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In appreciation and recognition of Seattle's long and illustrious film history, we are proud to partner with Scarecrow Video to bring you weekly reviews of historical Seattle films. Each week we will showcase a new movie, with special emphasis on how these films show Seattle's most filmable locations.

Seat of Empire: Seattle Since 1909 (2009)

Produced through the support of the Seattle Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs and 911 Media Arts, Shaun Scott's eccentric documentary is a unique and highly detailed account of Seattle's growth and development. This ambitious video project recounts local history starting with the early 20th Century and attempts to trace connections between the diverse assortment of races and classes involved in the social evolution of Seattle with a close eye on the reasons (mostly military and financial) for the city's industrial growth. Scott's film is basically a one-man show as he acts as Seat of Empire's producer, writer, editor and narrator. A few local scholars (like UW professors Charlotte Cote and Brian Crasserly as well as's David Wilma) offer their insights, but it is mostly Scott who eloquently conveys the ramifications of Seattle's urban progress. The young filmmaker does an impressive job weaving together numerous ideas and complex historical threads.

Topics explored in Seat of Empire include brothels, war, the Red Scare, the surreal Denny Regrade project, the influence of immigrants (Filipino and Scandinavian in particular) and Native Americans, politics, Boeing, Japanese Internment Camps, highways, sanitation, public transportation, the WTO protests, and much more. Scott's approach to the subject is loosely connected to 1909's Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition and its metamorphosis into celebrations like the Century 21 Exposition (aka Seattle World's Fair) and Seafair. Along the way we are treated to a rich collection of local images Scott uncovered in places like the Seattle Municipal Archives, the University of Washington Special Collections, and the Museum of History & Industry, all of which showcase the evolving cityscape and changing environment. The director lives at the corner of Ravenna and Roosevelt, mere blocks from Scarecrow Video, and the film includes many neighborhood sights including Caf Racer, Half Price Books, Dante's and, most prominently, the extensive mural across the street from the Ravenna QFC.

While thematically similar documentaries like Paul Dorpat's Seattle Chronicle recount events in chronological order without much commentary, the momentum in Scott's film frequently slows to further explore the controversial social and natural impacts of urban development and goes out of his way to emphasize individual and environmental sacrifices made for the perceived idea of a greater good and a bigger city. Because of Scott's frequent tendency to get sidetracked, the 193-minute Seat of Empire simultaneously seems too long and too short, leaving viewers both exhausted and wanting more. But Scott's obsessive and thorough approach is a key part of what makes Seat of Empire a must-see for local history junkies. Fortunately, Scarecrow Video has this film and an impressive collection of other local documentaries in its Seattle Interest section to further satisfy all your historical needs.

-Spenser Hoyt

Back to Scarecrow on Seattle Archives