Eleven years on and the spectre of the Iraq invasion still hangs heavily over British politics, never mind Iraq itself where horrific violence has broken out once more following the recent capture of the city of Mosul by ISIS extremists.
Yet unlike some conflicts, the West did not go quietly into war. The decision to invade galvanised millions of people around the world to take to the streets and protest against the plans cooked up by President Bush and Prime Minister Blair.
It’s this movement, the one that brought people out across the world on 15th February 2003 that has inspired Amir Amirani to make We Are Many, a documentary that recently premiered during the Sheffield Doc/Fest. Amir kindly took the time to speak to us about his film and the impact the protests had.
Culturefly: Why did you decide in the first place to make a film about the 2003 Iraq war protest movement?
Amir Amirani: In Feburary 2003 I was at the Berlin film festival and was aware that war was brewing. When the protest in London happened I had a choice between staying in Berlin or returning but chose to stay. When I came back home I met a friend who told me that I’d missed an amazing day. I felt quite crestfallen at missing one of the great days in London’s history and that was without considering how widespread the protests were around the world.
It stayed with me and I continued to look into it. A couple of years later I came to the realisation that these things don’t just happen and there had to be a big story there. I began research for the film in 2005 and carried out the first interviews in 2006. The research stage lasted from 2006-10 initially before I fully got to grips with the story and then in 2011 I started a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to complete the film. It took eight years in total to bring it to the screen but it all started from hearing what happened on 15th February 2003.
CF: What was it like working on the film for eight years? How did you make ends meet?
AA: I did other work for the first few years. I’d been making documentaries for BBC and ITV but once I really got into the research I switched to shorter documentaries so that I could continue to support myself while finding enough time to work on the film. It was a very tough process though. I had to remortgage three times just to scrape together the bare minimum amount of funds.
It wasn’t until the Kickstarter campaign that I was able to pay myself a wage and even then it wasn’t all that much. I managed around £18-19k which was just about enough to cover costs.
CF: Given the long period you spent developing the film, how much was planned in advance and how much altered as you went through the process?
AA: I started out just wanting to tell the story of the day itself and the organisers who put it together. Then the Arab spring happened in 2011 although I didn’t connect the two at first. That came about when I had a drink with a friend who’d heard from activists in Egypt who were frustrated that the protests were being described in the media as led and facilitated by social networks like Twitter. These activists had told my friend that the movement in Egypt had its roots in the Iraq war protests.
Hearing this I went over there to speak to the activists and to start filming. The early protests didn’t manage to get many people out and you see that in the footage in the film. However, they kept going and expected bigger numbers. They hoped they would be about to get up to 1,000 protesters out. In the end, 50,000 turned up in Tahir Square. These numbers wouldn’t have been possible without the Iraq war protests which provided the first experience of protesting and helped to spark democracy movements in the country.
Syria was a different case though. I’d originally aimed to finish the film in time for the 2013 ten year anniversary but I’d run out of money and was fairly downhearted. I managed to raise more but by then Syria was brewing and Parliament was due to vote so I decided to cover that which was worthwhile as we got to see Parliament accepting the will of the people this time around. Many of the MPs’ voting were concerned about the pretext for war and didn’t want to lie to the public as occurred in 2003.
CF: When making a film about a fast moving political situation, when do you draw the line in what to include?
AA: As we’ve seen over the last week, Iraq and the breaking up of the country with ISIS seizing Mosul has been in the news so it’s impossible to follow events as they happen. That way the film will never end. Just to be clear, I included Egypt because it fell within my original timescales for the film. Syria didn’t but the problems over funding meant I was able to include it.
This is the first non-contained story I’ve filmed so the problem has not arisen for me before. I know speaking to others who make political films that it is a real challenge knowing when to stop revisiting the subject matter when it’s always changing. In this case sadly it’s not even changing for the good. The Chilcot inquiry is still revealing the many problems with the original decision to go to war but is unlikely to lead anywhere beyond that and now ISIS has demonstrated the total disaster that exists eleven years after the invasion.
CF: Given recent events there is a growing clamour in some quarters for the west to return to fix the situation. What are your thoughts on this?
AA: It would only cause more trouble. The way they went in and conducted the war the first time around was so wrong that returning would pour petrol onto the fire. I’ve been asked before about my general position on intervention and I don’t have one as it’s always a case by case matter. For Iraq there was no justification. However, there can be situations where intervention is valid but only when it falls under the UN charter and there’s a moral case.
This is something I’ve always been interested in. I did a masters in international relations and was going to do a PhD in it. I also interviewed some of the most prominent international lawyers in this space and there is wide consensus that Iraq was an illegal war. Intervention has to be done on the right legal and moral basis and this was trampled on in Iraq. Even Kofi Annan was against it as you see in the film. So returning is not going to make anything better.
CF: You mentioned the activists in Egypt coming back again until this achieved the critical mass needed to institute change. Was there anything the 2003 movement could have done differently to prevent the invasion going ahead?
AA: That’s the six million dollar question. If they’d have kept coming back to the streets every week would it have changed anything? It’s hard to know. The planning for the war was already two years down the road so the machine was probably too far gone. Coming back to continue the protest wouldn’t have made much difference to the 2003 invasion.
Perhaps if they’d have occupied a square in Parliament as the Egyptians did in Tahir Square it might have made a difference but the UK doesn’t have a history of this kind of protest. Ken Loach mentions in the film that governments can handle protest but not political organisation so that would have depended on how far people would have been prepared to go. Would they risk losing their jobs or worse over it? That kind of protest works better in non-democratic countries where there are no other conceivable options. So I think it would have been extremely difficult to prevent the invasion in 2003.
CF: Given the unpopularity of the war, why did the ruling administrations in the US and particularly the UK both manage to get re-elected? Is there an argument that the protest movement failed to make it an important enough issue amongst the wider population?
AA: It’s a very complicated question. If you look at the figures, Labour won the 2005 election with a low share of the vote on a low turnout. The numbers fell dramatically from Blair’s previous two victories. The decline in support shows that there was a response from the public but the first past the post political system meant Labour managed to get in by the skin of their teeth. There was also a lack of a viable opposition party to vote for in a way that would seriously have changed the outcome as the Conservative’s also backed the invasion.
CF: If the protest movement couldn’t stop the invasion, your film highlights the legacy, particularly in Syria and Egypt as you mentioned earlier. How much of a role do you think the 2003 protest movement played in influencing the decision in the UK not to go into Syria?
AA: There is no way to know definitively but it’s a good bet that it had a big impact. The protesters are the only ones to have kept the issue in the news over the years and have been very active in applying the pressure that led to the various inquiries into the Iraq invasion. No other force was doing this and it’s kept the decision to invade Iraq in the national conversation. The protesters have been very successful in using celebrities to raise the profile of their cause and in bringing out people who had never protested before across a range of backgrounds.
It’s clearly something that is still resonating with people as well. At the Sheffield Doc/Fest where the film had its premiere there were three screenings; two planned and one added due to popular demand. It was amazing to see the impact it had on people. Adults and children found it moving which surprised me as I didn’t think younger people would know all that much about it. I was speaking to some people who told me that they knew kids at their schools who went on the protests in 2003 or had been taken by their parents themselves and it had stayed with them. One of the founders of the occupy movement in the UK also attended the 2003 protest so it’s been very influential.
CF: Now that the film has premiered, what will you do next? Will you come back to the 2003 protest movement or is eight years working on this film enough?
AA: Everything I’ve done has been very different in the past. I did do a documentary about 9/11 once but I’ve done a number of different things from social documentaries to a film about Jimi Hendrix. This is the first one I’ve done from direct experience though. It’s been amazing – tiring but fantastic. However, I might not want to spend eight years on a project again.
I’ve always been interested in music so I might look to do a music documentary and maybe come back to this issue in the future. It all boils down to what makes a good story really. I’ve been jotting down ideas so I have a few things to weigh up. Either way, the next one has to be fully funded. At the very least part funded. There is no way I’m going to live like that again. The first time is a baptism of fire. That’s enough.
We Are Many premiered in Sheffield on 8th June. Culturefly would like to thank Amir Amirani for taking the time to speak to us.