Once trouble started, the police worked long hours with little or no food or sleep.
“I don’t see the cops as the problem,” he said. Townsend kept his eye on the WTO itself and the governments and corporations that support the organization.
And this is where Townsend’s political views are most stark.
“It’s the faceless bureaucrats — they’re the problem,” he said. “It’s the lobbyists and the corporations that rape the environment.”
The making of the film took Townsend from a news-starved young actor to an aware and radicalized activist. He has turned the movie’s Web site, www.battleinseattlemovie.com, into an organizing tool. There’s some marketing there, too, of course, like the downloadable ring tones and a button to click to “Mobilize a Theater Takeover in Your Area!”
Like many of those who played some role in the real Battle in Seattle, Townsend has some mixed feelings about its legacy. He recognizes that success in shutting down Seattle means police and city officials now work to “prevent another Seattle” and keep protesters in free-speech zones, far from the action and often behind fences and gates.
But there’s no doubt those days in Seattle changed the course of free trade around the world. Some of the issues that never got addressed in Seattle, such as the need for environmental standards in trade agreements, are still unresolved and are today making it hard for treaties to be approved in the U.S. Congress.
“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to tell this story, because it was a victory and there are so few victories,” he said. Even the increased attention from law enforcement doesn’t diminish that in Townsend’s eyes.
“Seattle has become that feared reference point,” he said. “But there will be another Seattle and it will be worse. It’s inevitable as long as the system only favors a few. There will be more and more push-back eventually.”