Battle In Seattle

Wrong direction? Expectant mother, Ella (Charlize Theron) struggles to find sanctuary

Stuart Townshend’s docudrama challenges the West’s spend spend spend bonanza highlighting how it comse at a price the planet, its environment and people simply cannot afford


It appears to be the calm after the storm. On the morning of the snow-flecked Wednesday st December,1999 – and two days since Seattle, Washington played host to the opening ceremony of the World Trade Organisation’s five day Ministerial Conference – the streets are empty, and people are regrouping and nursing their wounds.

For on the first day, thousands of protesting human rights, trade union, and environmental activists converged on the city centre, hoping to peacefully stop the talks. And yesterday, protestors’ well-orchestrated blockades cut off not only the main conference venue but the entire downtown core.

The police used tear gas to disperse the crowds, and as things kicked off, a conflicted Mayor (Ray Liotta) who hoped his city would be seen as a bastion of free speech and right to assembly, declared a State of Emergency and called in the National Guard. Protestors such as Andre 2000’s turtle activist, Django, er, turned turtle and, passers-by including heavily pregnant Ella (Charlize Theron) and plainclothes officer, Channing Tatum faced attack from police batons.

Heartbreak Does Not Stop For The Holidays

On the third day, and the first day of Advent, the falling flakes of winter snow act as silencer and comment on this chaotic world. They are soon trodden into the ground or melt in Seattle’s urban warmth. The point is that as much as any of us might hope for a renewed sense of Christmas – a new start as the calendar turns to December 1st, and a sense of a bit of sparkle in the ether – life is simply not like that.

Crisis and pain, stress and heartbreak don’t take a break until January 6th, but any bad news or tragedy that does occur during the last month of the year is made more pignant since it has taken place during a recognised season of celebration and family gatherings. For Christians, Advent is after all the time of preparation and waiting for the coming of the birth of the Prince of Peace.

Surface Level Calm Covers A Deeper Stress

What is interesting about actor Stuart Townshend’s directing/scriptwriting debut is how his docudrama emphasises that the way to a fairer, just and peaceful world – what might be argued as the underlying unifying hope of believer and non-believer alike at this more heightened time of year – is not a straightforward path at all. In fact, everything seems to conspire against it.

Earlier in the film, we have seen Ella (Charlize Theron, Townshend’s then partner), return to work in a department store after her five months pregnancy scan. She is completely oblivious to the gathering storm outside as she wanders the aisles and perennial Christmas movie favourite, Jingle Bells tinkles through the store.

This is how Western Christmasses are played out these days: beside the traditional family gathering is the sanitised surface-level calm and just so decorations of a quality department store at this time of year. The pressure may be on the shopper but the venue is designed to feel special and Christmassy. It is a scene we recognise not only from our own lives but also from Christmas films such as Elf and Twelve Monkeys, and the newly released Carol. These sparkly temples of merchandise are emblematic of what we recognise as an American Christmas.

The Unjust Truth Behind The Tinsel Curtain

Battle In Seattle challenges our cheery cosy assumptions of the season: that as long as we spend, spend, spend on our loved ones and wrap everything in tinsel, Christmas has truly been celebrated and all is well with the world. The protestors present another side to the story, lifting the curtain on the real cost of our shop-centred lifestyles and festivities and how the environment, communities and wildlife globally pay a price. By the time Howard Schutz, CEO of Starbucks appears on the television news, lamenting. ‘For us to close our stores during the peak season, the holiday Christmas season just beginning, really is an injustice,’ Townshend has made clear that the definition of ‘injustice’ depends where you stand.

Hoarding has replaced shop windows; a young couple are grieving the death of their unborn child; protestors are being rounded up wholesale; and inside the conference itself, a representative of Doctors Without Borders is calling for people before profit. In another meeting room there are not enough translators for the African caucus to have their voice heard above purely commercial interests. And then a heartbroken police officer, Dale (Woody Harrelson), husband of Ella chases an activist, Jay (Martin Henderson) into a church and, out of his grief, unstintingly lays into him as an organist practices ‘Silent Night’; to a backdrop of a nativity scene. What a metaphor for the spirituality of Christmas: not irrelevant but rather present, still calling its message to a chaotic, hurting world if we will only listen.

Battle In Seattle is not an anti-Christmas film, but it asks questions about how we celebrate the festival. For those of us who enjoy the lights and decorations everywhere, it is not demanding a hairshirt celebration but rather suggesting we alter our perspective if only just a little for the good of all.

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