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'We Are Many': Sheffield Review

We Are Many Poster - H 2014

The Bottom Line

Weapons of mass opposition.

Venue

Sheffield Doc/Fest

Starring

Danny Glover, Hans Blix, Damon Albarn, Ken Loach, Brian Eno, Susan Sarandon, Ron Kovic, Noam Chomsky, Richard Branson, Jesse Jackson, Donald Rumsfeld

Director

Amir Amirani

An all-star cast of artists, activists and politicians remember the mass global protests against the Iraq war in this polished documentary.

On February 15, 2003, millions of people around the world marched in opposition to the impending war in Iraq. With more than 700 coordinated demonstrations in over 60 countries, final estimates of the total number of citizens mobilized that day vary. Six million is a low estimate, but some say 10 million, others as many as 30 million. Whatever the figure, most social historians agree it was the largest protest event in human history. In London alone, about a million people took to the streets.

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We Are Many charts the build-up of the anti-war movement, the main day of marches, and the bitter aftermath. A veteran documentary maker with extensive British TV credits, Amir Amirani retells familiar events in a fairly straight newsreel manner but enriched with hidden subplots, surprising connections and celebrity interviews. Premiered at Sheffield Doc/Fest last week, Amirani's hard-hitting film should grab further festival play on the strength of its starry cast and still-raw subject matter. With grisly events in Iraq back in the news, this unfinished story also gains extra topical urgency, boosting potential for small-screen sales and specialist theatrical slots.

Mixing archive news footage with contemporary interviews, We Are Many was seven years in the making. It feels polished and professional, if a little conventional in style. Among the commentators featured are musicians Brian Eno and Damon Albarn, actors Danny Glover and Mark Rylance, politicians Jesse Jackson and Tony Benn, filmmaker Ken Loach, campaigning academic Noam Chomsky, airline boss Richard Branson, former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix and Vietnam war protestor Ron Kovic, whose story inspired Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July.

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Inevitably, the film’s defining tone is somber, with George W. Bush and Tony Blair pushing ahead with the war in defiance of unprecedented global protests. But Amirani finds some quirky comic color amid all the horror, including a witty protest by U.S. scientists on McMurdo Station in Antarctica, a brave graffiti attack on the high peaks of Sydney Opera House and an amusing public ambush of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

The personal testimonies are full of mea culpas and 20/20 hindsight. “We lied to the American people,” admits Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell. “I wish I had resigned.” Branson reveals how he persuaded Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu to fly into Iraq for eleventh-hour peace talks with Saddam Hussein, only to be thwarted by U.S. bombing raids. Albarn, of Blur and Gorillaz fame, insists the anti-war marches might have had more success if they had been repeated every weekend. “We didn’t finish the job,” he says ruefully.

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Given that Amirani effectively brands him a war criminal here, it comes as no surprise that Blair declined to be interviewed. But some of his former political colleagues do appear. Some are regretful, others less so, but none makes a strong case for invading Iraq. We Are Many would have been a richer, more complex film if one or two senior pro-war figures had agreed to talk. The dearth of Iraqi voices is also a striking absence, the elephant very much not in the room.

That said, this is a solid and detailed record of an extraordinary protest movement. Seeking some kind of positive take-home message from his depressing tale of failed people power, Amirani boldly concludes that the anti-war demonstrations in 2003 lit the spark of the Arab Spring uprisings, and also helped dissuade David Cameron and Barack Obama from intervening in Syria. These are contentious but interesting claims that history will decide. But as current bloody events in Iraq demonstrate, this story is far from over yet. There is no happy ending.

Production companies: Amirani Media, We Are Many Productions

Starring: Danny Glover, Hans Blix, Damon Albarn, Donald Rumsfeld, Ken Loach, Brian Eno, Susan Sarandon, Ron Kovic, Noam Chomsky, Richard Branson, Jesse Jackson

Director: Amir Amirani

Producers: Amir Amirani, Immy Humes, Amanda Hickey

Editors: Adelina Bichis, Martin Cooper, Dan Ablett

Music: Barry Adamson, Brian Eno, Simon Russell, Alex Baranowski

Sales company: Metro Sales

No rating, 104 minutes