‘Our enemies are not 7000 miles from home – they sit in boardrooms, they are CEOs, they are the millionaires and billionaires who control this planet and we’ve had enough of it.’
We Are Many is a film nine years in the making. It examines the events leading up to and in direct consequence of the worldwide protests against the Iraq War on 15th February 2003, recognised as the largest coordinated demonstration in human history. Approximately 1.5 million would march in London on that day, and further rallies took place from Barcelona to Australia, with a total of 789 cities in 72 countries coming together to exercise their democratic right to object to a devastating invasion that would alter the course of history.
Almost a year ago, on 8th June 2014, I first saw this film in a packed crowd at Sheffield Doc/Fest. As it came to a close, I pretty much wept throughout the entirety of the extraordinary standing ovation it received for the length of its rolling credits. This is a documentary that demands to be seen with an audience – ideally in a full house.
The doc gains its title from the Shelley quote ‘ye are many, they are few’ found within his political poem ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, a snippet of which provides the prologue. Then the sun rises in London and the voice over of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant – taken from the XFM radio show they then co-hosted – reinforces a sense of time and place, and takes us back 12 years. It hints at the film’s own sense of humour and also acts as the calm before the storm, with the film frequently interjecting doses of much-needed laugh-out-loud moments throughout an otherwise enraging, provoking and utterly devastating viewing experience.
We Are Many exhibits great footage and is privileged to gain access to a huge number of high-profile speakers – insiders, political commentators and media personalities, including the likes of author John le Carré, politician Tony Benn, musician Damon Albarn and actor Danny Glover – but ultimately they each serve the plot, whether it be through expert opinion, passionate argument, personal experience or the pithy dry humour of Hans Blix. However, these would be rendered half as effective if not for the editing masterclass on display – the film is characterised by motion and urgency, and the first half has us careering towards the Iraq war like an edge-of-your seat thriller.
Uniquely, however, unlike bio-doc Senna or the based-on-a-true-story Captain Phillips, to cite just two recent well-known examples, not only do we categorically know the ending (spoiler: we went to war) but we’re acutely aware that it’s an emotionally unsatisfying one. This makes the difficulty in creating tension and the achievement in actually doing so (to great effect) even more pronounced. Director Amir Amirani also cleverly uses the lengthy production process to his advantage, cleverly and perceptively linking the February 15th demonstrations with events to come much later in Egypt and Syria, allowing the film to flourish with the hope and the change that it so seeks to promote.
The plot kicks into life with the tragic events of September 11, although one interviewee argues that it was the actions of the following day – George W. Bush’s immediate decision to invade Iraq – which ultimately changed the world. Bush cynically uses words like ‘opportunity’ in his initial address to the American public and clips throughout demonstrate his rampant tendency to talk like a teenager. His attitude is often light-hearted and jovial, later making a joke of the conveniently absent WMDs, but Amirani refuses to characterise him as a Boris-esque figure of fun, instead electing to remind his audience of his power and influence with the juxtaposition of death and destruction in Iraq.
Just eight days later, on September 21st, the first Stop the War meeting was held to overwhelming numbers whilst the Murdoch media in both the UK and US was busy propagating the myth of Iraq’s involvement with 9/11. This would lead up to the marches held all around the world on February 15th 2003, with a reported 30 million people taking part, including children, families and first-time protesters, making it abundantly clear that these actions had successfully permeated the mainstream. However, at this point the documentary gives us a false dawn – it reminds us of the hope that remained, and hearing activists speak about how they’re convinced that they’re now going to win and prevent any such war from occurring is a crushing experience for the viewer.
As America’s political powers decide to progress with their plans regardless of the people’s protests – and Britain chooses to tag along as requested – further remonstrations and last-ditch interventions take place. These eclectic activities range from Richard Branson attempting to personally intervene, a campaigner vandalising the Sydney Opera House, a display of solidarity in Antarctica and Robin Cook’s heartfelt resignation speech in the House of Commons: each is personal and powerful and all devastate the viewer’s capacity to remain distant and indifferent. These individuals are willing to put their lives on the line in the most dramatic and severe of ways – through losing their jobs, risking their safety and sacrificing freedoms previously afforded to them – and it’s deeply affecting to watch.
But with despair and defeat comes renewed optimism, and here the film splices in moments of what is to come. It cuts to scenes in Egypt and offers up new voices that collectively see what is happening and decide that this change is possible in their own country. Just 33 days after the largest protests the world has ever seen, on 20th March 2013, war would begin. On that very same day, Egypt delivers a protest of its own – its biggest in 25 years – in Tahrir Square. This would act as a ‘rehearsal’ for the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 and beyond, the Egyptian revolution itself taking place in this self-same place.
The final section of the documentary reminds us – if the rest already hasn’t – of Tony Blair’s true legacy, and perhaps why so many have struggled to forgive Labour as a whole for their indiscretions and wrongdoings in voting against the will of the British public. An initial inquiry is held, dismissed by Ken Loach as an effective sham, whilst the likes of Noam Chomsky and Stephen Hawking unambiguously label the actions of Bush and Blair as war crimes, and We Are Many ultimately argues a passionate plea for the duo to answer accordingly for their actions at The Hague. A small sense of justice is at least felt in the actions of the women who follow around Donald Rumsfeld (and others) regularly, heckling them at every opportunity, which allows an almost surreal moment of necessary comic relief.
We Are Many wraps up with a fast-forward to the events of 2011 and beyond, with the Arab Spring across North Africa and the Middle East, including in Egypt, following inexorably from the actions across the world eight years prior, with Time Magazine selecting ‘The Protester’ as its Person of the Year. The final piece of required catharsis comes in the form of the Syria vote in the House of Commons when, on 29th August 2013, David Cameron was the first Prime Minister defeated on a vote for war in 231 years – losing by 285 votes to 272 – with many citing the mistakes made in the Iraq war, and the accompanying vote by MPs, as a reason to oppose the motion and instead back the consensus of dissent in the general public.
It’s clear from the doc that people-power campaigns and causes such as 38 Degrees grew directly out of this moment of madness – of hope and ambition from the masses – allowing people to engage more, particularly with the expansion of social media. At the same time, it’s easy to recognise that such governmental actions dampened and discouraged engagement within politics, causing an earthquake effect which has impassioned some but essentially oppressed others. In fact, twelve years on, that’s as true as ever, with interest and involvement in politics waxing and waning across different regions of the world. A schizophrenic chasm has appeared across Britain itself, with the Scots voting in their droves in the referendum and in their extraordinary near-exclusive alignment with the SNP in the General Election as the rest of the UK left suffers disenfranchisement from the system. We Are Many, in that sense too, could not be timelier. It is an empathetic and emotional prompt – a ferocious call-to-arms – in encouraging viewers and reminding them just what is possible together.
The film is very compassionate, unsurprisingly, towards Iraq and its people – the closing lines of which remind us of the very human atrocities that took place. Whilst the total cost is already over $3 trillion (and that is set to double by the time the dust eventually clears), the tragedy is the numbers killed and the real inhumanity is that the figure – estimated at somewhere between 100,000 and 1.2m Iraqis according to various sources – isn’t even known. Each name has been reduced to a number, and many of those have been hidden from history and erased from time. We Are Many is this year’s Blackfish – a film which proves that documentaries matter; that they can influence and impact the world, whether through direct action or a change in thought. It is a film which stunningly captures one of the most recent injustices within human history and beautifully expresses the attempts of the many to overcome the heinous actions of the few. Like the march, the war and the people involved, We Are Many will be judged in the present but remembered throughout history.