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Thursday, December 02, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Kay McFadden / Times staff columnist
Two passionate subjects, two very different documentaries

"30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle" is filmmaker Rustin Thompson's street-level montage of the violent week in 1999.
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This has been The Year of the Documentary. As with all trends, however, a bounteous crop doesn't guarantee the quality of each fruit.

Tonight, KCTS-TV presents two products from opposite ends of the growing zone. At 8 p.m., it's the emotionally heated "30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle." Then up at 10 is "The Day My God Died," an inordinately restrained exposé of sexual slavery.

The timing is good for "30 Frames." It arrives during the fifth anniversary of the media-dubbed Battle in Seattle, which some groups have tried to commemorate this week via ceremonies and demonstrations, to a largely indifferent public.

This is no slam on the groups involved. But it does reflect a certain exhaustion with the topic. Unlike Stonewall, credited with sparking the gay-rights movement, the incident in which protesters and police faced off over the World Trade Organization remains in embryo.

That's the major challenge and stumbling block in "30 Frames." The sights and sounds that local filmmaker Rustin Thompson recorded while covering the WTO as a freelance journalist remain stirring; what's missing is a sense of perspective.

Thompson, a former network news cameraman turned independent film producer, has a seasoned eye for the telling moment and fine technique.

In "30 Frames," the week becomes a story arc, from Day One when a cheerful Mayor Paul Schell ignored ominous signs of the violence that fixed itself in national media images to, finally, the anticlimax of a peaceful march by week's end.

It's a bounty of reminiscing. Over here, so-called peaceful protesters trashing cars; over there, so-called guardians of law and order beating up demonstrators. The WTO riots were, if nothing else, full of paradoxes.

Unfortunately, vivid proximity is also the most that "30 Frames" achieves. Thompson's street-level montage does not crystallize into greater comprehension for the audience.

Even Thompson's personal voyage of discovery doesn't quite get its message across. His epiphany that a passive citizenry can be aroused is never imbued with meaning.

Thompson's focus on protesters inevitably creates a bias. There's a lot more of them on tape than of WTO delegates, police or city officials.

That's OK — documentary makers aren't required to live by dubious rules of objectivity, particularly when framing the story as a first-person quest.

But Thompson abandons journalism to the extent of failing to pursue answers to questions he poses.

At one point, he wonders why police left Teamster- and Steelworker-organized marchers alone, but went after other demonstrators. Was it because labor members are burlier? More middle-class looking?

Or — the tougher query he doesn't ask — could it be because they weren't busting store windows or blocking intersections in a misguided understanding of the right to assemble?

In its own fashion, "30 Frames" does capture the essence of the WTO protests: a hectic, passionate display of activism that rose to a din and whose real impact still is being sorted out for posterity.

If "30 Frames a Second" is over-surfeited with emotional imagery, then "The Day My God Died" suffers from a lack of it.

This one-hour "Independent Lens" look at the abduction and enslavement of women and children in the brothels of Bombay, India, is journalism at its most earnest and detailed. To its credit, the program pushes beyond the problem to possible solutions.

However, it's never deeply involving. Perhaps the makers, including local producer Ingrid Savage, thought the topic already so brutal that simply presenting the facts would suffice.

At any rate, the sheer lack of emotion on camera has a distancing effect.

It's a tricky issue, to be sure. Victims of sexual slavery should not be asked to expose their feelings for the camera. On the other hand, the camera — which secretly taped brothels — doesn't convey any real feel of the hell described in the narrative.

As a result of the exceedingly discreet tone, viewers are put in the peculiar position of feeling terrible not because the situation is terrible, but terrible for not feeling terrible. Worthy as the show is, it's a bad sign when you have to flog your conscience.

Kay McFadden:

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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