Nepali Times
Critical Cinema
The theatre of war


The recent collapses of some American banking institutions and their reverberations across the world have led to renewed questions over economic liberalisation championed by free traders.

No other event in recent history has lead to more questions about the present trajectory of unregulated free-market globalisation. But in 1999, thousands of protesters descended on to Seattle to challenge the WTO, its policies and its effect on third-world economies and the environment. Stuart Townsend dramatises that event in his debut Battle in Seattle. That form of people power, arguably has its roots in another event: the riot during the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, which gets the documentary treatment by Brett Morgen in Chicago 10.

Morgen unconventionally retells the protests surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, the violent confrontation with the police and subsequent court case against some of the popular faces of the movement, the titular Chicago 10 (the eight defendants and their two attorneys).

Among the defendants of anti-war members of Gandhian-influenced MOBE and the Students for a Democratic Society and Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers, are the countercultural Yippies, personified by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. The yippies, at turns abrasive and absurd, employed theatrics to ridicule the status quo.

Morgen's documentary abstains entirely from talking heads or narration. Instead, using an ensemble cast of Hollywood actors Morgen dramatises the court proceedings of the conspiracy trial using actual court transcripts. Using an animation technique associated with Richard Linklater (A Scanner Darkly), he renders the footage into a cartoon, which frankly looks like a poor man's Waking Life but lends itself to the spirit of absurdism that Hoffman embodied and that the proceeding seem to have taken from the get-go.

As the trial continues that material, entertaining and engaging in itself, is deftly spliced with actual footage from the of the Yippie-organised Festival or Life, their 'counter-convention,' a free-wheeling camp-out in a park that drew thousands of participants and the eventual confrontation with the cops at the Democratic Convention.

The opening credits are still running and it is already clear on which end of the political spectrum Battle in Seattle's allegiance lie, with zippy tutorial?blunt as police baton?that summarises the history of WTO and its problem. Yet director Townsend strives for a more nuanced treatment, an attempt by the director to mine the events of the protest at the WTO meeting of 1999 for a kind of dramatic connectedness and empathy a la Crash or Babel, which hadn't worked well with those films anyway.

The dramatisation leads to trouble with its content, each powerful moment sabotaged by the shroud of ambiguity. Had the protests really inspired delegates from smaller nations to challenge the status quo? Were the Starbucks-busting anarchists simply a fringe in an otherwise peaceful protest movement? The ultimate ambivalence that the film's treatment of events?characterised by turns meaningful, then futile?perhaps reflects society's own failure to come to turns with the protests.

The infamous planning and cunning of the protesters of the first 'internet protest in history' is depicted by a map on a wall with Xs and arrows and orders over a walkie-talkie. However, the best parts of the film are in the streets: the clever maneuvering over the police barricades to keep the delegates from attending their meetings, the spirit of camaraderie, the heady adrenaline-fueled chases and taunts between protesters and cops, and ultimately the visceral gut-wrenching violence at the culmination of the escalation. Surprisingly, it is these ambitious scenes that the rookie director shines, capturing something that seems genuine? in the varied and difficult to articulate emotions from scenes of victory and defeat, and in those hot-blooded scenes of confrontation.

Politics asides, I wonder how much more entertaining Battle in Seattle would have been purely as a heist film, a kind of Ocean's 11 meets Chicago 10 with savvy protestors rocking out their unwashed hippie threads while sticking it to the system and outsmarting the grunting cops in their riot gear. Now that's the kind of unabashedly leftie Hollywood movie I want to see.

Chicago 10
Director: Brett Morgen
Cast: Hank Azaria, Dylan Baker, Nick Nolte, Mark Ruffalo
2008. R. 1 hr 43min

Battle in Seattle
Director: Stuart Townsend
Cast: Martin Henderson, Michelle Rodriguez, Woody Harrelson, Charlize Theron
2008. R. 1 hr 38 min

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)