The World Trade Organization's disrupted meeting last fall in Seattle was covered like a blanket by the mainstream media, though most of that coverage dealt with the street actions, the vandalism by an anarchist group, and the police teargassing of protesters. Little or nothing was heard of the issues that triggered the protests, nor the arguments against the WTO that prompted the actions.
The documentary video "Trade Off," made by Seattle and New York filmmaker Shaya Mercer and her crew, found much more of importance happening in Seattle than most of the mainstream media did, and focused more on the questions being raised than on the street actions. In fact it saw the street actions as a logical result of the issues themselves not being addressed by the WTO.
The video had its premiere at this spring's Seattle International Film Festival, where it was voted best documentary of the festival, and the producer followed it up with a second, special screening in Spokane in July. Foreign sales are being pursued by the producer, but it is unlikely that "Trade Off" will make any lucrative connections in the United States, as will be discussed below.
Although "Trade Off" includes much of the street action of that week, it focuses mainly on the arguments of the opponents of the WTO. At rallies, at a teach-in at Key Arena, and on the street, Mercer and her crew listened to what the opponents had to say. A French farmer, an Indian social scientist, the labor leader James Hoffa, the activist intellectual Jerry Mander, and others are given breathing room -- time for more than a sound bite -- in which to express their views about the implications of WTO actions around the world. There is no narrator to guide the audience through the tangle of opinions. Speakers are identified, but we in the audience are expected to listen and think for ourselves.
And this is the crux of the problem facing documentarians working on current issues: no one's interested in hearing about them. There is no imminent crisis in the country, times are good for those whose views reflect corporate values, and both major American political parties support the WTO; there is little public debate about either global trade in general or the WTO in particular.
So why is it unlikely that "Trade Off" will find distribution in the United States? A questioner at the Spokane screening asked the producer about a possible PBS showing. "Think about who underwrites PBS programs," he replied. "Major global corporations. How interested do you think they'd be in underwriting our film?" It is possible that the PBS show 'P.O.V.' might pick it up, but more likely that 'P.O.V.'s producers will decide that the Seattle episode is just old news.
Documentaries do not get theatrical distribution in this country, and the other cable networks have little interest in work like this. So essentially the makers of the video are offered a hard choice: They can wait for a most unlikely television deal, or they can simply duplicate video copies and sell them to schools, colleges, libraries, and individual purchasers. That would be expensive and time-consuming, and also something more: If that happened, the door to other sales would instantly close for good.
Currently the internet has a few commercial websites that offer streaming video of short films, but neither the technology nor the market are ready yet for full-screen showings of any films, much less specialized documentaries like "Trade Off." We can only hope that those opportunities come soon.