Two words: political documentary. Still here? Good. Although it’s not the light-hearted escapism many of us crave from cinematic outings, Amir Amirani’s new film offers a crucial, thought-provoking analysis of the state of worldwide democracy. On February 15th 2003, over 15 million people in over 800 cities around the world took to the streets in opposition to the impending invasion of, and consequent war with Iraq by the United States, Britain, Poland, Australia and Peshmerga. We Are Many documents that day, and its surrounding significance.
Starting with the devastation of September 11th 2001, We Are Many charts the British and US response to 9/11. This is a dark tale as political lies, human suffering and a flawed system are all brought to light with Amirani’s piercing and microscopic lens focused on the War on Terror.
But where do you begin with a documentary tackling such recent and controversial issues? The answer? You look to the past. Written almost 200 years before the events of the Iraq War, Percy Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy is the last thing that we would expect to see during the opening, but it’s the first thing that we’re presented with here.
Even more surprising is just how easy it is to understand why. The concluding lines “Ye are many – they are few!” (also adapted for the title) embodies the central aim of the entire film. This isn’t simply a documentation of history; it is a call to action. We, the audience, are the Many, and what follows is an important reminder of the power of people brought together under a unified cause.
The documentary narrative is constructed using a combination of broadcast media materials and web footage, interspersed with various interviews. Following 9/11, the film takes its time in charting the combined reaction of the British and US governments helmed by Tony Blair and George W. Bush.
All the makings of a new historical epic are here. Reliving Bush’s spine-tingling War on Terror speech? Check. The gruelling road to War in Afghanistan? Got that too. The worldwide opposition to the Iraq War? Of course. The latter proves to make up the foundation of Amirani’s new film, starting with the formation of the anti-war coalition on September 21st 2001 in London. The massive support which flooded in soon facilitated anti-war demonstrations on a worldwide scale.
February 15th 2003 saw the first global demonstration in history. Fitting to such a monumental moment, the onscreen depiction strives for something almost Biblical in scope. Footage from protests in London, Berlin, Sydney, even Antarctica, enables the filmmaker to inject degrees of visual splendour which contrast brilliantly with the grim undertones of war.
This diversity of human life is mirrored in the colourful cast of interviewees. In a bold move by Amirani, figures such as Danny Glover, Jesse Jackson, Susan Sarandon, Richard Branson and more, narrate the events as they appear onscreen. This stroke of genius presents a seemingly unobstructed view of decisive moments in our national and international history. Operating by a principle of less is more, Amirani’s questioning during interviews is minimal, just as it should be.
Approaching this as a political filmmaker, it would be all too easy to ask questions which present events as he wants people to see them, not as they actually occurred. Only the answers are shown to us, but the freedom with which each individual reconstructs their personal experience is truly an experience in itself to behold.
It stands tribute to Amirani’s unobtrusive style that these heartfelt accounts evoke emotions which would remain untapped in a crafted interview. We share in every second of their agony (just try not to not to be moved as Robin Cook opposes War in Iraq by resigning from a twenty-year career in parliament).
If I had to pick one small gripe, it would be that occasionally Amirani’s sense of majesty verges dangerously close to melodrama. An overdramatic musical score accompanies the earlier clips of Bush and Blair, banging home their dastardly lies a little too obviously. The effect is that what should appear as a twisted plot involving war for oil, actually appears as little more a pair of comedy villains attempting to garner a little extra cash (think Harry and Marv from Home Alone).
However, these flaws peter out after a short period, and what remains is polished almost to perfection. Each series of events begins with a fullscreen spread of the date, followed the number of days left until war. This constant reminder plays with the fact that we all know how it’s going to end. The irony is inescapable. February 15th comes and goes. 2 million people gather in London. Cities worldwide protest against War in Iraq. War happens anyway.
But we already knew that, didn’t we? You only have to switch on the news. We’re living the consequences right now. The true power of Amirani’s film lies not in shock-factor or surprise, but in opening our eyes.
February 15th 2003 was the day that George Bush and Tony Blair said no. No to the people who put them in power, no to the systems they supposedly stood for, no to world peace. February 15th was the day that democracy failed, and Amirani wants us to see that. Not, as some would say, to add insult to injury, but to make sure that we never allow it to happen again. For that reason, We Are Many is essential viewing.
Writer and Editor for the Film & TV section of Impact, Bharat is a keen previewer, reviewer and sometimes just viewer, of all things cinematic and televisual, with a particular passion for biographical pictures, adaptations and sitcoms.