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Amir Amirani’s moving documentary We Are Many tells the inside story of 15 February 2003, the extraordinary day on which countless millions in hundreds of cities worldwide marched for peace. Fittingly, the film received several minutes of joyous applause when it screened at the Sheffield Documentary Festival.
We Are Many is a finely balanced, brilliantly edited blend of sober analysis and intoxicating feeling. Although it revisits the day world public opinion emerged as the ‘second global superpower’, Amirani’s film isn’t just an invaluable aide-mémoire and message to posterity. It’s a howl of rage, a rallying cry, and a paean to the politics of hope that presents two different two-fingered salutes to shoulder-shruggers and warmongers alike.
It is also a cinematic dossier on the manifest lies of power. In the absence of a ruling from the Chilcot Inquiry, Amirani conducts a forensic examination of the available evidence and presents his own findings to the court of public opinion. He concludes that those who demonstrated for peace were right, in ways they couldn’t have guessed, and finds the institutions of state guilty as charged.
The film follows an arc of interrelated events precipitated by 9/11. It counts down, in turn, to the Stop the War protest, the war in Iraq, the Arab Spring, and, finally, the Commons vote against intervention in Syria. In the nine years it took him to make the film, Amirani interviewed over a hundred people (almost as many as Mr Chilcot), assembling an impressive range of witnesses from within both the anti-war movement and the corridors of power.
‘Go-to’ veterans of the left like Tariq Ali, Tony Benn and Noam Chomsky appear alongside Establishment insider-outsiders like Hans Blix, John Le Carré, Peter Osborne, and Lawrence Wilkerson (Colin Powell’s former chief of staff). Wilkerson details the ‘grand deception’ used to justify war. He states he’d willingly testify, even stand trial himself, if Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld are ever arraigned. Roll on the War Crimes Tribunal.
Amirani deploys a conventional combination of familiar techniques (archive footage, calendar and clock as motors of suspense, mood music, still images, to-camera interviews) to build a surprisingly radical case. He boldly argues that although the anti-war movement failed in its immediate objective, it actually ‘changed the world forever’: by energising and emboldening Egyptian activists it was a catalyst for Arab revolution, and by forcing a belligerent British government to heed public opinion it averted military action in Syria.
The idea that MPs learned their lesson and consequently voted against intervention in Syria flatters Westminster, however. The Stop the War demonstrations certainly gave them pause for thought, but that benighted country’s depleted oil reserves and the disastrous consequences of the ‘War on Terror’ equally played on their minds as they voted.
The film’s invigorating core thesis, that the global protest was the spark that ignited the fire of Arab revolution, is fortunately more convincing. Hossam el-Hamalawy describes 15 February 2003 as one of the most depressing days of his life. He recalls the moment the Arab world watched ‘those white, whisky-drinking infidels taking to the streets on their behalf’ and the intense frustration of local activists at the muted response in Cairo.
Those activists kept their faith in the Egyptian people, redoubled their efforts, and thereafter matched their Western counterparts stride for stride, with incredible results. Amirani reminds us that courage is contagious and hope is infectious. The film’s defiantly positive message that persistence pays, and even our defeats bear fruit in unforeseen victories, is at the heart of what makes it tick.
We Are Many opens with the closing stanza of Shelley’s great poem The Masque of Anarchy, written in response to the Peterloo Massacre. It makes Amirani’s point for him. Peterloo flowed from earlier events (the Pentrich and Newport Risings, the Rebecca Riots) and into the ensuing era of Chartist agitation. As E.P. Thompson said: ‘ . . . the massacre was yet in its way a victory. Even Old Corruption, knew, in its heart, that it dare not do this again . . . the right of public assembly had been gained.’ We gain ground, lose it later, begin again. Hope dies last and we stubbornly continue to dream, in John Berger’s phrase, ‘like a dog in its basket, of hares in the open’.
In a New Society article of May 1968, Berger argued that mass demonstrations aren’t merely barometers of popular opinion, occupations of public space, or appeals to the conscience of the state (which has none). They are, he said, ‘visible, audible, tangible’ displays of collective strength that ‘express political ambitions before the means necessary to realise them have been created.’ In We Are Many, Amira Howeidy, a deputy editor of Al-Ahram, echoes Berger’s description of demos as ‘rehearsals for revolution’. Recalling the Cairo demonstration that coincided with the invasion of Iraq, she says: ‘Little did we know that that was a rehearsal for the 2011 revolution.’
Well, you never know. Just as nobody could have known the anti-war protests would precipitate Arab revolution, no-one could have predicted the knock-on effect it’d have in Scotland. The resounding ‘No’ of 15 February 2003 echoed in the ‘Yes’ campaign for independence, which now reveals itself as another victory disguised as defeat. Both the deafening silence that greeted mass protest and the Iraq war itself undoubtedly increased Scottish contempt for Westminster and contributed to the SNP’s electoral successes of 2011 and 2015. It may yet lead to the independent Scotland gleefully prophesied by Tom Nairn when he said: ‘Any day now the wolves will break into the drawing room, and it won’t be the cucumber sandwiches they’re after!’ It might be argued that the wolves are already in the drawing room.
Despite having re-mortgaged his house twice to stay afloat, despite all the hard knocks and setbacks he experienced while making the film, Amir Amirani is glad it all took so long. The delays caused by successive financial crises increased the film’s reach. It’s a shame the film was finished before events in Scotland took an interesting turn and that Alex Salmond didn’t make the cut (only 54 of the 112 interviews Amirani conducted did). A crying shame, too, that the BBC, the BFI, and Channel Four elected not to fund the film, which might have fallen victim to a risk-averse culture but for a successful crowd-funding campaign. Amirani’s commitment was subject to a rigorous inspection between the film’s conception and completion. His patience and persistence have borne fruit in this important cross-examination of power and inspirational argument for change.
We Are Many is in selected cinemas now. See the film’s website for local cinema listings.