WE ARE MANY follows the 2003 protests against the Iraq war. James Walpole interviewed director, Amir Amirani about the thought process behind the film.
James Walpole: There are many facets to the film, but if there was one thing that you would like people to take away from WE ARE MANY, what would that be?
Amir Amirani: I suppose the one thing which I would like them to take away would be a reappraisal of that huge demonstration against the Iraq war on Feb 15th 2003 which many people, for understandable reasons, regard as a failure because it didn’t stop the war. I want them to see the film, and to see that actually it had an impact beyond that day which has gone unnoticed and unreported, and with that different appraisal, think differently about the importance of protest within civil society.
JW: And do you think that the film which you’ve created could inspire other works, generate discussion and inspire other protests?
AA: Yes, I hope that people can go away from the film with a renewed vigour and sense of optimism about what is possible, and to have a reinforced sense of engagement with politics, because it is very easy to become disillusioned and disengaged.
JW: As a young person myself I’ve seen a lot of younger people becoming completely and utterly disengaged, and who perhaps are only recently rediscovering that they can have a voice…
AA: I think you’ve put your finger on something important which is the role of young people, because a lot of people who came out on that demonstration in 2003 were first timers. The numbers were so huge that these were not regular demonstrators. There was a significant number of young people including a big school walk out shortly before the war, and also another big protest on the day of the start of the war. A lot of those young people grew up to take part in the university fees demonstrations and so on. So it really is important that young people don’t feel that they don’t have a stake in society, and that they realise the power that they do have individually and collectively.
800 cities, in 72 countries and that in numbered anywhere from between 15 to 30 million
JW: Young people do often seem to be able to be dismissed in a way that perhaps older people are not. There’s almost a sense that they are fresh out of university, and consequently are full of ideas which haven’t yet had time to mature, but presumably you disagree with that?
AA: I would. Young people grow up to be old people! I think to dismiss young people’s views is very short-sighted and very wrong. I think that if anything young people need to be given a greater say… I’m a big believer in localised democracy; what’s happening in Spain with lots of little regional and local groups, and a lot of that is being driven by young Spaniards in their teens and early twenties, and that’s a trend I want to encourage.
JW: I was wondering, was there a particular incident which kick-started your feeling that you had to make this film, or was it a more general reaction to the situation at large?
AA: Yes there was one particular event and that was the day itself! In early 2003 I was aware that a big demonstration was brewing and I happened to be in the Berlin Film Festival making a short film. That ended on Valentine’s Day, the day before the demonstration. I was in two minds as to whether to stay in Berlin or come back to London, and I decided to stay. It was my first ever demonstration and it was huge, with half a million people in Berlin… Then when I went back to London my friends told me that it was huge in London and that I really didn’t have any idea just how big it was there. So I felt annoyed with myself for having missed such a big day. That annoyance stayed with me and I wondered what that was about, so I began researching and realised that it was in a lot of big cities. And a year or so later I had a light-bulb moment when I realised that that was an amazing story, that this was probably the biggest demonstration ever in the history of humanity, and that there was a story there to be told. That was probably around 2005/6 and I did my first interview in April 2006, dipping my toe in the water and digging around in the story.
JW: What do you think your film specifically adds to the discussion around this moment?
AA: I think that on many levels I hope it tells people things that they didn’t know; one thing being the scale of the demonstration. Many people think that it happened just in their own city, but when they see that it happened in close to 800 cities, in 72 countries and that in numbered anywhere from between 15 to 30 million they are absolutely amazed.
I think the connections that I show between that demonstration and other events in other parts of the world at that time, as well as the legacy that it left behind in terms of the opposition to the war in Syria are all novel aspects of the story that haven’t been told before, and I think that that is going to generate a lot of discussion. And, in fact, that has been the case; we premiered in Sheffield and there was a really interesting debate around it with very enthusiastic responses.
JW: With all of the discussion that has been raised you must have received a certain amount of criticism as there will inevitably be people who are opposed to the points you make, have you dealt with many of those yet or are they still yet to come?
AA: I’ve had a couple of questions asked in Q&A’s where people are wondering outloud whether, for example, I would be opposed to action anywhere on anything, and that is triggered by Syria, for example, or Lybia…. Now that’s a convoluted debate, I know my position and it’s that I don’t think the plan for attacking Syria was based on an altruistic sense of concern for Syrians. I think it was prompted by the possibility of removing Assad from power. When those sort of considerations come in then I don’t believe that they are the right reason for going to war, because that is what it would have been, a declaration of war – it had no UN backing and Syria was not attacking Britain. Now I can understand that people will say ‘well it was a terrible thing going on’, and they’re right, but there are terrible things going on all over the world and we have to have a policy that is based on rules. The UK and US trampled all over those rules in 2003 when they went to war without UN backing, so it’s hard then, when you delegitimise the international legal system, to then come back and try to find other justifications for going to war. Either we have to base our actions on law, which is all we have, or not. We can’t have it both ways, that’s my feeling.
the Syria situation unfolded in front of me and I was able to capture that,
JW: You must have encountered a lot of people who want to be heard here, how did you choose who was going to speak and who you’d have to cut?
AA: I had one overriding consideration and a couple of smaller ones. The overriding one was that the people I wanted to interview had to have some involvement with February 15th – either they had to have been part of organising it or have been on it. Then I wanted to speak to members of the cabinet who were aware of what was going on and I wanted to know their viewpoint, and as you saw in the film we wrote to them but only two or three agreed to talk. And then there were a couple of others who weren’t necessarily on the demonstration but I thought had some interesting connection to it. For example Ricken Patel (the founder of Avazz), he wasn’t on the demonstration but as the head of the biggest people powered organisation in the world I thought he would have some interesting views. In the cut we did for Sheffield, we didn’t have time for him, but we are going to include him in what goes out to cinemas.
JW: And what about the man on the ground who opposed the march who’s voice isn’t heard here?
AA: I would say that because I was telling the story of those who went on the march necessarily I am going to tell those stories. I think that there have been lots and lots of stories on the Iraq war, and the BBC for example make those documentaries where they interview politicians and show both sides. But I think the pro-war position, whether it is articulated by the public or the government, has had a lot of airing, in fact the mainstream media mostly reflect that point of view, and for me the opposition to the war got almost no coverage at all, a little on the day, but not much else. I was keen to tell that story. And frankly, if anyone wants to go and speak to the man on the street about their support for the war, then they are welcome to make a film about it!
JW: Let’s talk about where, after eight years of research and filming, do you draw the line to stop on a situation which is continuously developing?
AA: I was going to finish on the tenth anniversary in 2013 but in fact I didn’t have the money to finish it then which was fortuitous as that meant the Syria situation unfolded in front of me and I was able to capture that, and that’s really the ending that I wanted for the story. Somebody else might pick up the next chapter of the story one day…