September 5, 2006

Dig a little deeper: Louisville filmmaker’s doc expands WTO’s micro issues

still from ‘Down to the Wire’: South Korean farmers protest during the WTO’s Hong Kong ministerial conference. Fanfare for a civil society. Safe, controlled, antisepticised versions of events, lacking the context to hint at truth. The kind of tripe you’d expect a Mary Kay-peddling handbag jockey to find revolutionary. A way to absolve yourself of any responsibility for world events, like getting all your information from “60 Minutes” or the nightly news, so you can write off the hell that exists outside your borders, though it’s very much the result of what’s happening inside them.This is why Craig McClurkin made a documentary about the World Trade Organization, that body characterized in the American mainstream media not by its own actions so much as protests and dissent against it, the typical kind of self-congratulatory activism that says, “Well, we did our best but we lost. At least I was on TV.” He was tired of the distraction. It’s too easily marginalized. In point of fact, McClurkin — a 28-year-old Louisville native who lives in Germantown — has spent almost four years crafting “Down to the Wire: The WTO Doha Round,” a nuanced, informed piece of journalism that focuses on the micro issues of trade negotiations among the 149 member nations of the WTO. Specifically, the film centers on the sixth ministerial conference, which took place in Hong Kong from Dec. 13-18.Quick history for the uninitiated: the WTO is an outgrowth of GATT, or the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, one of three global economic initiatives that emerged after World War II (the others were the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank). It differs from GATT because it has a court system and the ability to impose sanctions. The purpose of the WTO was to shrink the world’s economy, in essence, by facilitating trade among the largest and smallest economic systems. It would, in theory, allow single-commodity countries like Chad (cotton) or Caribbean nations (sugar or bananas) to participate in the open market and support their agricultural infrastructure by selling to other countries, ones with more money. In practice, however, the WTO has become like a cannon for the biggest players — the United States and European Union — to fire shots across the bow of developing nations. The United States and E.U., part of the Global 8 (G8), offer subsidies to their farmers that allow them to sell goods on the open market at significantly lower rates than developing countries can afford. Rather than foster competition, it has snubbed it. Craig McClurkin: a 28-year-old Louisville filmmaker, spent nearly four years making “Down to the Wire,” a documentary about the World Trade Organization. photo by Stephen GeorgeThat was the point of the Doha Development Round, which started in November 2001 in the capital city of Qatar: to reduce subsidies and reinvigorate global economic competition. Little came from that initial meeting; the next, which is where McClurkin’s documentary picks up, was in Cancun, Mexico, some two years later. McClurkin thought he would see a bloodbath — using the Seattle protests as a primer — and bought equipment and airline tickets and hired a small staff: Jay Lively, Jordan DeBree, Joel McDonald, Travis Tackett, Alex Beck and Austin Rhodes.It wasn’t the bloodbath he expected; in fact, not much really happened, so McClurkin decided to head to Hong Kong for the sixth ministerial conference (this time with one videographer, Rob Porter), presumably a place where everyone involved would be, and where things of import would ultimately be decided. By that point, his personal financial situation had deteriorated to the point of bankruptcy: his plan to pay off the credit card debt with grant money didn’t pan out — he attained nonprofit status and wrote 15 grant applications, none of which were accepted. Kentucky Educational Television, the statewide public TV network, provided McClurkin with press credentials to cover the Hong Kong conference, which actually did turn up something meaningful: a draft text of a new global economic constitution that now includes manufacturing and services in the same subsidy system as agriculture.Though McClurkin set out to make an objective documentary, the result is more pointed: a finely targeted defense of developing countries whose voices have been lost under the roars of the United States, E.U., China, India and other hefty global economies. His account is deep and complicated, and requires background going in. He did it that way for a reason. “This is why I think a lot of politicians try to focus on the riots on the streets, which were pretty small-scale really,” he said over a beer last week. “Most of the mainstream media also failed to center on the fact that Craig McClurkin: a 28-year-old Louisville filmmaker, spent nearly four years making “Down to the Wire,” a documentary about the World Trade Organization. photo by Stephen George was a victory for the developing world” because nothing was passed. KET ultimately aired “Down to the Wire” once, albeit at 3 a.m. on a weeknight. There are no plans to air it again.Meanwhile, McClurkin is taking it on the road, hitting universities for screenings and panel discussions. He’s looking for a distributor now, and is selling the film through his Web site,  Contact the writer at