When 50,000 activists took to the streets of Seattle last November and shut down the annual meeting of the World Trade Organization, most corporate media outlets were caught unawares, their anchorpersons left bleating about unruliness. Images of police teargassing peaceful protesters took a backseat to a masked man putting his leg through a Starbucks window, and the repeated airings of Seattle's chief of police claiming that he had things under control faded out when one week later he resigned.
Aware that Seattle would be pivotal, protesters took to the streets with camcorders and filed blow-by-blow reports to Indymedia.org. November 30 marks the one-year anniversary of the confrontation and brings with it at least three documentaries that capture the variety of Seattle's festive resistance, wresting the story from the networks and putting it back in the hands of activists.
The Independent Media Center's own documentary, Jill Friedberg and Rick Rowley's This Is What Democracy Looks Like (November 11 at the Judson Memorial Church; thisisdemocracy.org), juxtaposes video footage shot by activists with talking heads explaining protest strategy. With painterly graphics, slo-mo combat scenes, and music by Rage Against the Machine and others, the documentarylike the protestsmakes art out of action. And it serves as both archival record and organizing tool. But it also prompts questions. Many have charged that, because most activists involved in the WTO shutdown were white, the ubiquitous chant "This is what democracy looks like" was sadly incorrect. Perhaps to address that criticism, this documentary uses mostly people of color to commentfrom Indian physicist Vandana Shiva to the Brown Collective's Hop Hopkins. But no one raises the race question directly. The participation of labor leaders in the conversation likewise makes one wistful for what could have been a formidable coalition between labor and grassroots activiststhat is, until labor leaders began stumping for Al Gore, an unabashed WTO supporter.
In 30 Frames Per Second (a New York screening is in the works; bullfrogfilms.com), Emmy-winning journalist Rustin Thompson depicts his own odyssey in Seattle. Disillusioned by TV news and a "meek, passionless society," he narrates his return to his hometown during the November events. An inquisitive and slightly jaded everyman, he, like many in Seattle that week, was radicalized and reinvigorated. Thompson's is the most overtly emotional of the three docs; the anger, apprehension, and jubilation of the crowds are tugged and pulled and pressed into the four corners of his frames.
Taking his title from Godard's maxim that truth is 24 frames per second (video is 30 frames), Thompson quests for truths: He wonders whether, in the midst of the chaos, the message that the WTO was eroding hard-won laws by declaring them "trade barriers" was lost. Or had the crowd managed to carry the sentiment above the maelstrom into American living rooms? By choosing not to identify activists he interviewed on camera, Thompson reflects the spirit of this leaderless movement. "All week long different faces grab the bullhorn," says Thompson, "and disappear into the crowd never to be seen again."
Shaya Mercer's Trade Off (Cinema Village, December 1; wrightanglemedia.com/tradeoff) is a War Room-style docudrama, with Mike Dolan of Ralph Nader's Public Citizen in the James Carville role, leavening serious issues with humor. Many of the movement's most visible thinkers appear: Han Shan of the Ruckus Society, José Bove of the Farmer's Confederation, Martin Khor of Third World Network. In greater detail than the other two, Trade Off tackles the effects of global trade policy on logging, genetic engineering, biopiracy, goods dumping. Mercer's film is the only one that flashes forward to April 16, 2000, when activists disrupted the meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
It is fitting that this uprising of incongruent partnerschurchgoers and radical cheerleaders, steelworkers and environmentalistsis represented by many documentaries. Choose your political aphrodisiac: art collaboration, personal odyssey, wonk seminar. Better yet, see them all as they are, parts of an evolving conversation, a record of the fin de siècle days when Americans awoke from their imperial slumber to peel back the curtain on the wizards of the global economy.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.