Culture

In 2003, 30 million people hit the streets to reject war. An important new film tells their story.

'We Are Many' tells the inspiring story of the worldwide protests against the Iraq War on February 15th 2003, and how the impact of that historic day continues to be felt today.
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We Are Many is a film that’s been produced over the course of eleven years. It focuses on protests of February 15th 2003, when 30 million people across the world said no to the Iraq War. It’s an inspiring story of resistance, but it also demonstrates how that historic day has shaped our current world.

Mondoweiss spoke with director and producer Amir Amirani about the movie.

Michael Arria: There’s been a lot of documentaries about the Iraq War, but not a lot of movies about the resistance to it. I am wondering what drew you to this particular angle.

Amir Amirani: You put your finger on it, really, because the resistance was the story that was never told. Generally speaking, in journalism and in the mainstream news, the voices of people on the streets and the people who resist are marginalized or ignored or just regarded as irrelevant. People are not agents in history, they’re actors but the only people who are shown as actors in history are the politicians who make decisions, mostly men in suits.

So although that wasn’t uppermost in my mind, that certainly was a factor. I came to think about doing the film because I was in in Berlin in February 2003. At the Berlin Film Festival. I decided to go to the protest there and it was amazing. I think it was really my first protest of that scale, maybe even my first protest. When I returned to London I got this amazing response from friends, they were all so excited and energized about the protests. These are not people that would be regarded protesters, yet they were excited. And I actually began to feel sad that I missed that historic day in London because it was historic. The protest was 2 million people, the biggest in British history. So I was sad that I missed it, but I was also feel amazed that so many people I had never thought to be protesters were doing this. And that led me down the line one day of thinking, well, hang on, if it was in London, it was in Berlin, where else was it? I learned it was global and suddenly I thought, this is an amazing story.

Something like this doesn’t just happen and it probably portends something. How do I tell the story? Who was involved? How did it come about? How was it organized? How did it unfold? And of course I knew, because this was years after, that it didn’t stop the war. But I still thought this is an important story to tell from a filmmaking point of view. And the more I got into it, the more I started thinking it’s also necessary to recall this moment and this story in film for posterity, because when the biggest protest in history happens, there should be a record of it.

That’s why it felt to me the people’s story on the streets of this mass resistance against war was important.

NEW YORK – FEBRUARY 15: Thousands of protesters gather for an anti-war demonstration on First Avenue February 15, 2003 in New York City. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

I wanted to talk about the logistics of the project a little. I read that it took you nine years to make the film. There’s some stuff at the end of the movie about the Arab Spring and the Obama administration’s Syria policy, things that happened after you began making it. When you started the project, was it a situation where you didn’t know how it would end or this stuff happen and you suddenly, “Oh wow, I have to add all this?”

Very, very interesting question. So when I started doing my first interviews in 2006, the first interview was with Tony Benn here in London, then I did one with Brian Eno and a couple other people just to see what I had here. Of course at the time I’m thinking, “ok the protest is done and most people looked at it like, ‘ok, it didn’t work.'”

But to me, there was still a story. You could say it was a story of heroic failure, but it was still interesting. Once I said to somebody, you watch a film like Titanic and you know it’s going to be sad, but you still want to watch the film. That’s all I thought I was going to do. Tell the film, tell a story in a film about this huge historic protest, not knowing that there would be any other ending and I was hoping to release it on the protest’s 10th anniversary in 2013.

So that was February 2013. I was hoping to finish the film and I can tell you the whole story about the lack of funding and so on, which is why it took so long. We didn’t have enough money to finish, so I was disappointed. Anniversaries are not really important, but the film industry relies on them so it seemed like a good marker to aim for.

So we didn’t have the money, I put down the tools wondering how we were going to finish and then I got a bit more money and I finished the film during the summer of 2013. I was doing the final cutting of it and then Syria began whole unfolding. I’m watching this all happen on the news while I’m editing the movie.

I remember one evening while I was cutting, there was a big Hands Off Syria and then a few days later there was a vote in parliament on whether to go to war. I watched it live and it was defeated. I thought, wait hold on a minute here. So in a way, the delay, the lack of funding, and all of those things meant that I could see the resolution of the film and it just fell into my lap. There were people who stood up in parliament and said, we were lied to in 2003. We’re not going to be lied to again, my constituents are not going to put up with this again. Even [former UK Prime Minister] David Cameron says in the film, the well of public opinion has been poisoned well and truly they couldn’t do it.

They issued an internal report that said public opinion was a major factor in swinging the decision and we show that in the film as well. So there was all that, and then there was also what happened in Egypt. I didn’t expect to find Egyptian activists who said they had been watching the 2003 protest in London. In fact, one of the main activists there was even in London at the founding meeting of Stop the War Coalition.

There was a tiny protest in Cairo and they never thought they would end up with the numbers that they did. I suppose really what it comes down to is that when you start a film you start thinking you’re going to make about one thing and it’s not that it becomes another, but it grows into a bigger thing and evolves in a way that you hadn’t anticipated. That’s exactly what happened here, right?

LONDON – FEBRUARY 15: Thousands of people gather in Hyde Park after finishing an antiwar protest march February 15, 2003 in London, England. The march is believed to be the UK’s biggest ever peace protest. (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

You’re based in UK. Here in the United States the Iraq War has something of a strange political legacy, or at least a contradictory one. On one hand, Bush is reelected in 2004. Then four years later Obama wins, and one of the reasons people are receptive to him is his opposition to the war. Now our Democratic nominee is Joe Biden, who voted and pushed for the war. I wouldn’t say the moment hasn’t had an impact on our politics, but no one has really been canceled or driven out of public life as a result of their support for it. Can you talk about the impact that the war has had on British politics?

Yes, absolutely. I’m actually thinking about writing a book about this because it’s such a dense and rich bit of history. So we saw this visible rupture in politics because, this mass of people on streets, people who had come out and still had a faith in that old world of politics. Public opinion on that sort of scale matters, politicians will listen. The people didn’t think that the politicians would be cynical enough to ignore them. That was a rupture. Lots of people got demoralized, lots of people left the Labour Party. Quite a few scholars and commentators talk about how it was such a betrayal of public opinion. It was such a clear breach of international law. Nobody believed there was WMD. It was so transparent that they were lying.

You know, even before there were two dossiers, there was Dodgy Dossier 1 and Dodgy Dossier 2, nobody believed it. Yet they sort of barreled through with it and the consequences of that are still being felt in the loss of trust between the public and government. It affected the Labour Party, lots of people deserting the Labour Party. In Scotland, lots of people have said that the defeat, the permanent defeat of Labour in Scotland was a major part of it was the was the Iraq war.

Then you had the fact that lots of young people went on that and became politicized, lots became radicalized and lots thought that, well, there must be other ways of doing things and went on to found movements and organizations. One of them is in the film, David Babb’s, who founded 38 Degrees. Of course Jeremy Corbyn has been at the forefront of that kind of politics and when he stood for leader, a lot of people who had felt disenfranchised and excluded and marginalized in Labour came back. Not only did they come back, but also he attracted even more people making the Labor Party the largest political party in Europe by far, I think 500,000 members. So it had so many different kinds of impact, yet there was no accountability. No one has paid a price. No one’s been canceled. Tony Blair went on to become Middle East Peace Envoy, if you can believe and then. He’s made a fortune and is constantly on the BBC and constantly being rehabilitated. It is a bizarre, bizarre thing.

But I think the legacy of the Iraq war, the legacy of that protest continues to be felt. I tried to do as much election analysis as I could in the film, the way in which the trajectories worked in America and Britain are kind of interesting. Bush and Blair go off and do their things and they’re left untouched. But then you had Bernie [Sanders] and Corbyn rise, then crash. It’s a really interesting time in history to look at the parallels between these two countries that prosecuted the war.

There’s a lot of people who become really apathetic about the political process or political involvement of any capacity. Someone might be looking at this and think, “Ok, 2 million people protested the war in London, but the war happened anyway. What was the point?” What would you say to someone with that kind of attitude?

There’s various kind of answers to that. No one can ever say that the world accepted what happened with the Iraq war, because we know that there was worldwide opposition. And for every person that was out there doing it, there were multiple numbers more who couldn’t make it for one reason or another. They were working. They were too old, or whatever. So, it’s huge numbers and it’s important to make a visible statement that this happened. It’s a message to other people, like happened with Egypt, that there are other people around the world who do care about this issue that’s important to us and it’s going to affect us.

PARIS – FEBRUARY 15: French demonstrators attend a rally for peace February 15, 2003 in Paris. Thousands people demonstrate against a possible war on Iraq took to the streets in Paris. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

It’s also important because there were so many first timers out there. For them to come out and see that there are millions of other people who think like them, that’s extremely powerful and cannot be dismissed. Those people go on to do many things in life. So I’ll give you just one example. The current executive director of Move On, Rahna Epting, is half Iranian, half African-American. She was a student during the Iraq war. She wrote an article about it and got an email from Move On saying, “Come out to this Iraq war protest.” She went and it brought her to life because suddenly she saw there were people just like her with her point of view. She said it was an amazing of call to arms and it set her on a life in political activism.

I also read an interview in 2014 with Patrisse Cullors, who’s one of the three co-founders of the Black Lives Matter slogan and movement. They asked her, what movement in your life inspires you or inspired the work that you do? She said the anti-war movement in 2003. I think she was 19. It was her first ever protest. She said, “We were out on the streets every day and that was inspirational.” I think those two experiences and others, many, many others like that that I’ve heard speak to the power of protest. It works in ways that we can’t imagine.

I think I would also add to that we can’t look at protest as a kind of light switch. It’s not like we protest and then something happens right away. The protests didn’t stop the war, but it is the tendrils reach far deeper and far further into the future. You could talk about any kind of movement. Take the civil rights movement. It didn’t have have success after success, after success. It took decades, but there were victories along the way and there always will be.

So yes, the Egyptian revolution was followed by a counter-revolution. That’s part of history, but it doesn’t negate the need to to keep protesting. After all, if there were no protests ever, what would happen? How would anything progress? I’m of the belief that rights are not granted. They’re not given. They have to be demanded. That’s what protest represents, it’s a challenge to power.

When people assess the anti-war movement of the 60s and 70s, or during the response to the Iraq War, they put a lot of stock into how many people are on the street. We saw Obama get elected here, and suddenly there weren’t many anti-war protestors on the street. However, you have seen growing resistance within the military itself and you’ve seen the election of representatives with a more progressive view of foreign policy. We’re almost 20 years removed from the protests in this movie. How do you view the current state of the anti-war movement around the world?

It’s interesting because when when I’ve been speaking to friends and contacts in America about the anti-war movement, some people say, “What anti-war movement?” They feel that after Obama was elected, anti-war people thought, “Hey our job is done, we can go home.” In the UK, we still have the Stop the War Coalition which I suppose is the equivalent of United for Peace and Justice and various other antiwar groups in America that have kind of fallen into smaller numbers.

BERLIN – FEBRUARY 15: An estimated 500,000 protesters demonstrate in front of the Brandenburg Gate February 15, 2003 in Berlin, Germany. Massive demonstrations are taking place in Europe, North America and Australia today against a possible U.S.-led war on Iraq. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

How active and how effective are these movements around the world? It’s difficult to tell. For me, it’s tainted or colored by the fact that there is this resurgent right around the world, with [President Donald] Trump and [Prime Minister Boris] Johnson. Other domestic movements are sort of sucking out the oxygen and dominating the agenda. It feels like there’s been a reckoning that’s been brewing for a while and that’s coming to a head now.

I don’t know what shape that will take. I don’t know if it will be decisive. So, when I think about the anti-war movement around the world, it does feel like everyone is on the back foot, being stunned into confusion by these rightist movements that are breaking the norms of behavior everyone was accustomed to.

I know that there is a movement called the Progressive International that Yanis Varoufakis and other people are involved in and it’s an attempt to kind of forge a progressive answer in response to what’s going on in the world. I would say ultimately I feel optimistic because whilst people feel demoralized, I also sense that people are really searching for for answers and for solidarity and community.

We’re seeing that a little bit in these in the Black Lives Matter movement. It hasn’t gone away. I do believe that if push comes to shove, if there’s a potential war with Iran or somewhere, I think there will be a backlash. Will it ever be as big as 2003? Who knows. That may never happen, but I remain optimistic that there will be resistance because, what’s the other option?

You can join an online screening of the movie, and a Q&A panel discussion with Amirani, on September 21.

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here’s another portal to watch the film “the September 21st at 5:00 pm livestream can be viewed anytime until September 23rd at 5:00 pm.” https://watch.eventive.org/wearemany/play/5f5fc794dfe49f0037e8610c i went to the protest that day in Perth Australia. i remember the location set up for speeches and the rally was inside a large courtyard with balconies. i got there early and remembered thinking, this is not going to be large enough for a big rally. and it wasn’t,… Read more »

What an exercise in extracting a silver lining from a coal mine! Oh no, it wasn’t a total failure because… it just was a total, abject failure. The stark fact is that the 2003 protests and all that huge mobilization didn’t at any time amount to a hill of beans. And that was fully predicted by a lot of people, for obvious reasons that were pointed out at the time. This movie avoids any examination… Read more »