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Column: It was the largest coordinated demonstration in human history – and they ignored it

Director Amir Amirani writes about his stunning documentary, We Are Many, which explores the 2003 Stop the War global protests and their legacy.

Amir Amirani

DO YOU REMEMBER where you were on the day of the greatest demonstration in history? The day was 15 February 2003, and I was in Berlin.

I had been at the Berlin Film Festival and right after it finished, I did something that would change my life, though I didn’t know it at the time. I found myself on the streets of Berlin along with about 500,000 other people, protesting against the looming Iraq War.

What happened on that day, involving millions of people around the world, would also make history.

This was my first ever protest. For millions of people, this was also their first ever protest. When I returned to London, friends told me that I’d missed an amazing day. Reports ranged from 1.5 to 2 million walking the streets of London – or not so much walking as inching forward. There were so many people that day heading for Hyde Park that most of them never made it into the park. As people were leaving the park, others were still arriving.

So I felt annoyed with myself. How could I have missed the biggest day in the history of the city I’d grown up in?

The protest, to the amazement and dismay of people, did not stop the rush to war, which was launched a month later.

Over the next year or so, I kept thinking back to that day, and something compelled me to find out more. As I started to research it, I realised that it had happened all over world. The Guardian later said that up to 30 million people might have marched in around 600 cities around the world. That figure would later be revised up to nearly 800 cities, in over 70 countries.

Not only was this the largest protest in history, but also the first ever coordinated global protest, and the first on such a scale to take place before a war had started.


Uploaded by Amir Amirani

A mass mobilisation like that doesn’t just happen

I realised that it didn’t matter where you were on that day, but that you took part somewhere. Such as the 70 people who came together to form a peace sign on the ice in Antarctica! Most people never gave a second thought as to how that day came about, and nor did I at the time. But now, I was determined to find out: a mass mobilisation like that doesn’t just happen. I wanted to find out all I could about that day. I felt that it must mean, or herald, something about our world. I didn’t know what that was, but I was determined to find out and to make a film about it.

I could not have imagined the journey I would go on, or where the story would take me. Now, 12 years after the day, I have finished it.

I carried out my first interview in London in April 2006, over eight years ago. Even back in 2006, people told me I was too late, because everyone had forgotten Iraq, and by the time I would finish it would be off the agenda. And they said that every year that I was making the film.

In 2010, I started pitching the film around different forums, but had no luck raising money. No broadcasters were interested. This would be a recurrent pattern. After years of making films for the BBC and Channel 4, I could not raise the funds for this film. Just around that time, a crowdfunding site was starting to get noticed. It was called Kickstarter. I launched a campaign on the site in late 2011, and foolishly tried to raise $70,000, against the advice of one of its founders, whom I’d met by chance. He didn’t think I should try to raise more than $15,000, tops.

We started to get some amazing support – from Terry Jones of Monty Python, Richard O’Brien of the Rocky Horror Show, and the inventor of Google Maps, Jens Rasmussen. Omid Djalili, the famous actor and comedian, with whom I had been at the west London comprehensive Holland Park School, came across the project and got involved, and he has been one of the most solid and supportive backers since.

In the end, we managed to raise $92,000, a large amount at the time for a documentary on Kickstarter.

This told me that I was on to something. It was just enough to actually kickstart us, though we did not know where we would raise the rest. And when our initial funds did ran out, I was fortunate enough to meet an amazing singer/songwriter called Wael Kabbani, who rescued us and became the main backer and champion of the film.

Now, eight years later, we are finished. It has been the most exciting, rewarding, but also challenging period of my life. I had to put aside the work I used to do for the BBC, and for a few years I lived on debt while I set about the research.

Researching the lead-up to war 

Working out how the day had come about felt a lot like detective work, meeting the activists, piecing together the steps that led from 9/11 to the huge demonstration.

This would be the story of the men and women who organised what would become a mass mobilisation of people on a scale never seen before. In telling the story, we filmed in seven countries – Australia, Italy, Spain, Sweden, UK, USA, and Egypt. In many of the countries we filmed, the leading lights of the movements were women, such as Lindsay German (UK), Leslie Cagan and Phyllis Bennis (US), Esther Vivas (Spain), Rafaella Bolini (Italy), Colleen Kelley of Sept 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, Medea Benjamin of Code Pink (both US).

We interviewed many others in addition to the organisers, such as Dr Hans Blix who led the UN inspection organisation, musicians Brian Eno and Damon Albarn, actor Danny Glover who gave an amazing speech in New York, director Ken Loach, Mark Rylance, Noam Chomsky, members of the public, as well as members of the US and UK administration, celebrities and high profile commentators. Whatever else one says about this global movement to stop war, one certainly cannot say it was made up of just the usual suspects.

The film is called “We Are Many”, the title being a nod to a poem by Shelley, called  “The Masque of Anarchy”, one of the great political poems of British literature, written in 1819. The poem ends with the line: ‘Ye are many, they are few.’

Despite the many millions of people involved, the story of this extraordinary day has never been told on film. And the story of what followed is just as extraordinary, and unreported.

When the film had its world premiere at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival, it received a 4-minute standing ovation, a reaction that left me speechless, and which the Sheffield programmer said he had not seen in his seven years at the festival. The struggle had been worth it.

I’d like to think that the audience saw a story that changed their view of that day. Because most people regard that demonstration as memorable, but a failure. I hope you’ll be able to watch it and see that there is a very different story to be told about that day and the legacy.

We didn’t stop the war. But what did happen as a result may surprise you.

Amir Amirani made the stunning documentary We Are Many on the 2003 Stop the War global protests and their legacy. We Are Many has its Irish premiere on Thursday 26th September as the Opening Night film for IFI Stranger Than Fiction Documentary Film Festival (www.ifi.ie, 01 679 3477).

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Amir Amirani

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