Debating the View

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As we approach the first anniversary of the Summit of Americas in Quebec City, a new feature from the National Film Board is provoking a lot of debate and discussion. View from the Summit, by Quebec filmmaker Magnus Isaacson, might have more accurately been called Portrait of a Protest.

Through the lenses of seven experienced directors, the film follows six people on both sides of the famous fence surrounding the summit. The result is an intense, textured, roller-coaster ride of a documentary. Moving constantly from one side of the fence to the other, from violent street scenes to quiet interviews, from confusion on all sides to clarity here and there, the dramatic centre of the film focuses on the issue of protester violence.

Some of the many scenes:

  • demonstrators push a police line back, using the force’s own barricades against the officers;
  • police trample and assault non-violent protesters performing a sit-in;
  • protesters trash a media van;
  • protesters dance inside police lines in a surreal night-time celebration;
  • the colourful, happy-go-lucky rally at Laval University before confrontations with police begin;
  • the confusion of the moment when the fence went down.

The strength of the film is that it reproduces the intensity and emotional contradictions of the protest. Its weakness is that the anti-globalization protesters it follows are so busy debating each other that they never make an argument against the summit itself.

Phillipe Duhamel, the charismatic leader of the non-violent direct-action group Opération SalAMI, spends much of the film criticizing the tactics of other direct-action activists, represented in the film by Tania Halle of the anarchist group CLAC (Convergence of Anti-Capitalist Struggles). Graciela Rodriguez of the Continental Social Alliance, from Argentina, represents the more mainstream of the movement.

The most intriguing character in the film is Inspector Pierre Goupil of the Sûreté du Québec, who was the commander of the police unit responsible for keeping order. A kindly man, Goupil makes it seem as if the police were caught between the politicians and the people, and that any excesses on the officers’ part were more due to being overwhelmed by the situation than any evil intent. He makes it clear that he thought the fence was a very bad idea and was in part responsible for the violence.

The pro-free traders, represented by Thomas d’Aquino of the Business Council on National Issues and American academic Richard Feinberg, make very strong arguments for their side.

The filmmaker is best known for getting behind the superficial media image of his subjects. View from the Summit, however, fails to go beyond the spin of the pro-free traders and accepts what was clearly an obsession on the part of Duhamel with the issue of tactics on the other side.

It is this imbalance in the film, as well as the footage of aggressive violence on the part of some protesters, that has led the Toronto group Mob4Glob to issue a strong statement condemning the documentary.

But in addition to its artistic merit, View from the Summit can also have important political value, by forcing a discussion on violence at demonstrations that most activists would prefer to avoid. It is less an educational film about the Summit of the Americas or free trade than a seventy-five minute immersion in the multi-layered experience of a week-end confrontation in Quebec City.

View from the Summit will be shown in English on TV Ontario at 10 p.m. on April 17, and in French on April 22 at 9 p.m. on Tele-Quebec. It will also be screened in Toronto on April 16 at the Bloor Cinema as a benefit for the Centre for Social Justice. This event is cosponsored by rabble.ca.

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