Marienna Pope-Weidemann reviews Amir Amirani’s ‘We are many’, a documentary about the biggest anti-war demonstration in history
15th February 2003: we know it was the biggest protest in world history. We know that millions of people who’d never before felt like they could make their voices heard by taking action, marched in the streets of 800 cities to say ‘Not In Our Name’; that they dared hope for peace, but were committed by their governments to a bloody and illegal war.
As it became apparent that public opposition to the Iraq War just wasn’t enough, the hollow nature of our political democracy unveiled itself for the nation. The one solution was escalation. If all those people had kept coming back, if mass civil disobedience and strike action had followed, who knows what might have become possible. But instead of an explosion in political consciousness, as the body count kept rising and the lies kept coming, defeatism settled like snow over many, for whom the movement born in the shadow of 9/11, died in March 2003.
Amir Amirani’s We Are Many tells the other story – of those who believed, as Damon Albarn puts it, that “if you keep coming back, you will make the change.” From the scientists fired for protesting in Antarctica and the guys who painted ‘NO WAR’ on the Sydney Opera House, to the eruption of the Egyptian Revolution and what was almost our war on Syria, this film – a ground-breaking documentary with the feel of an epic saga – joins the dots beautifully.
Through a patchwork of interviews with campaigners from Britain, the USA, Europe and Egypt it gives voice to the enduring hope and outrage that still today finds no expression in establishment politics. Punctuated with breath taking shots of some of the most momentous mass demonstrations of the past decade, these interweaving narratives never shrink from reflecting the anguish and despair of 2003, which makes for an honest and deeply moving film. But they build on each other like an orchestral performance guaranteed to blast the cobwebs off anyone’s political will.
Amirani’s uncompromising honesty is matched only by his unbridled appreciation for what he describes as that “mass, heroic act.” Made real by 30 million people in 57 countries – numbers sufficient to inspire even without the artistic cinematography – we hear how this unprecedented outburst of public opposition ‘followed the sun’ that day: starting in the South Pacific, then in north Asia, then south, onwards through India, Russia, down into Africa, across Europe and then, finally, America. For Amirani the beauty of that historic moment remains untouched by the destruction that followed.
We Are Many speaks with particular power I think to my own generation, many of whom were radicalised in part by the Iraq War. I was twelve when I watched 15th February march on TV. It felt for a moment like anything was possible and was the first time, really, that I felt conscious of a great mass of likeminded people in society who were actively trying to change the world. After that, mine was the first generation to grow up as an audience to televised warfare. We understood war in a new way because we saw its the harrowing consequences played out on our screens; and while the outrage was immediate, so too was the disaffection – I could never understand why my grandmother kept writing her eloquent anti-war letters to No. 10 when it seemed so self-evident that they would never listen.
But while the government may not have been listening, there were plenty of others who were and while the world wasn’t watching, they never stopped mobilising.15th February played a catalysing role for the Egyptian movement, to name one example. In the film, Egyptian activists chart their course from 2003 right to the 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square. More than anything, and certainly when viewed in the context of all that’s happened since, We Are Many is a testament to their daily refusal to give up and go home.
Those who know the story well will see much that is missing from the subsequent struggles of the anti-war movement, but that is to be expected from a film of this length. These unavoidable editorial decisions were taken with intelligence, and give the latter part of the film the space to highlight what happened here in Britain: the sustaining of Stop the War Coalition throughout those years, right into the build up to war against Syria.
The film creates a powerful sense of what it had taken topromote a counter-narrative about British foreign policy throughout the years of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan, the bombings elsewhere and a War on Terror at home. Despite the rhetoric of politicians and the corporate media and despite historic disaffection with politics generally, it brought the true cost and futility of these wars into the light of day. As the footage shows, the strength of public opposition and the memory of being ‘duped’ over Iraq surfaced time and again during the parliamentary debate on Syria. But as we all know, politicians have short memories of their crimes unless there is a relentless collective effort outside the halls of power not to let them forget.
On the night of its screening at the Soho Hotel, several audience members who have withdrawn from activism since 2003 spoke afterwards of how their memory of 15th February had been completely coloured by watching this film. They felt a decade of despondency being dispelled. That is the greatest testament to the film, a reflection of its purpose and an illustration of why hosting screenings should be an organisational priority for local activist groups.
Today, with Iraq in flames, Gaza under attack and growing instability throughout Africa and the Middle East, we need this movement to keep growing into something stronger, for which no demonstration is ever the end-game and every defeat is a renewed call for action. Telling this story is essential to making that case because power will never confess that its arm has been bent by the people; if we as a movement don’t preserve and celebrate our history, they will happily erase it.
What I was left with after the screening was an overwhelming sense of pride, conviction and a renewed respect for everyone I know who helped build the biggest protest in world history, sustained that movement for a decade and ultimately made a decisive contribution to world history by giving people the awareness and the confidence they needed to give a resounding ‘no’ over Syria, costing Cameron a parliamentary vote for war for the first time in two hundred years.
For Amirani, We Are Many is an attempt to ‘give something back’ to the anti-war movement and it really is a remarkable gift. It reunites all those who participated in the making of that day and connects all their contributions to, as Tony Benn famously put it on the day, “starting something really big.” The film is a powerful reminder that it was bigger than many of them realised. I have no doubt that next time we come together, we’ll see faces in the crowd not seen for eleven years because of it.
We Are Many is also working to re-build this global network by creating an online community and digital archive where you can connect, share your 15th February story and help raise money for the project.
Marienna is a socialist writer and campaigner who studied Politics & International Development at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She is a leading organiser of the Student Assembly Against Austerity. She currently works as a filmmaker for the Islam Channel.
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