Movie about 1999 WTO protests in Seattle will be filmed in ... Canada?

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

Battle in Seattle a movie about the 1999 protests of the World Trade Organization (WTO), is set to begin filming this month — in Vancouver, British Columbia.

As of press time, the Seattle Film Commission wasn't aware of any plans for the film to be shot in Seattle, though several industry magazines have reported some filming will take place in Seattle.

Cost savings were presumably the chief factor in the choice of Vancouver, B.C. over Seattle, but it may be hard for the film to escape the irony of that choice: The protests were basically about multinational corporations evading democratic accountability and abandoning national loyalty.

The film, written and directed by Irish actor Stuart Townsend (Queen of the Damned), will star Charlize Theron, Woody Harrelson, hip-hop artist André Benjamin of the group OutKast, Ray Liotta, Michelle Rodriguez (The Fast and the Furious), Martin Henderson (The Ring), Jennifer Carpenter (The Exorcism of Emily Rose), and Channing Tatum.

Filmmakers plan to use actual footage from the protests, and are considering using actual protesters as extras.

Susan Sarandon, who narrated a 2000 documentary about the Seattle WTO protest, considered joining the production, but was unable to take part.

Theron, who is Townsend's girlfriend, will play a pregnant bystander who loses her unborn child in the "riots" that took place. No such incident occurred in reality, but there were plenty of non-protesting bystanders swept up and handled roughly by police.

The production has kept a low profile, and is not yet officially talking to the media. But some details are known. The film will weave together the stories of numerous individuals, including a protester, a reporter, a politician, a delegate and a cop.

"We did not want to give only one point of view," said Los Angeles co-producer Mary Aloe in a press statement. "When you see the movie, you'll find lots of gray areas. It's neither sympathetic nor unsympathetic to protesters and police."

The film has a budget of around $10 million — small by the standards of major Hollywood productions, but sizable for an independent film. Funders include Insight Film Studios of Vancouver; Aloe's Proud Mary Productions in Los Angeles; Remstar Corporation of Montreal, Grosvenor Park of Toronto, and an as-yet-unnamed Seattle-based private equity firm.

It's not clear yet to what extent the film will employ union members. Don Ramsden, business agent of Vancouver, B.C.-based International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 669, said he expected to conclude an agreement with Insight covering camera operators, and Ramsden said the actors and directors will almost certainly work under agreements with the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), the Union of BC Performers, and the Directors Guild of Canada.

With most of the financing for Battle in Seattle coming from Canada, it may be hard for U.S. film industry unions to characterize the film as a "runaway production."

But increasingly, U.S.-based film and television producers are moving production to other countries, with Canada — particularly Vancouver and Toronto — among the most popular locations.

Vancouver, dubbed "Hollywood North" benefits from a favorable exchange rate, lower-wage union contracts, universal health insurance, and, since 1999, federal and provincial government subsidies. The subsidies include a rebate for up to a quarter of labor costs, provided that the production employs local Canadian workers.

U.S. film unions are gearing up to fight back by filing a trade complaint, and persuading local governments in the United States to match foreign subsidies. Seattle approved its own film industry tax incentive, but it won't start until Jan. 1, too late for Battle in Seattle.

Battle in Seattle is far from the first production to be set in Seattle but filmed in Vancouver. Still, the choice is stunning given the movie's subject, a protest of corporate globalization.

In 1999, at the invitation of President Bill Clinton, trade ministers from around the world planned to spend four days in Seattle discussing the expansion of the WTO, which negotiates and enforces international trade agreements. In response, an extraordinary international coalition of union, student, environmental, religious and public interest groups planned a week of protests, criticizing the WTO as a secretive and unaccountable international agency writing the rules for a corporate-led globalization.

Protest organizers' work bore fruit on Nov. 30, 1999, the first day of the summit. About 10,000 mostly-youthful protesters formed human chains and blocked streets around the Seattle Convention Center. Their blockades prevented trade delegates from getting to the meeting. Police used force and tear gas to try to dislodge them, but protesters stood their ground, helped by devices like tripods, chains and locked metal cylinders that prevented police from pulling them apart.

Meanwhile, as many as 35,000 people, mostly union members, rallied in and around Seattle Center's Memorial Stadium. Rallygoers included union members from 144 countries, and members of 50 U.S. unions from 25 states. To get them to the rally had taken 185 buses, nine charter planes and two trains, including one from Oregon.

After the rally, the unionists marched, meeting up with other marches at prearranged locations. The massive combined march passed near the Convention Center, where the blockade continued even after the WTO announced the meeting would be called off for the day. With all the groups converging, police decided it would be politically disastrous to continue to use tear gas around such a large group of ordinary citizens.

As marchers left the area however, police attacked again, and smaller groups of protesters got the worst of it. Some protesters set Dumpsters afire in the streets, and committed acts of vandalism, singling out Niketown, Starbucks, McDonalds and Planet Hollywood, all were closed for the day on the advice of police. Other young people, attracted downtown by the chaos, committed random acts of violence, including assaults on protesters.

By nightfall, downtown Seattle was a police state. Mayor Paul Schell declared a suspension of civil liberties, including the right to protest. Black-clad police in riot gear and heavy-duty armored vehicles zoomed around the city, using copious tear gas, pepper spray and clubs at the slightest provocation or none at all. Some 500 people, including protesters, bystanders and even office workers in the wrong place at the wrong time, were arrested, carted off on buses in plastic handcuffs, and held in jails and a nearby naval base for up to five days. Smaller protests continued outside the downtown "protest-free" area for the rest of the week. Faced with so much public attention, the talks about expanding the WTO collapsed on the fourth day.

Over the next two years, similar anti-globalization protests accompanied nearly every major global economic summit. Advocates of so-called free trade were on the defensive. Local backlash over the Seattle police response led to the resignation of Police Chief Norm Stamper and the failure of Mayor Paul Schell to win re-election in 2001.

Because the Seattle protests were covered worldwide by the media, 50,000 protesters were able to reach hundreds of millions of people, many of whom had never heard of the WTO.

Their acts inspired people all over the globe — including Battle in Seattle director Townsend, who told a fan Web site this film means more to him than anything else he's ever done.

It's not clear whether he talked with any protest organizers in preparing for the film. Rumor has it Townsend favors shooting at least exteriors in Seattle but may be overruled by funders.

So far, the project's minimal publicity has played up the "riot" aspect of the protests, but the producers have said all perspectives will be treated fairly.

Those who were there — including tens of thousands of Washington and Oregon unionists who lived the protests firsthand — will be undoubtedly be watching closely to see if that pledge bears out when the film appears in theaters.

Filming is expected to continue in Vancouver, B.C. through mid-December. The film will be released some time in 2007.