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This Is What Democracy Looks Like

Chronicling the late-'99 anti-World Trade Organization protests already summarized in "Trade Off!" and other activist docus, "This Is What Democracy Looks Like" sports a more rocked-out, visually frenetic approach that manages to be punchy rather than too MTV-ish. Potent, partisan document may find its exposure limited by a surfeit of other, like-themed nonfictioners currently circulating. But subject and participation of a few lefty-cool names (Susan Sarandon, Spearhead's Michael Franti, agitrockers Rage Against the Machine) should win select campus and rep-house dates. Vid-shot feature is also being disseminated to grassroots groups as an organizing/fundraising tool.

With:
Narrators: Michael Franti, Susan Sarandon.

Chronicling the late-’99 anti-World Trade Organization protests already summarized in “Trade Off!” and other activist docus, “This Is What Democracy Looks Like” sports a more rocked-out, visually frenetic approach that manages to be punchy rather than too MTV-ish. Potent, partisan document may find its exposure limited by a surfeit of other, like-themed nonfictioners currently circulating. But subject and participation of a few lefty-cool names (Susan Sarandon, Spearhead’s Michael Franti, agitrockers Rage Against the Machine) should win select campus and rep-house dates. Vid-shot feature is also being disseminated to grassroots groups as an organizing/fundraising tool.

While chronologically replaying events during the week of last year’s ill-fated WTO summit, in which Seattle’s mayor and police drastically overreacted to the overwhelmingly peaceful street demonstrations, pic takes care to point out that the protests brought together numerous grassroots communities.

On-site speechmakers as well as subsequently interviewed front-line participants rep a rainbow coalition of radical youths, “old school” liberals, blue-collar union members, environmental activists and feminists. Crux of their shared vision is the belief that globalization forces like the WTO, in hog-tying local economies to multinational corporate interests, exacerbate the rich-get-richer/poor-get-poorer equation by exhausting natural resources, prompting runaway (or slave-labor) industry, discouraging human rights progress and Third World self-sufficiency.

You-are-there footage, billed as shot by “over 100 media activists,” packs a wallop as we see protesters gassed, beaten and mass-arrested — a state of virtual martial law that often flouted agreements already made between authorities and organizers re assembly permits, locations, etc.

Equally shocking, in a different way, are glimpses of mainstream local and national media (especially TV news) rotely towing the embarrassed officials’ line, painting activists as anarchistic “vandals” and “rioters” until even they couldn’t ignore the rampant Bill of Rights infringement taking place.

Upshot of all this is that protesters not only succeeded in shutting down the WTO meet — they also raised serious questions so loudly that some poorer-nation WTO reps felt free to air their own reasonable doubts, while copycat demonstrations sprung up across the globe. Thanks in large part to Seattle authorities’ Chicago ’68-like overreaction, the week may well have kickstarted a U.S. popular-resistance movement uniting hitherto fragmented causes and constituencies. Despite familiarity of some info here, it’s hard to resist the agitprop recruitment call sounded in exhilarating scenes including one in which protesters repeat-chant speakers’ words outside a city jail, so their arrested compatriots inside can hear as well.

Dynamic editing and use of graphic art (as in the clever subtitling of some hard-to-hear live speech) add a hip veneer without detracting from sharply focused treatment of complex issues. While diverse soundtrack music (Rage, DJ Moosaka, Cypher AD and others) also works well, occasional voiceover screeds read by Sarandon and Franti have a more pretentious, pseudopoetical tenor that undercuts pic’s power-to-the-people inclusiveness. As a tech package, “Democracy” exemplifies creative professionalism within verite bounds.

This Is What Democracy Looks Like

Production: An Independent Media Center and Big Noise Film production. Produced, directed, edited by Jill Friedberg, Rick Rowley.

Crew: Camera (color, video), various; production designers, the Fourth Line, Micaela McNulty, Paul McNulty, Joulie Wheeler; sound, Luke Painter, Malcolm Sweeney. Reviewed on videocassette, San Francisco, Nov. 28, 2000. Running time: 72 MIN.

With: Narrators: Michael Franti, Susan Sarandon.

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