Battle in Seattle (US/Canada/Germany 2007)

Here is something unusual – an American independent (albeit a co-production) with a political narrative and some frontline stars, shot in a convincing docudrama style. Catching the film on release in France, I was able to enjoy it without any of the hoop-la (good or bad) that might usually surround it. Not yet released in any of the three producing countries, it will be intriguing to see if it makes any impression in the hands of small distributors. It doesn’t yet have a UK distributor listed, but I would hope that it finds one.

The title refers to the street battles between protestors and the police at the World Trade Organisation conference in Seattle in 1999. What was planned as a carefully orchestrated peaceful protest eventually became a running battle and the film suggests that the reasons for this are varied with blame cast in several directions.

As a piece of entertainment, the film works well and I was swept along by the action, never bored and generally wiling to ignore some of the more clunky lines of dialogue and predictable scenes. As a piece of ‘political cinema’, I’m not sure what to think. The film opens with a set of titles which economically set out the issues related to the WTO in 1999 and at the end a similar set tell us what has happened since. In between, the film tries to balance its presentation of political arguments with the (outlines of) personal stories from both sides of the barricades. As an audience member more or less completely behind the politics of the film, I might want to argue with how they are handled, but for a general audience, I can see the film as both accessible in presenting important issues and potentially irritating to more conservative audiences.

The most intriguing aspect of the film is that it is the product of a first time writer-director, the Irish actor Stuart Townsend. My only previous glimpse of the actor was as a particularly cold-hearted character in Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland (UK 1999), but IMDB tells me that Townsend has appeared in a number of Hollywood films and TV series (as well as some UK independent work that I have seen, but not remembered). More importantly, perhaps, Townsend is the partner of Hollywood star Charlize Theron and this presumably helped him both work with producers to raise the reported $8 miilion budget and to augment his own contacts book. The cast includes Woody Harrelson as a cop (married to Theron as an upmarket sales assistant), Ray Liotta as Seattle’s Mayor and Martin Henderson and Michelle Rodriguez as activists. These performers offer the film the opportunity to appeal widely, but arguably the most important production decision was the choice of Barry Ackroyd as cinematographer. Ackroyd created something of a splash in America with his work on Paul Greengrass’s United 93, but in the UK his reputation has been built up through consistent work with Ken Loach over many years. If you want someone to shoot a political demonstration in an observational but ‘involved’ style, Ackroyd is the best there is and for me this would be one of the main reasons for seeing the film. (Townsend would have met Ackroyd on the shoot of Carin Adler’s Under the Skin in 1996, if not before.) The film was shot mainly across Puget Sound in Vancouver, standing in for Seattle, in November/December 2006.

The limited number of reviews from festivals (beginning with Toronto in 2007) tend to say the same things. Stuart Townsend had mentioned Haskell Wexler’s classic 1969 film, Medium Cool (based on a journalist’s experience of the ‘battle’ at the Democratic Convention in 1968) as his touchstone and critics have generally praised the production for approaching Wexler’s achievement and even to some extent the Paul Greengrass Bloody Sunday. They have been less kind to the ‘personal stories’ and in retrospect, Townsend might have felt that he tried too hard to be ‘even-handed’ in his choice of stories. Most discussion will be around the Harrelson/Theron story. I would lose this and beef up some of the others which have insufficient time to develop, but I can also see that for some audiences, this particular ‘personal story’ might be a way in to the overall narrative.

I do hope the film gets a wide release in as many countries as possible as it explores a truly global issue that should be of interest to all. It is not untypical of a first time production, having a real passion which makes up for weaknesses in the script. There are some interviews with Townsend, Rodriguez and also André Benjamin (a very enjoyable performance) on the Moving Pictures Magazine website. The film also has its own website with photos, cast etc. as well as the beginnings of a campaign (demand to see the film in your city).

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