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The day in 2003 that changed protest politics forever

Amir Amirani’s film We Are Many investigates how people on the streets felt when they knew their government was on the verge of invading Iraq

There’s a certain poetic justice in watching a documentary so critical of the British and U.S. governments at the Houses of Parliament on July 4th, American Independence Day. Yet despite We Are Many’s sterling account of the unprecedented global opposition on February 15th, 2003 – estimated at 30 million people across 80 countries - to the imminent war on Iraq and the ongoing disastrous aftermath ever since, this may well be the only type of justice served on its architects, chief among them George W. Bush and Tony Blair.

The publication of the long-awaited Chilcot Report, with its unforgiving verdict on the numerous decisions and deceptions that went into taking out Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical regime, is the perfect time then, to reflect with director Amir Amirani on the (appropriately enough) part-crowdfunded film that took him nine years to make, and how that unprecedented protest has shaped public appetite to dissent and revolt, from the Arab Spring to the UK’s Brexit.

What’s your assessment of the Chilcot Report?

Amir Amirani: I’m not surprised. What Chilcot has said, is what the millions said before the war, at the outbreak of war and since the war: the WMD story is not true; the consequences of going to war were going to be horrific; and the aftermath was a total disaster that has led to tragedy and Isis and all those things. The only drawback is that Chilcot has made no ruling on the legality. People wanted closure and accountability.

And of Blair’s response?

Amir Amrani: He said, “I accept responsibility for my actions without exception or excuses” – and then he spent two hours making exceptions and excuses.

Yes or no: should Bush, Blair and the others be put on trial for war crimes?

Amir Amrani: This was absolutely a crime of aggression, therefore should those people who commit that crime, and that includes Tony Blair because he accepts responsibility, then yes. But that’s not saying anything remarkable. The truth is, the law as it stands cannot be applied retrospectively.

 

Going back to February 15th, 2003, what were your initial feelings?

Amir Amrani: I was in Berlin and I went on [the Berlin march]. It was my first demonstration and it felt completely natural to go because everyone could just tell these were transparently false claims. I came back to London and friends told me, ‘You have no idea how big this thing was.’ It stayed with me and eventually I realised it had happened all over the world. And as a filmmaker, I thought, here’s a story. I wanted to know, how do you get 30 million people on the street in one day?

And just nine years later…

Amir Amrani: I didn’t know how difficult it would be to make it. You learn a lot about yourself, how much stamina you have, what are you prepared to sacrifice - three re-mortgages in my case! – how much you believe in something. But to be honest with you, as challenging as it’s been, I’d do it again. It was a political education for me.

The film shows how people mobilized but ultimately couldn’t prevent the war. Do you think lasting change is really possible through protest? Look at Egypt today, after its 2011 uprising…

Amir Amrani: Every revolution in history is followed by a counter-revolution. Egypt would be no exception to that. Another example I cite is the ‘60s Civil Rights movement in America. If you come back five years later, you could argue, what was the point of, say, the march to Selma, because nothing has changed? In 2008 Barack Obama was elected as President. Things don’t happen immediately and that’s why they’re called a movement.

So, small, gradual changes...

Amir Amrani: We’re only barely 12-13 years after that demonstration. I’d like to think that the impact on Egypt and stopping that war in Syria are two positive spin-offs of that and that maybe over time the number of youngsters who went, whose eyes were opened and politicized and so on, they will grow up into the next generation. So I’m more optimistic. When you get Parliament Square filled with the middle classes singing Abba, as they were doing last weekend for Brexit, it tells you something has changed. And all of that changed overnight in 2003, when they saw people like themselves.

We Are Many is available on digital download from 18 July and on DVD from 1 August 2016