Thursday, August 28, 2008

"This Is What Democracy Looks Like" - Visual Irony at the WTO demonstrations in Seattle in 1999


Occasionally, documentary films really can be shot by “amateurs” and compiled, producing a valuable record of a traumatic event. Such is the case with the World Trade Organization Summit (WTO) in Seattle, starting right after Thanksgiving in 1999, when demonstrators congregated for continuous and angry confrontations with police. Well, maybe it didn’t get as bad as it did in Chicago in 1968 with the Democratic Convention, to be documented in Haskell Walker’s “Medium Cool” from Paramount. But it got ugly, with police in riot gear, with laws prohibiting citizens from having their own protective masks, and with the roundups of demonstrators without charge.

Such is the story of the 72 minute documentary “This Is What Democracy Looks Like”, released in 2000, directed by Jill Friedberg and Rick Rowley. The DVD, full screen, includes extended interviews with Noam Chomsky (of course!) and Vandana Shiva. It also has a short about the Cancun demonstrations in 2003 (and makes a point about the division in Mexico between the rich and poor, a long a highway from the tourist area to the inland jungle Maya ruins), as well as another short about the company that produced the film, Independent Media Center.

In fact, the “control of the media” is one of the points of the documentary. Visitors know that I’ve discussed how blogs and social networking sites can democratize the media and break up its grip, but at the possible cost of economic instability and of provoking new personal ethical problems (not as well known in 1999 as now).

Another point is simply the fact that the “authorities” tend to take action when a “protest” starts getting more successful. In Seattle, the police clamped down harder, with the rules about gas masks, when the demonstrators were creating much more disruption than had been expected in the late fall chill.

Chomsky drives home the point that trade policy (in all of its incarnations, whether NAFTA, GATT, etc) is connected to giving large American corporations, as entities, special privileges that ordinary people don’t have. The right to sue a country is one of them (the “Blame Canada” song from “Southpark” came to my mind). In that sense, the film reminds me of Zeitgeist’s “The Corporation” that would follow in 2004 (Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott, Joel Bakan), which also featured Noam Chomsky, and Michael Moore.

I recall getting a call from a pollster in mid 1993 from someone from the Clinton Administration and being asked about how I felt about NAFTA, which the administration supported. I had become politically involved already with the military gay ban.

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