The Meteor spoke to Amirani prior to the re-screening of the film, via Manchester’s HOME cinema, about why he created the film and its relevance to today’s protest movements.
The re-release of We Are Many offers a rousing and timely antidote to post-election despondence and pandemic blues in the UK. Ambitious and far-reaching in drama and emotion, the film tells the story behind the 2003 global protests against the war in Iraq and the decisions that lead to the West’s intervention.
The film comprises archive clips and contemporary interviews with an impressive cross-section of the key players during the rush to war, from the UN weapons inspector Hans Blix to Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to the US Secretary of State Colin Powell; as well as the organisers of the protests and sympathisers including Brian Eno, Peter Oborne, John le Carré, Ken Loach and the late Tony Benn.
Despite the largest international demonstration in history, the BBC estimates between six to ten million took part globally, an international coalition led by the US and the UK invaded Iraq. It is estimated that 600,000 civilians were killed, 1.25 million children orphaned, and four million people forced into refuge.
Director Amir Amirani argues the protests not only shaped how we approach conflict, but also had a ripple effect on the global political community. By situating the march in a broader historical context, Amirani makes a bold case for understanding the ways in which the demonstrations re-energised people power over the following fifteen years.
The Stop the War Coalition preceded a surge in global dissent; from the Arab Spring and the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, to the youth climate strikes and the Black Lives Matter movement. With the help of an eclectic ensemble of characters, Amirani underlines its lasting legacy. Those present at the protests in 2003, as the late Tony Benn said, are “the future of humanity.”
The online event premiere which is being hosted by HOME in Manchester, features musical acts, the screening and a Q&A with the director, producers, political activists and organisation leaders. You can watch the premiere live at 1am, 22nd September, but if you miss the start your ticket, available through the HOME website, grants you access for 48 hours after the actual premiere. The Meteor caught up with Amirani to talk about the re-release of his film:
Why did you decide to make a film about the Iraq War protest movement originally?
I was in Berlin at the Berlinale making a short film when the protest happened. I thought, should I go back to London or should I stay in Berlin? I was really in two minds. And I thought, well I’m here, I’ll just go on the march here in Berlin. It was the first protest I had ever been on – and it was huge.
When I came back, it was interesting talking to my friends who attended the protest in London. They were so excited by how big it had been – and these weren’t people you would expect to see at a protest either.
It was probably the biggest protest in history – and that doesn’t just happen spontaneously. And that got me thinking. What did this protest actually mean? Why did it bring so many people out who were first time protestors? What led to the biggest mobilisation of people in history? Who were the actors behind it? What does it mean for us? I started to look into it, purely as a good story rather than a political mission.
It took me nine years to make the film, from 2006 to 2014. This was primarily because I spent four years researching the story but also because of a lack of funding. No established funding body gave us a single penny. BBC, Channel 4, BFI, Sundance – none of them would touch it. I set up a kick-starter campaign to get it off the ground and then we gained money from nine different private backers and organisations.
Where does the title ‘We Are Many’ come from?
It’s a reference to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy, a poem which followed the 1815 Peterloo Massacre calling on the people to organise and resist political authority.
I wasn’t steeped in that political tradition, I was just looking for a title for the film and I attended a conference where I saw this placard – I’ve probably still got it somewhere! – which read, ‘You are many, they are few’. I started researching the origins of the phrase and I realised it came from that poem which reads, ‘Ye are many, they are few’.
I read the poem and I thought it was beautiful, powerful and relevant, and well fitted for kicking off the film to situate the work within a particular context or an intellectual framework; namely, that things aren’t given to you from on high, that you have to make demands of power. There’s that fantastic phrase from the African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass. “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Everything we have has been demanded, we just have to keep pushing. In the current system that is all we have.
Did the protest against the Iraq war affect national decisions regarding going to war post-Iraq? We didn’t go into Syria in 2013 and we’re not at war with Iran.
Politicians make a nod to public opinion when it suits them or when they have little choice. It was always going to be difficult for the government to attack Syria in 2013 because of the memory of Iraq. You had MPs stand up in Parliament saying they were voting against this because they said they didn’t want to be lied to again. So sometimes government policy and public opinion do align.
Is that an indication of where things are going? I am not so sure. What it does mean is that people should continue to demonstrate and protest for what is right and just, and hope to have a kind of influence, until society evolves to a stage where there is some sense of a moral space.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Obviously the demonstration didn’t stop the war, so in a way you could say I was making a film about a failure. But the protesters succeeded in making opposition to war a part of mainstream political debate in the UK.
On your point that the protests made opposition to war a part of mainstream political debate in the UK. If that is the case, why do you think Jeremy Corbyn, who was totemic of the Stop the War Campaign, failed to take advantage of that as Leader of the Opposition and articulate a convincing progressive political vision based on the legacy of the anti-war movement?
I don’t think it was in the power of Corbyn to build on the legacy of the anti-war movement in any meaningful way and I think the reasons for his defeat aren’t connected to the anti-war movement.
We have to separate the issue of Corbyn’s electoral position from the legacy of the anti-war movement. On the one hand, the story of the rise of Corbynism and its defeat at last year’s election has much more to do with the general question of his position across many subjects.
His anti-war internationalism was merely one of those subjects. Undoubtedly, establishment politicians used Corbyn’s status as a former leader of the anti-war movement to paint him as an outsider, as a danger. But I don’t think there was a way for him to use the anti-war movement as a political rallying call.
On the other hand, I think the legacy of the anti-war movement had been to connect with other mass movements. For example, Patrisse Cullors, one of the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, gave an interview in which she cited the 2003 demonstration as the first protest she had been on and an inspiration for her activism. In other words, protests have a subterranean impact which isn’t immediately apparent.
A lot of people seem to assess protests in terms of demands and whether these are met immediately after the march. There’s this kind of success/failure binary – are we going to get our demand or not? – but this is far too simplistic because it’s hard to calculate what the march meant for the millions of people who went out to protest for the first time. Some will have been deflated, some re-energised, some radicalised and some politicised. I think there are millions of stories like that. And imposing this simple binary fails to see the innumerable subterranean impacts those protests had which you don’t see immediately but which you see years down the line. The seeds are sown and the flowers bloom many years later.
That’s why protest is important. It is a visible sign of opposition to something and it is a political community. It is people seeing they are not alone and making myriad connections further down the road. So although the protest didn’t prevent the invasion of Iraq, it re-energised people power over the next decade and a half, articulated in movements like the Arab Spring in 2011, the Women’s Marches in 2017, Black Lives Matter movement and the climate strikes.
Take Egypt in 2011. When the Egyptians saw what the anti-war movement was doing in the rest of the world, they began to think if the Americans went to war that they should come out in big numbers against it. They then surprised themselves when they came out in far bigger numbers than they had expected and said if they could get four or five times this number of people then they could topple Hosni Mubarak, which they did after a number of years through the Kefaya Campaign. These are things we can’t predict when people go on demonstrations but this case study shows why they are so important.
At the end of 2019, The Guardian had a piece by Gary Younge in which he called the 2010s the Decade of Protest. I am not in a position to say there is a deep causal relationship between 2003 and those protests, although I do think there are tendrils of connections and I would be fascinated to see what kind of research goes into that.
Has your outlook on the importance of protest changed with the rise of the reactionary international headed by Trump?
The rise of the right globally – whether it’s Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi, Matteo Salvini or Donald Trump – has been a long time in the making.
All revolutions have counterrevolutions. Revolution is itself an evolutionary process, it’s an ongoing dialectic, a struggle which will continue without clear victors and losers. Going back to the example of Egypt, the events of 2011 were an important development but the industrial-military machine there is deeply entrenched. So the rise of the far right is really a reckoning. One always expects a reaction to a progressive action.
What would a second Trump presidential term mean?
It’s hard to imagine where this would lead. Trump will have nothing to lose in furthering his antidemocratic, militaristic agenda. In American political jargon, there’s a thing called the ‘October Surprise’, where politicians deliberately create or time a news event like a military adventure to influence the outcome of an election in November. A few days ago, Trump issued a bloodcurdling threat to Iran, warning that the US would retaliate with “1,000 times greater” force against any Iranian attack on its interests. That indicates a hot war with Iran might be on the cards.
The question then is what is the progressive response? There is the Progressives International led by people like Jane Sanders and Yanis Varoufakis, which is an attempt to coalesce around a common progressive response to this surge in right wing politics. And I think that’s a really important dynamic right now.
So a Trump victory is a danger to America and the world, and how citizens and activists respond to that is going to be critical. We can’t let the status quo become a permanent setting. We have to change it.
What changes did you make to the film and when did you start making these?
I tried to release the film as it was for the premier in North America, but of course since 2014 there has been so many seismic marches; the Women’s March, the anti-gun marches, climate movement and Black Lives Matter movement, as well as the revival of the Poor People’s Campaign.
Rather than changing the main body of the film, I decided to nod towards these other protests in the end credits to allude to the continuum of protestover the following fifteen years which the anti-war movement had set up. Because we’re living through this time of BLM, I took the opportunity to make those changes to the end credits to insert those shots to have people think about what the legacy of that protest might be.
Although the film is primarily about the Iraq War protests, it is also a film about movements and protests, and asks philosophical questions of what citizens can do. And so by putting those shots in the end sequence, I wanted to locate the film in that broader discussion of political opposition.
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In the early 2010s, social media seemed to help mass protests organise, but in the late 2010s it became evident that it also drummed up support for some very unpleasant reactionary political movements, right wing groups and rich individuals with the money to splash out on social media campaigns. Looking back on the last decade, what is your take on the role of social media in organising?
There’s several issues with social media such as ‘clicktivism’. And that’s before we engage with the question of how algorithms actually work. Social media are by no means neutral spaces or uninflected technologies. Social media are dual natured, as they can amplify good and bad things. They have become subsumed into a broader armoury, namely the media, and that’s already loaded with problems to do with ownership.
We can talk about the Murdoch media, but we labour under the impression that social media are neutral – that nobody owns it and that it’s a purely neutral, democratic space. Evgeny Morozov has argued net neutrality is an illusion because social media are owned by tech conglomerates like Facebook and Google, and profit doesn’t sit easily with neutrality! We are a long way from net neutrality. In fact the powers that be are trying to move us away from net neutrality.
This doesn’t mean organisers shouldn’t use social media, but it is always going to be constrained by its ownership model.
Finally, what keeps you going when things seem as bleak as they do now?
I would never claim to be an activist! I am an engaged citizen with what I hope are progressive ideas. But I would separate my personal morale from filmmaking.
In terms of filmmaking in the context of making We Are Many, on a subject which is so contested politically, I really believed in the importance of telling this story for posterity. It was a damn good story and it needed to be documented, so that people couldn’t say in future that there was no opposition to the Iraq War.
Whenever I feel down on a personal level, I look to history and I remember that the history of progress is the history of protest. Nothing is ever attained easily, it has to be fought for. Even when times are tough, you just have to keep going. Hope is all you have. As the late Tony Benn put it, “there are two flames burning in the human heart all the time; the flame of anger against injustice, and the flame of hope you can build a better world.” You have to be angry about injustice and hope that you can achieve a better world. I think a lot of people hold on to that.
Feeling downhearted is natural, there will always be defeats and setbacks, but that’s why you call them movements – you have to keep pushing for change. Because what other option is there?
Corbyn’s defeat and the rise of the right was demoralising. But we can’t let that become a permanent setting. We have to change it. Anger and hope keep me going.
By Alex King
Tickets for the premiere at 1am 22 September are availabe through the HOME website