It is difficult to remain objective in reviewing certain films, not least when they are documentaries concerning the foreign policy your country’s leaders have pursued over the past fifteen years in defiance of the public’s expressions of disapproval in their actions. But let us try nonetheless.
The film’s director, Amir Amirani, has worked on We Are Many for nine years, incorporating interviews from talking heads as diverse as philosopher/political theorist Noam Chomsky, actress Susan Sarandon, musician Damon Albarn and former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix, as well as combat veterans and members of activist organisations. The film covers a timespan from 11th September 2001 to the UK parliamentary vote not to take direct military action against the Syrian government on 30th August 2013, but pivots around the historic events of 15th February 2003. On this day, tens of millions of activists, in some seven hundred cities worldwide, marched in a global collective protest against the imminent plans of George W Bush and Tony Blair to lead a questionable war against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.
Without taking this further into a history lesson, it does a sterling job at highlighting how massive these crowds were, even if, like eleven-year-old me, you were vaguely aware of something big happening at the time – for instance, the one million or more who marched in the streets of London paled in comparison to the five million protestors in Spain. For all of the huge-scale events in major cities, the small stories are the ones that go to the heart: one brilliant and entirely unexpected segment highlighted seventy members of the McMurdo research station in Antarctica, some of whom ended up losing their positions for the sake of holding a demonstration on every continent on Earth.
The narrative is powerful enough without resorting to too many stylistic techniques, so it sometimes comes across as overkill to include such things – in particular, the use of a red countdown clock, with heartbeat soundtrack overlaid, simply ended up distracting at a crucial point. A montage of faces looking dejected, interspersed with shots of the first bombs falling on Baghdad, also felt too blatant, given the already potent subject matter.
However, these were brief moments in a film whose emotional trajectories are otherwise skillfully balanced. Opening with the familiar yet still harrowing images of the World Trade Centre attacks, revulsion moves to incredulity at the accounts of Blix and of Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to the US Secretary of State, as they insist that there was never a tenable justification for entering Iraq. This transitions to hope as the protests play out, despair as they inevitably fall on deaf ears, and then to tremendous fury; clips of Bush joking at the 2004 White House correspondents’ dinner about being unable to find weapons of mass destruction in his closet are interwoven with grisly images of mutilated bodies and children weeping in bombed-out Iraqi streets.
Having reached its bleakest point, the film then wrings a positive outlook into its conclusion, noting correlations between the 2003 anti-war demonstrations and the subsequent people-powered uprisings several years later in Tunisia, Libya, and especially Egypt (you still must swallow the gall of some politicians interviewed who remain unrepentant in believing their actions at the time were right). In its premier screening, the film was bookended by live Q&As with some of its stars, highlights of which included UCL law professor Philippe Sands theorising that the US would not have gone into Iraq without the support of the UK, and an impromptu appearance from the audience of two protestors who, in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, scaled the Sydney Opera House and painted “NO WAR” in enormous red letters down its largest fin. Part scathing condemnation, part optimistic motivator, every human with a pulse ought to view this film.