With the recently released Chilcot Report damning ex-prime minister Tony Blair and the flimsy case for invading Iraq, now is a good time to reflect on the conflict, from its murky origins to its lingering, chaotic aftermath and the many people who opposed it.
On February 15th 2003, there was an international call for peace, with thirty million people across eight hundred cities joining together to oppose US-led actions on the eve of war. This was, by far, the largest mass protest ever seen in our history. The New York Times referred to the protests as a “Second Superpower”. Despite that, Bush, along with Blair, ignored the plea and instead decided to follow their own interests. We know how that turned out.
Filmmaker Amir Amirani was amongst the protesters when he realised the importance of such an event. What followed would be his magnus opus: a decade-long investigation into the events during the lead up to the invasion of Iraq and meet key individuals in the movement. It's a historical document of how the world came together in the hopes of thwarting what would be a devastating war, plus a sign of the importance mass movements can have. Don’t Panic sat down with Amir and executive producer, actor/comedian Omid Djalili to discuss their latest documentary We Are Many.
Don’t Panic: Omid, when did you first meet Amir and when did you first hear about this project?
Omid Djalili: I knew Amir at school. I came across the film as a Kickstarter thing on Twitter around 2011, from a tweet sent by Stephen Fry, who no longer exists on Twitter. I thought it was a trailer for a film and thought 'I would definitely see this.' Then he (Amir) popped up and I thought, 'what has he got to do with this?' He said he was the director and I thought – of course. I knew he was a documentary filmmaker and I rang him up immediately and asked “what is this? Where can I see it?” He said it’s not made yet, we’re (Amirani Media) currently raising money to make it.
Being a fellow Iranian he roped me in and here I am now. I’m very honoured that he’s taken me on a journey with him. Producers are usually hands off. They just want to watch the film now and again, and associate themselves with the movie if it’s cool or run away from it if it's crap. This movie is not only a really good movie, it’s highly relevant – and will be relevant for years to come. I think it will be a movie people show in schools. It’s really got into the psyche of humanity. It’s one of those global moments that shaped history so I’m very proud to be a part of this.
Amir Amirani: It was great that Omid came on board as a supporter and a backer, but also his editorial contributions were really brilliant. That doesn’t always happen. Some executives take a backseat and are hands off as Omid said.
DP: You (Amir) started your career in the BBC.
AA: Correct. My background was in television, and I can tell you a lot of television executives are not that great in the cutting room, whereas Omid was fantastic in the cutting room.
DP: There are some amazing people who are involved in the project, such as Signe Byrge Sørensen, who previously worked on The Act of Killing.
OD: There are some great people involved. Even the sound was done by the guy (Martin Jensen) who did The Kings Speech.
AA: The production values were very high. The colour grade was by the guy who did the colour grade on Brazil. We had terrific executive producers and terrific technical people as well.
OD: We even had notes from Walter Murch, who edited two of the three Godfather movies. The film speaks to every single person on the planet. You’ll find, as we went on this journey, anybody who was anybody who came across the film championed it in a way I’ve never seen. It’s incredible how that’s happened.
DP: It’s a film that spans the globe with so many countries getting involved in the protests. It’s also amazing that people in different industries or walks of life also wanted to be involved. Amir, you were in Berlin at the time of the 15th February marches, but when you saw the crowds did you know how important it was to tell this story?
AA: I was in Berlin and there was no question in my mind that I had to join this demonstration. I’d never been part of a demonstration before but it felt totally natural to go with it. The streets of Berlin were completely full with half a million people. It was the biggest demonstration in Germany for generations. It was the biggest crowd I had ever seen. I came back to London and my friends where really excited, telling me “you don’t know what you missed.” I said to them Berlin wasn’t too shabby and I was told I had no idea. There were two million people in London. I genuinely felt upset that I missed it. That stayed with me and I kept thinking why is this bothering me? Even then I still didn’t have the idea but as I began to dig into it a little bit more and research it I realised it happened in Berlin, it happened in London, and it happened in New York. Eventually I found out it happened in 800 cities around the world. At that time I was at the BBC working on another project when I stopped and thought, 'wait a minute, that’s a film.' Telling the story of the biggest demonstration in history would be incredible. I was curious but I didn’t know what the answer was. I didn’t know how it happened. How did the movement become global? Most of all I didn’t know what it meant and I didn’t know that it would take me close to nine or ten years to make it. Something compelled me to do it because I think I felt in my gut that this was a turning point. I couldn’t articulate why. Now I think we see that it was.
DP: I think it’s interesting what you (Omid) said before – about We Are Many playing in schools. I think it succeeds as an overview for informing a younger generation about what happened during that time. The documentary discusses the initial events that lead to Bush announcing his 'war on terror' and discusses the legacy the demonstrations had. Especially with the Arab Spring. This was an important time that needed to be documented.
OD: This is your generation who are actually going to carry out what the people (in the documentary) were trying to say. We don’t want war. The biggest casualties of war are us. Some people make money out of war. Certainly not us. We’ve nothing to gain from war. I believe there will be a day, maybe not in your generation, that people will say this is not the way to resolve conflict. I like to think that in 50 years time people will look back on this film and on that moment in history as one of the turning points. Even when Amir was putting the film together he discovered the story. It’s one of the great-untold stories of our time. We met John Prescott and he said he didn’t have any idea about the scale of the demonstrations. Maybe we (as a country) would have voted for something different? People will look back on that moment as humanity maturing. As humans we’re in the turbulent adolescence right now when humanity begins to finally mature. War will stop and we’ll look back on this as the first time people as a group got up and said we don’t want war. What Amir has done, so beautifully, is ask all the right questions.
AA: When we premiered the film at the Sheffield Film Festival the reaction was astonishing. Lots of young people came up to me saying how moved they where by the film. They were telling me “we don’t learn this at school. We haven’t been told any of this stuff.” It was an education for them. If you look what’s happening now in the country with (Jeremy) Corbyn, it’s your generation who are waking up saying this is a different kind of politics. This is someone who opposed the war. I see so much momentum in young people. Something is changing. I hope young people will watch the film and react to what they’ve seen.
DP: Corbyn is in the documentary as a talking head. Along with him, you have musician Damon Albarn, filmmaker Ken Loach, to name a couple. Did you have any problems getting those people on board?
AA: Every story was different. In the end, what I found was that they were all dying to talk about it but weren’t asked. In the mainstream media the anti-war position isn’t really deemed important. Anyone who takes that position isn’t really consulted. When I wrote to somebody they said “yes, when do you want to talk about it?” Whether it was Brian Eno, or Damon Albarn. I was constantly surprised.
OD: Hans Blix (Swedish diplomat and politician) simply asked when are you coming to Stockholm. John le Carré had said prior to our interview that he is never giving another interview. He came out of interview retirement to speak to us.
AA: I spent one entire year writing letters back and forth to John le Carré. I wrote to him in December 2013 and sent him the film. He wrote back and said he liked it and in January 2015 he said he agreed to do the interview. Once he had seen his section he told me that he was proud to be in such a fine documentary – which I hope to print and frame.
OD: I’m so proud to be apart of this film. If 1% of all the people who marched that day see this film then that would be great. You can get social action and change through films like this.
AA: Last night we had a Q&A at a screening and this man put his hand up and said “I was so demoralised after the demonstration was ignored and I had given up, for the rest of my life, doing anything like that again. Now that I’ve watched We Are Many I’ve changed my mind and I’m going to keep on being active.” He told me he didn’t know what my reward is for making this movie but I told him my reward was hearing what you just said. I hope that’s what happens when other watch the film.
We Are Many is available on digital download from 18 July and on DVD from 1 August 2016
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