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By Phil Hall | October 17, 2002

“Protest! The WEF in NYC” is the newest film from Nathan Bramble, the talented young documentary filmmaker with a talent for creating digital video chronicles of fascinating people on the societal fringes. This time around his camera recorded the protest rally held on February 2 of this year when the World Economic Forum convened in New York.
Bramble begins his new film with a brief note that the film is just a documentary of the rally, adding “I am merely an observer” to the events at hand. Whether Bramble is trying to distance himself from the politics of the issue is not certain, but his observatory skills are remarkable. “Protest! The WEF in NYC” offers a stunning display of the highly unlikely tactics and slogan chants used to berate the World Economic Forum’s perceived hostility to the cause of global poverty. Many of the protestors who paraded across New York under the stoic gaze of hundreds of stone-faced police officers (one organizer claimed 25,000 people were marching) turned the event into a political street theater with a level of talent that would have been at home on “The Gong Show.” Included here are The Radical Cheerleaders, a group of young girls singing and dancing (or attempting to, at least) a parody of “America the Beautiful” with anti-WEF lyrics. These talent-free gals were upstaged by a troop of Statue of Liberty lookalikes, who do their own parody of “New York, New York” while giving a klutzy chorus line kick that only occasionally falls into step. More artistically focused are a flotilla of oversized puppets who mock the world’s political and financial leaders (Vice President Cheney is shown with a petroleum mustache under the heading “Got Oil?”) and a troop of frenetically dancing drummers who inspire several onlookers to shake their stuff in rhythm with the catchy beat. What any of this has to do with the subject of global economic reforms is not clear, but at least it is fun to watch.
Unlike previous organized protests against global economic conferences, the New York rally was without violence from either the people in the street or the cops trying to keep order. A great deal of pleasure in “Protest! The WEF in NYC” is having Bramble’s camera in the right place at the right time. The highlight of this film is watching the constant negotiations between the petite rally organizer Lisa Fithian and an extremely tall police officer (who is not identified here). Fithian repeatedly and politely tries to extract an agreement for more street space to accommodate the protest rally, but the giant cop repeatedly and politely declines her requests. At one point, Fithian factitiously inquires if the cop could change his mind if the protestors began chanting for higher wages for the NYPD officers, but the cop (trying to fight a grin) remarks that was done before with no success.
Perhaps the most surprising element in this film is a squad of Chinese protestors who belong to the Falun Gong spiritual movement. Literally stepping forward from out of nowhere to stand in total serene silence in the midst of the rally while holding a large banner, the Falun Gong group attempted to call attention to the Communist Chinese government’s brutal persecution of their followers. The effectiveness of this silent protest, as with the effectiveness of the noisy theatrics of the rally participants, ultimately results in an exercise of dramatic futility.
Indeed, “Protest! The WEF in NYC” provides an extraordinary record of how not to influence socio-economic events. Penned in by police barriers and denied access to the World Economic Forum site, the protestors have only an audience of media cameras and a few curious gawkers from offices and residences overlooking the rally. The impotence in making their message heard is rivaled by the incompetence of the message delivery–who in the world can take a bunch of third-rate vaudeville acts and oversized puppets seriously? “Protest! The WEF in NYC” ends with folk singer Billy Bragg performing a protest tune reminiscent to the music heard in the 1960s during the demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Ironically, no one at the anti-WEF rally seemed to recall that none of the demonstrations of that bygone era actually resulted in the halt of the war. Or to borrow a line from “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”: When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?

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