Posted in: Directors, Interviews

Stuart Townsend’s ‘Battle’ to celebrate American protest in film

Battle in Seattle, the directorial debut of Irish actor Stuart Townsend, is a well-meaning history lesson that looks at the 1999 WTO protests in Settle through a series of exceedingly conventional fictional stories. The film, which premiered a year ago at the Toronto International Film Festival and later became the most apropos opening night film in the history of the Seattle International Film Festival, is finally getting its release, to fairly tepid and critical reviews. And while I can understand the criticisms — the sloganeering, the mundane fictional stories, the inevitable simplifications, not to mention too many embarrassing performances and a script that substitutes symbolic gestures for action and debate — I’m also impressed with what he got in there, namely the sense of organization and planning that turned this loose confederation of activists and protest groups into the most effective organized protest in recent history. He makes a serious effort to explain what the WTO is and the criticisms of the organization that would rouse tens of thousands of protesters to gather in Seattle, and he celebrates the success for what it is. I’m not quite sure what to make of the irony of Townsend shooting largely in Vancouver, Canada, a necessity given the Canadian financing (he couldn’t find American support – what does that say about our film culture that Canada is more willing to make a film about American political protest than Hollywood is?) but an irony in a film that tackles issues of globalization and then outsources an American story to Canada. (I wrote about the film in my SIFF coverage for GreenCine and review it this week for the Seattle P-I.)

I had the opportunity to talk with Townsend in a phone interview for a feature story for the Seattle P-I. What was scheduled as a twenty minutes interview continued for almost twice that long and we covered a lot of territory that I couldn’t fit into the P-I piece, so here is the balance of the interview.

Director Stuart Townsend and actress Charlize Theron at opening night SIFF 2008
Director Stuart Townsend and actress Charlize Theron at opening night SIFF 2008

You’ve said that you didn’t interview anyone involved in the WTO protests. How did you research the film?

It was one of the first major events that was really covered by the Internet, so there was a lot of research there. There were a lot of books, a lot of documentaries made, a lot of news footage to see. I would have loved to have talked to activists and authorities but I just didn’t really know how to go about doing it. And actually, in retrospect, I think it was good because I didn’t have any interference from any other political viewpoint or anything like that, I just came out from a very non-partisan place.

I researched it for a year and a half and I was reading globalization books, like pro-free trade book by people like Thomas Friedman and other books that were critical of free trade, and trying to balance the arguments and find out where I stood on this and what I wanted to say, and then I wrote the script and went shopping and people seemed to gravitate toward the idea but no one jumped at the script, so then I went back and I spent a year and a half doing some pretty substantial rewrites. And I took the three documentaries made about the event and I made my own 15-minute film, cut to music, as a visual to the script, and I think that’s really what helped: people could suddenly see what this film might look like, visually, and how intense it got. That’s when I got financed.

Did you use any of the documentary footage shot during the events in your film?

Yes, there’s about seven or eight minutes, all the way through, from the opening crane sequence — half of that is real footage — all the way through. All the street scenes, the anarchist montages, the street protest montages, outside the jail. It really helped our budget, it helped bring a bigger scope than we could have afforded on our tight budget to have the real shots. And also, I think people may tend to think, ‘Those guys are exaggerated the violence,’ and then you cut to the real stuff and it’s even worse. And I think it gave the film a bit more authenticity, when it’s anchored in real footage. It also shows that the story I’m telling, over that five day period, doesn’t veer too far away from what actually happened, because it keeps interlinking back up with the real footage.

"Battle in Seattle" - battle on the streets
“Battle in Seattle” – battle on the streets

Since you structured it through fictional experiences within a real event, where did the stories come from?

Some of the characters are obviously real. What the mayor and the governor go through is pretty accurate, the Doctors Without Borders character was a real character who was there, the African delegate was based on a real delegate who did give somewhat of a similar speech in the WTO about not reaching a consensus agreement and shutting down the talks, and the African nations and Caribbean nations were the ones who stood up and said ‘No’ to the WTO. And the protesters were composites of very different characters that I found along the way and the journalist is kind of the same. And then the innocent bystander played by Charlize [Theron] was really, I wanted somebody who could be the audience, somebody who has no viewpoint and just gets caught up in the chaos, and that’s why I sat her in the Gap. It’s a very familiar place and when the window smashes like it does, I really felt that the audience could really feel that, they could really be a part of what it must have felt like to have this very normal city turn upside down. So there were different reasons for different characters. Andre’s character was very much there to bring a bit of humor at times, and other characters were there for different viewpoints that I found along the way.

You have a major character who is a television news reporter from the mainstream media. How you characterize how the mainstream media, the local news and the networks and cable states, covered the WTO protests at the time.

Obviously there was a lot of focus on the spectacle of the event. Certainly, I think the local media probably did a better job than the cable new. I saw the event in Ireland on BBC World and I really didn’t learn much. I saw some riots, vaguely remembered the word “WTO,” and that was about it. And there had been teach-ins for weeks before the event. Some media did cover those teach-ins and those teach-ins were really about the substantive issues, but they didn’t get that much coverage. Obviously, because it became this big spectacle over a few days, not just one day, it became this media event and it certainly shone a light on the WTO. The world spotlight shone on this institution that really was not that well known, and I think a lot of media didn’t really understand that there were people upset against this corporate-led agenda or this neo-liberal agenda, so it definitely helped.

I found in the research that there was this one consistent misrepresentation that I wanted to correct in the film, and that was it was somehow always represented that the anarchists smashed up downtown and because of that the police responded with lethal weapons. And in my research and in the timeline and everything, I found that to be factually incorrect. It was actually that the direct action tactics of peaceful protesters and civil disobedience was so successful at shutting the opening session of the WTO down that the police had to respond, so they responded before any anarchists hit the scene four hours later. Obviously when the anarchists hit the scene and Bill Clinton coming to town, everything escalated into what we now know was the state of emergency and the curfews. But I thought that was a good point to clarify because, really, the anarchists got all the coverage, 50 people breaking windows stole all of the coverage from 50,000 people walking on the streets for a myriad of different issues, and I think that is a statement on our media today, I think that happens with a lot of stories. Understandably so, media is a business, it’s a for-profit business and the bosses think that spectacle sells. You must deal with that every day. Everyone’s out there looking for the story, but everyone’s out there looking for the most spectacular story. CNN spends so much time on hurricanes but neglect continuously to mention global warming, and that is what I think is very frustrating, a lack of connecting the dots.

The protest recreations of "Battle in Seattle" on the streets of Vancouver, B.C.
The protest recreations of “Battle in Seattle” on the streets of Vancouver, B.C.

I think the greatest triumph of the film is that you are able to show how the organization worked, of how they structured the protests and what specifically about them made the protests so effective and caught the city off guard and shut the talks down.

I would love to have gone even deeper into a lot of those issues. But yeah, you get the basic rundown of the fact that it’s these affinity groups and decisions are based on consensus so it’s a very democratic process, and yeah, these protesters weren’t like some dumb college kids like a lot of the preconceptions out there, these were very tactical organizers who had spent six months mapping out the geography of Seattle, realized that this was the perfect place because the I-5 cuts off a whole quadrant, that this was a good place to actually shut stuff down, and obviously they used direct action tactics of using lock boxes at the intersections and, yeah, they strategically beat them. They were this bottom-up foe that defeated this top-down Seattle police administration. And they actually got a book written about them, it was called “Networks and Net Wars,” and it was commissioned by the Rand Organization to actually talk about these tactics, these decentralized tactics that the protesters were using because they were so effective. And I think that’s what’s missing with a lot of… I was just at the DNC and the RNC protests and missing a sense of something tactical and a tactical objective, like shut something down or stop McCain speaking, I don’t know, instead of just protesting and doing your thing and then going home. In Seattle, it was like, ‘We’re going to shut something down,’ and when they did, obviously the rest is history. There was a major police response to that.

Another story that you reveal is, parallel to the protests occurring on the streets, there was another protest brewing among the representatives of the Third World nations whose concerns were being ignored by the body, and because the protests outside were so effective, they were also missed by the media.

Here’s the thing: What I found in found in my research and talking to people like Laurie Wallace from Public Citizen was there was very much an inside/outside strategy. The outside was the demonstrators and the agitators and the activists and because they shut down the WTO, because they brought attention, it actually inspired the inside developing countries, the African countries and Caribbean countries, it inspired them to stand up and speak against the WTO, which is obviously what our African delegate does. There was a scene in the film, unfortunately I cut it, where the African delegate is not allowed into a Green Room meeting, and that was definitely one of the things that happened. A lot of these countries were not allowed into Green Room meetings, where most of the real deals were getting down, mainly by the G8 countries, the richer, developed countries, and developing nations just didn’t have a seat at the negotiating table, and that was also what frustrated them, this lack of transparency, and that bubbled up toward the end of the week in African and Caribbean nations saying, ‘No, we’re not going to take this,’ and they shut down the round. But one of the things I found very difficult was I couldn’t find anything about what went on inside the WTO, because it’s non-democratic, it’s non-transparent. So in all my research, what I found really difficult was, how do I get in to the WTO? And that’s why I chose the Doctor Without Borders and the African delegate. They were my two chances to go inside and those characters were both based on true people. I didn’t want to just pretend and create a Director General character just for the sake of it, I wanted to try to remain authentic to what really happened instead of creating stuff that might misrepresent the WTO, so I didn’t actually do anything in terms of WTO characters, but the African delegate and the doctor were my way in, just to show that there was agitation going on inside the talks as well as outside.

There never was a Seattle Mayor named Jim Tobin (played by Ray Liotta). Paul Schell was mayor at the time of the WTO protests. Is there a reason that you fictionalized that part?

Lawyers. Unfortunately you have to vet your who whole script through a team of lawyers and, Jesus, they go through it with a fine-toothed comb. There are so many little things you have to change or do, you can say this or say that, you can’t say this, can’t say that, and there’s a lot of times I just have to find ways around it. But also, I thought it was fair not to use the real guy’s name. This is a work of fiction to some degree, it’s not a documentary. So that’s really the gist of it, is lawyers, a legal thing. I’ve learned it since, but I don’t think it really matters whether his name is Paul Schell or Jim Tobin, people know what he does and what he says is maybe not 100% accurate but it’s pretty close.

I was impressed at how quickly you were able to provide a very concise history of what the WTO at the head of the movie, specifically what it’s stated goals were and what the criticisms against it have been, and just bring them right the forefront and then fill them out in the course of the movie. It frames the whole film with the issues and it gives the audience a concrete grounding in the issues right from the beginning.

I’m glad you think that. As we began to finish the editing process we were like, ‘This WTO thing, it’s so difficult to explain even though it drifts out throughout the whole film. We need some sort of historical structure.’ I always wanted to do an end credit sequence, but I thought, ‘Let’s do it up front, here’s how the WTO references itself,’ to expand and liberalize world trade, so we allowed the WTO to reference itself, and then obviously some of the criticisms, and then the whole Internet component, just at the very end, with the nice Internet graphics. I thought it was important just so people know, why the hell are 50,000 people turning up in the first place? It was good to just have a quick reference point to of what this organization is. It also, because it just hits you straight away in the opening, I think it makes people pay attention, because the film does move at a pretty rapid speed, so I think it’s a good mechanism to get people to be like, ‘Oh shit, I gotta pay attention.’

a painful resort to symbolic gesture in "Battle in Seattle"
Media silenced: a painful resort to symbolic gesture in “Battle in Seattle”

You argue out the issues, specifically why those characters are out there, everyone has a reason and they are not always the same reasons but they all tend to have something to do with economic justice, and you do bring those out. And I know that’s a danger of the film stopping dead so someone can give a speech.

That’s always a danger, to go into expositional territory. There certainly are expositional scenes in there, one of them is the anarchist scene where Jay [Martin Henderson] stops the anarchist [played by Joshua Jackson] from smashing the window and they shout ideology at each other and then move on. There were just arguments that I wanted to put forth to an audience and I would take that argument and try to make it as exciting as I could camerawise, and obviously there is window-smashing and there’s action, and that scene is preceded by Charlize in The Gap and that smash is kind of like, ‘Whoa,’ it surprises the audience, I always see the audience jump out their seats when that happens. So yes, there were definitely moments where it becomes expositional, but I tried to really keep the pace going so that it doesn’t fall in to the audience sitting there being ranted at. I’ve always been fascinated by that argument, what is violence? Is smashing a window violence? For some people, yes, and to others, no. And I think most people think anarchists are protesters, there’s no difference, so I just thought it was interesting to show that there was divisions even within activists and agitators.

Is there a message you hope audiences will leave the film with?

At the end of the day, I tried to make this film not about politics, not about the WTO, but about people. It’s about all of us humans and there are definitely moments in the film where the African delegate looks down on the street and sees all the chaos, or we cut to that real footage after Ella loses the baby and it’s just violence, and my hope is that an audience looks at that and feels the humanity of it and sees the points of view, that all the preconceptions that we might walk into the cinema with get challenged. It’s not black and white, it’s not a battle in Seattle, it’s not cops are the bad guys and the protesters are the revolutionary heroes, it’s not that film. It’s more like, ‘Who is the bad guy?’ I think it poses more questions than answers and that’s what I wanted. I wanted to swim in the gray areas. For example, the Doctors Without Borders character, he’s there for very noble reasons, to lobby the WTO for access to essential medicine. The protesters are there for very noble reasons, but they stop him doing his work. I love that. I love that gray area. I love that the mayor, he’s the guy who calls all the shots and gets the police out on the street and they do bad things. Is he the bad guy? Not really, so the film is saying that life is a little more complicated than black and white.

And also, it was a victory. It was a victory for the little guy and I just think we need to have a film that speaks about a victory for people. Especially over the last eight years, I think most Americans feel that their voice has been lost, that they are not being listened to and that they’ve been disempowered. This is a film that, I hope, speaks to empowerment: an individual can make a difference, solidarity does matter. Obviously there’s two sides to that. Seattle was a victory, but the end credits sequence definitely shows that there was 36 million people in Iraq protesting the war and yet they still went to war, so sometimes protest doesn’t make a difference. I don’t know, there’s just more questions that answers. I don’t know if there’s one overriding theme in the film, but it’s definitely a movie about people and when I’ve seen the film in a theater with people, I feel that it’s like people watching people watching people and there’s definitely a connection. It’s an interesting film to watch with an audience, because it is so much about solidarity. Even within a cinema, you get people crying and shouting at the screen and getting really involved, and that’s very exciting to watch.