Today Mr Rumsey contributor Christian Robshaw takes some time away from his site Mediocre Batman in order to interview Amir Amirani about his new documentary We Are Many. You’ve no doubt heard about this documentary which took the film world by storm with its depiction of the global anti-war protest in 2003 and the fallout after it was ignored. Now here’s your chance to learn more about the film and Amirani’s vision and motivation during the filming. Read on for our interview…
Hi Amir, I’ll start at the start – what originally inspired you to make a film about the anti-war demonstrations?
Well, I was on it. I’d been at the Berlin Film Festival and the demonstration was happening. I’d never been on a demonstration before but I felt I had to go on it. The decision for me was, should I stay in Berlin and go on it or should I go back to London, but I thought, “I’m in Berlin, I’ll go here”. It was huge – half a million people, it was the biggest thing I’d ever been on. And when I got back to London my friend told me how huge it was here – two million people – and I was upset that I’d missed such a big day. And at that point, I thought “This feeling that I’ve missed a key event is interesting. Why is it interesting?”, and then I started digging into it and finding out how big it was, how much of a global event. That’s what gave me the idea that it was a story worth telling.
You worked on the film for nine years. Did that affect the film itself? Did its message change?
Yes, initially it was going to be the story of this demonstration that everybody thought had failed, this heroic failure. And I wasn’t even trying to couch things in terms of success or failure, because I knew that question hung over it, but I was just trying to say “This event happened, wasn’t it extraordinary, here’s how it came about”, and then leave people to draw their own conclusions. And that was going to be the case all the way through until, in 2011, the Egyptian revolution happened. And, looking at it, I thought “This is interesting, people power”, but I never connected it with the February 15th protests until, in the Summer, I was having a drink with a friend, and when I told him I was making the film, he told me he’d been at the Frontline club where there were these Egyptian activists, and they were saying they wish everyone would stop talking about the revolution as a Twitter revolution, or a Facebook revolution, because what it really went back to was the anti-war demonstration of 2003. I nearly fell off my chair, but I went home and listened to that podcast from the Frontline club, and sure enough, that’s what they were saying, and I realised there was even more to this story than I had imagined.
I tracked them all down and a year later I went to Cairo to do the interviews, and that’s the story of the connection between Egypt and the anti-war demonstrations. And then that would have been the end of the story were it not for the fact that as we were trying to finish the film for the ten-year anniversary, we ran out of money and we couldn’t actually finish the film. So we had to down tools for a couple of months, and when I’d got up just enough money to finish it, Syria was starting to unfold. And so just as we were finishing the film it looked as if the country was gearing up for another war. I remember thinking “Oh God, here we go again” but then the vote went against and the MPs were all saying that they’d learned their lessons from 2003, and suddenly that became the perfect end to the film! Two protests, ten years apart, bookending the film. And so, one result of the film taking so long to finish is that ability to see the story through to its proper conclusion.
Was it important, while you were making the film, to consider what kind of message you’d be sending audiences?
I’m wary of saying that the film has to send a message. As I said, I started out wanting to tell the story of that day, which would have been in some senses very depressing, and anger-inducing, that something so huge couldn’t stop the war. So I wasn’t trying to find a message and twist the story to fit it. If anything, I was open to seeing where the story would take me. But I’m glad that there’s an upbeat message at the end. The actor, Tim Downie, said it was “one of the most powerful, beautiful, depressing, upbeat things I’ve ever seen”. And it is a mixture of all those things; it can depress you, it can make you angry, it can make you joyful, it’s got all of those things.
The film mostly looks at things from the perspective of the ordinary people. Blair’s cabinet aside, were there any other big names you went after?
We got pretty much everyone we wanted. We tried to get Kofi Annan, but at the time he was involved with Syria, so he couldn’t do it.
I was surprised you didn’t have Radiohead, personally.
Thom Yorke? Yeah, it was a coup getting everyone that we did. I don’t think I tried getting Radiohead. I tried to go after people that I knew had some kind of connection to that day. I mean, I bet he did go on it, but I didn’t know about that at the time. Funnily enough, I’m trying to track him down now to get him to watch the film.
Omid Djalili was executive producer, did you ever think about including him in the film itself?
I did toy with it, but in the end we thought it was best if he stayed in his absolutely brilliant rôle as executive producer, rather than being in it.
And did you meet any personal heroes doing the film?
Yeah! Noam Chomsky, blimey. I’m in awe of just how much he knows, how much he can pull out of the air. That was a moment I’ll never forget.
Well I’d already interviewed Tony Benn back in 2001, and I’ve known his family for nearly twenty years. I’ve interviewed him three times in total. It was a privilege to have known him and to have had him in the film.
Yeah, he does a huge credit to himself. I think he showed himself to be an independent thinker; he doesn’t fit into a stereotype of conservatives. That was a really good interview, and I think added quite a lot to the film.
Well he’s the only conservative voice in the whole thing. Did you always plan on including him?
No, I read a very interesting piece by him in which he referenced the march, and I liked what he was saying and I thought he’d be good to interview. Actually, I did try to get Ken Clarke, because he voted against the war, but I don’t know whether my questions ever got through to him or his people. And we did try to get Blair’s cabinet. But the only people who agreed were Lord Falconer, who wasn’t actually in the cabinet, but was a big supporter of the war, and Clare Short, David Blunkett…
Blunkett doesn’t get much of a grilling.
Well, it wasn’t my job to give people a grilling. You know, I’m not Panorama, “I put it to you…”. But I gave him my questions and he put his case, and people can draw their own conclusions from that.
I suppose you don’t really insert yourself into the film. I think we only hear your voice once.
No, you hear me about three times. But I don’t really believe in that sort of ambush interview, style of filmmaking. I don’t want to ambush anyone. I’m comfortable with my style of interviewing.
That brings me to my next question actually; are you more interested in the factual side of documentary filmmaking, or the more subjective, emotional side?
Well I don’t really think they’re mutually exclusive, are they? I’ve made a factual film which is, by all accounts, very emotional, and has a great story. A film can be and do all of those things, it can be emotional, it can tell you things you didn’t know, and it can take you on a journey, you know, make you laugh, make you cry. And if it can do all of those things then it’s really inspiring. And, for me, there is no objectivity. Whose objectivity? Is the BBC objective? It’s a false notion, this idea that some people or some stories can be objective. Everyone has their own set of views, and whatever it means to be one hundred per cent objective, no-one can claim to be that.
Good question. I don’t know. But it is interesting, looking at the Egyptians, and what you can achieve when you keep coming back. And should we have done that, week after week after week? But that’s hindsight. No-one had ever seen a demonstration that big, so everybody was really unprepared in a way. But if you demonstrate on such a huge scale it should mean something to the government, and that one didn’t. And that turned a lot of people off politics, it turned a lot of people off Labour. And as Damon [Albarn] says, the government probably counted on people not coming back. So I don’t know what I would tell people, other than keep going, whether it’s the following week or over ten years. And also not to be disheartened that things don’t work out immediately. Because all the rights that we enjoy and have achieved come from people fighting for them. They’ve never been handed down from the powerful. Union rights, women’s rights, working rights, all sorts of things – have been fought for. So you can’t just go out on one demonstration – and for a lot of people it was their first demonstration – and then just say “We’re giving up”. That’s not how things work. Funnily enough on Saturday I went to an anti-austerity demonstration and Mark Steel was there, he said that thirty years ago if you were for gay marriage, you would have been called an extremist. Now, if you’re against gay marriage, you’re an extremist. That’s how things change, it takes time and a huge amount of work.
Do you have any thoughts on what your next film’s going to be about?
I have quite a few ideas, but I can’t really talk about them at the moment. I might put politics to one side for a little bit and do something more light. I might do something with Omid Djalili, a comedy project, or I might do a music documentary.
And that’s all folks! Make sure you let us know what you thought in the box below before you go!