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Director’s Statement

On a cold February day in 2003, right after attending the Berlin Film Festival, I did something that would change my life, though I didn’t know it at the time. I found myself on the streets of Berlin along with about 500,000 other people, demonstrating against the Iraq War. What happened on that day would end up making history. It was the 15th of February 2003, global day of demonstrations seeking to stop the impending Iraq War.

I was on my first ever protest, much the same as most of the people who came out that day. The millions of people on the streets were not the ‘usual suspects’, the majority were probably first time protestors, who were so appalled at the thought of a premeditated war on Iraq, that they felt compelled to come out on the streets. Berlin was the biggest gathering I had ever seen, and there was a sense of elation and camaraderie I had not experienced before.

When I returned to London, friends told me of the amazing day I’d missed, telling me of the 1.5 to 2 million people in London, making it the biggest protest in British history. My disappointment at missing this event turned into curiosity. I had never seen so many of my friends, most of whom I had not thought of as political, let alone in any way ‘protestor types’, talking so excitedly about that day.

Their reactions, and my own disappointment at having missed such an important day in the history of London, was my first clue to what would lead me on the journey to make the film.

A little over a month after that protest, the Iraq War was launched, led by the US and UK, with predictably tragic consequences, the results of which we are still living with some 17 years later.

The people, who had come out on that day around the world, believed that their protest would mean something. They still had a faith that in an accountable democracy. More than that, they felt on the day that the sheer scale of it could not possibly be ignored, many but not all, convinced that no politician could help but be stopped in their tracks by the sea of humanity.

As a filmmaker, this single day seemed like a gift of a story for a film. I began to research it in 2005, but soon discovered that there was little written about how this day came about. It was too early in a way for academic scholarship, and most journalists that did cover it only saw it as a news story. It had not been excavated.

So I started to dig, and before long, I realized that the protest had in fact taken place in close to 800 cities around the world, in 72 countries, on every continent, including Antarctica, and so was the biggest protest in history. Even the Guinness Book of Records said as much!

If my parents had told me that that such an event had taken place in their lifetime, before I was born or when I was too young to take part, I’d have been amazed. I’d want to know how it happened, why it had happened, who organized it, what it felt like, and what had happened as a result.

But here I was having actually experienced such an event. I need to answer those questions for myself.

I began to meet the organizers of the protest in London, which led me to their counterparts in Europe. The more I learned, the more convinced I was that this was a story that needed to be told.

Not just because it was epic, but I was curious about what had made this particular event so big. What could it mean? What could it portend? Something on that scale doesn’t happen without something having shifted, and without having consequences for life after the event.

Something in my gut told me that this was perhaps a harbinger of things to come. Recording it for posterity would be a worthwhile task.

So it was that in 2006, I began to film interviews in London, and We Are Many was born. I did not know that it would take me 9 years and 3 remortgages of my home in London to allow me to keep going while fundraising and shooting. Filming would take me to 7 countries, leading to over 100 interviews, ranging from activists, to politicians, artists, actors and musicians.

Our plan had been to finish the film in time for the 10th anniversary of the protest, in 2013. But lack of funds meant that we had to pause. But this proved to be fortuitous, as the delay meant that as real life events unfolded in Syria, with protests that this time led to the UK parliament voting against intervention in that country.

As Vietnam Vet Ron Kovic says in the film, “Something happened on that day that cannot be reversed.” Was it just a breakdown of faith in our politicians and political systems? Or was it the start of a greater faith in each other, here and abroad?

I have met countless people over the years, young and old, who remember clearly how they felt that day, and what impact it had on their lives. Many went on to become political conscious and active, joining or setting up movements; many lost their faith in the established order of politics.

The protest was in a way the most overt, and visible fissure in society that most people could remember, where for many, the scales fell from their eyes. An event which most dramatically illustrated the disconnect and gulf between politicians and citizens.

Scholars have been actively researching the ripple effects of that day. Thousands of young people who were politicized, or radicalized, have internalized their own lessons.

The current Executive Director of MoveOn, Rahna Epting, says that participating in an anti-Iraq War march when she was a student “was the moment that propelled me into a lifetime of political activism.”

In 2014, I came across a striking passage from an interview in with two of the three co-founders of the Black Lives Matter slogan and movement, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi.

Q. Are there movements that you’ve experienced that are an inspiration to what you’re doing now?

  1. Cullors: I think the anti-war movement. It was international. The entire globe stood out on the streets to push back against the Bush administration. It was my first protest. I was 19 when Bush declared war on Iraq. I was out protesting every week, out in the streets.

In the UK, 38 Degrees, one of the largest people powered movements in the country (so named because that is “the angle at which snowflakes come together to form an avalanche”) was founded by David Babbs, a young man who had participated in the 2003 protest and poured his disappointment in the ‘failure’ to stop a war into starting an organisation that would give citizens back some voice and influence.

For millions of people, the visceral impact of first taking part in what Arundhati Roy called “perhaps the biggest display of public morality in the world”, followed by witnessing the carnage that followed, was transformative in ways that will continue to be discovered, studied and explored for years to come.

Over the past 17 years, we have seen both the shockwaves of the protest and the devastation of the war, and we continue to live with them. But as I hope the film shows, we can also see that day in a new light, for the impact that was not, and could not have been, apparent to us then. The film connects events and movements that I could not have anticipated when I set out to make the film. And reframes our understanding of what many saw as the story of a heroic failure. In fact, the story turned out to be more complicated, more profound and more revealing than I could ever have imagined.

February 15th 2003 had an electrifying effect – it radicalized some and demoralized others. Some turned away from politics for good, and some were politicized in life changing ways. Documentaries often tell stories of war mostly from the point of view of those who started them, but rarely from the point of view of those who opposed them, notably protest or what are sometimes called dismissively “the masses.”

Margaret Mead once said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

In the intervening years, it is worth noting that not a single person who instigated and led the war of choice in Iraq has been held accountable for the deaths of more than 1 million people, in what most observers consider as the worst foreign policy disaster in modern American and British history. Fortunes have been made, not least by Tony Blair and other protagonists of the war. And President Bush is now regarded in a favorable light compared to the current incumbent of that office.

The end of 2019 saw headlines like these:

The Guardian: “Streets on Fire: How a decade of protest shaped the world”

Vox: A decade of Revolt

NPR: “The 2010s: A decade of Protests Around the World”.

Arguably, these could be seen as the flowers born of the seeds that were sown in 2003. Protests such as the Women’s March, MeToo, School Strikes, to name a few, seem commonplace. The 2003 protests ensure that protests were no longer seen as the domain of activists alone. They were for everyone.

Anti war positions were no longer marginal, but moved into the mainstream and became part of everyday political discourse.

And now in 2020, we witness profoundly important protests sweeping the United States and the world, in the shape of the revived and decentralized Black Lives Matter Movement, and the irrepressible protestors in Portland and across the US that were ultimately successful in turning back Trump’s paramilitary forces — and defending the right to peaceful protest itself.

So it feels absolutely timely to present a film about the historic 2003 protest, which is also about what people power means in the 21st century. Just as mass movements inspire change and hope, I hope this film will galvanize North American audiences, and shine even further light on the remarkable spirit flowing now through the streets.

Taking on one of the most important social and political stories of our generation has been the most exciting, rewarding, and challenging tasks of my life. When and how will the next chapter be written?

In 1819, the poet Shelley wrote these words in the Masque of Anarchy, which inspired the title of my film:

“Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few”

In August 1857, the social reformer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass gave a speech with these stirring words:

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress”

The words of Shelley and Douglass have perhaps never seemed more relevant and urgent now than now.

— Amir Amirani