Sheffield Doc/Fest 2014: We Are Many

David Katz

We Are Many, directed by journalist Amir Amirani, focuses on the global anti-Iraq War protests of February 15th 2003, where 15 million people took to the streets in over 800 cities around the world. It’s an uplifting film, with its celebration of collective action and activism, but also a despairing one. Using an expertly edited array of archival clips, we’re plunged back into the fearful era of late 2001-2003, with the Western world still recovering from the 9/11 attacks. As someone with a very clear living memory of this time, it’s remarkable how vividly it brings us back to the growing atmosphere of mistrust for Blair and Bush, and the horror of them committing to a wrongful war in our name. Yet it’s also eerie to see this presented to us, finally, as the ‘past’, or from a detached historical perspective. The dust has settled, its legacy is sadly secure, and now it’s up to us in 2014 to learn from it. 

The premise of celebrating just this single day of protest is initially quite troubling: isn’t it irrelevant in light of its ineffectuality, its failure to make those in charge listen? Thankfully, Amirani’s key success in this documentary is selling us, very convincingly, its significance, as an overwhelming modern example of us exercising our democratic right of free speech, on a massive global scale. As a New York Times lead article proudly flagged up numerous times said, “After the demonstrations of this weekend, there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.” The impact of that public opinion, when our presidents are pursuing wars of questionable legitimacy, puts the democratic mandate we’ve given these leaders under harsh scrutiny.

Beyond this more theoretical level, it’s also a wonderfully human and compassionate film. Even though we may be very aware of what they’re fighting for, and of the various historical yardsticks (like the ‘dodgy dossier’ or Robin Cook’s resignation), just seeing some of the activists in candid interviews, fondly recalling the day or being moved to tears, is deeply affecting. The pacey editing is tense and exciting, drawing upon the cinematic imagery of crowds and placards dominating pedestrian streets, juxtaposed against Bush and Blair framed as the villains of the piece. 

The film’s focus on the movements and recollections of the day mean that, often, the wider political context is skimmed. Sometimes it feels like a film intended for people who aren’t that knowledgeable about this series of events, rather than bringing a new perspective to light for everyone else. It’s clear and approachable enough to be shown in a school classroom, perhaps as a precursor to a lesson or debate. Amirani’s journalistically trained eye for a story, and his appreciation of the wider Middle East’s response to the protest, however, makes this a vital act of remembrance and insight.

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