Amir Amirani & Omid Djalili discuss the evolution of the film
Some nine years in the making, Amir Amirani’s powerful new documentary We Are Many looks at events surrounding the anti-war marches of 2003, when millions of people around the globe joined together to protest against the invasion of Iraq.
The first ever UK project to successfully raise production funding through Kickstarter, We Are Many is thought-provoking piece with contributions from both protestors and politicians.
The film opens later this month and is showing at the Odeon Wimbledon. On 21st May journalist and broadcaster Jon Snow will host the discussion with guests including the film’s director Amir Amirani, executive producer and comedian Omid Djalili. There will also be the satellite premiere of the film at the same time.
The star-studded cast of interviewees range from creative artists (Damon Albarn, Mark Rylance, John le Carré, Brian Eno, Ken Loach, Danny Glover) to politicians (Tony Benn, Jesse Jackson, Lord Falconer) and activists like Vietnam protestor Ron Kovic and Noam Chomsky, as well as participants in the high stakes political machinations, including Dr. Hans Blix and Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, the former Chief of Staff of US Sec. of State Colin Powell.
We Are Many doesn’t stop with the events of 2003, as Amirani shows how the marches inspired people-power during events in both Egypt in 2011 and Syria in 2013. Below, Amirani and actor-comedian Omid Djalili, who came on board as executive producer, discuss the evolution of the film and what they hope viewers will take from it.
Q: Is it true you’ve been working on We Are Many for nine years?
Amir Amirani: Yes, I have. I was at the Berlin Film Festival in 2003 and I knew that the demo was in the air, but I’d never been on one before. I thought, ‘Should I stay in Berlin or go back to London?’ I decided to stay in Berlin. It was huge, half-a-million people, but when I got back to London my friends said, ‘You missed an amazing day. It was a couple of million people here.’ I felt upset at missing that, but then I thought, ‘I didn’t really miss it – it was global.’ That idea stayed with me. I was at the BBC in 2005 and I had one of those lightbulb moments. I thought, ‘It must’ve been the biggest demonstration in history. That’s the film I’ve got to make.’ In 2006, I dipped my toe into the subject. I interviewed Brian Eno and Tony Benn. I thought, ‘there’s something here.’ Then in 2011 I did a Kickstarter campaign, and that’s when Omid came on board. Stephen Fry tweeted about it and we started full-scale production in 2012.
Q: When you saw that tweet, Omid, what were your initial thoughts?
Omid Djalili: I saw the tweet by complete chance and clicked on the sample trailer he put together and I was moved by it. At the end, Amir popped up and I thought ‘I was at school with him!’ I called immediately to congratulate him, and somehow, I got involved. I don't quite know how it happened, but here I am. I suppose it was an opportunity for me to reframe what I saw as a complete waste of time on that day… in one way it was, as it didn't achieve its purpose: to stop the war. Looking at it through another lens it felt like an important part of humanity's evolution and seemed to be making a point way beyond politics. It builds a consensus from people of varied political, cultural & spiritual backgrounds and somehow included us all. That felt vital and relevant.
Q: So what was your role in all this?
Omid Djalili: My role, as a fellow Holland Park school boy, was to be an encourager. I’d say “we need Hans Blix’ and Amir would say, “yeah” and he’d go and get him. We threw caution to the wind. I read somewhere that a good producer is simply a wind in the sails of a director. Some Mafia people call it “Consigliere” some call it “Empowerment Guru”. I think Amir just saw me more as an interfering Iranian uncle…
Q: How difficult was it to get someone like weapons inspector Dr. Hans Blix on board?
Amir Amirani: It’s funny. I looked around and he hadn’t really spoken anywhere before. I was initially full of trepidation. I sent the e-mail and didn’t hear anything for a week. Then he e-mailed out of the blue and said, ‘When would you like to come to Stockholm?’ I read everything he’d written, including his memoir – which told me that when he was studying at Cambridge, he liked English muffins. So I arrived with a pack of muffins and said, ‘I hope this brings back memories of Cambridge!’ He gave them to his wife, she toasted them and we ate them before the interview. He gave us three hours of the most amazing interview. Really honest and heartfelt.
Omid Djalili: I’ve seen some of that footage. Amir got him to do everything he asked. People don’t realise as a director there’s a certain kind of human quality you have to have in your interactions with the subject. What is wonderful is the way Hans Blix opened up to him. To get someone who never does interviews to say the things he does was really eye opening.
Q: The Egypt and Syria sequences are vital here. Was it important to get that across – that people power can work?
Omid Djalili: What Amir has done is deliver a film that, to me, seems to be saying humanity is slowly coming to realise our fundamental oneness. The collective reaction to the war on Iraq was a very specific moment in history… it was articulated in a very eloquent way. It’s not about getting into arguments about what was right or what was wrong. It’s about a moment of history… sort of an emergence of a collective will.
Amir Amirani: Absolutely. Who knew that when I started making the film, in 2006, that five years later there would be the Arab Spring? When I started to make the film, I thought, ‘It’s such a historic moment – it deserves telling just on its own merit.’ Stories of heroic failure can be amazing. I never expected the ending to just drop into my lap, but it gave the film more depth and breadth. For me, it was really important to convey the danger of people thinking that engaging in politics and society is a waste of time. That’s why I’m so pleased the film has a positive ending. You can say, ‘these things do work, but you need to give them time’. It’s not like throwing a switch: we march and they run off the stage like bad guys.
OD: Exactly… actually one of the questions the film subtly poses for me is about the relationship between the individual, the community and our institutions. It's not just about "people power" and merging into the crowd on a tide of adrenaline. It's about how these 3 dynamics function harmoniously together. The need for this came sharply into focus with the Arab Spring.
Q: How did this element of the film happen?
Amir Amirani: I was having a drink with a publisher friend in the summer of 2011, a few months after the Arab Spring. He told me about a talk at the Frontline Club by some Egyptian activists, who were saying they wished people would stop talking about it as a Facebook or Twitter revolution, and that it started for them in the 2003 anti-war movement. I nearly spilled my drink! I went home and I listened to the podcast of the discussion and in that instant my whole view of the film expanded. I spent several weeks tracking those people down.
Q: What happened after that?
Amir Amirani: In 2012, I’d just been to Boston to interview Noam Chomsky. I was in a bookshop and found this title, Liberation Square, and the Egyptian writer who worked for the NY Times, said the same thing, that loads of people cited the start of the war as the turning point for all the movements that came after that. They even gave it a name: The 20th March Movement, because that was the day that the war started. That was an unbelievable development – the influence of the demonstration wasn’t just for us, seeing that we’re together, but it impacted on people continents away.
Omid Djalili: I suppose that’s the point. At the time I believed wholeheartedly the demonstrations wouldn’t have an impact because I felt we had no power to change things. But they did. Working on this project I’ve come to realise it’s this very thinking that is wrong. 30 million people around the globe physically protesting was very powerful. As someone in the film states “a second super-power is emerging”: worldwide global public opinion.
Q: Especially with the Syria sequence – showing how demonstrations can change government policy – the film has a happy ending in a way…
Omid Djalili: It does, yes, though we do still observe the tragedy of the ongoing suffering in Syria. But I wonder what the film is really saying is, marching in itself is not the answer. It’s the unity of thought behind it… the power of the collective will, people believing they can make a difference… and of course governments having more humility to listen. Obviously, there’s still a long way to go.
Q: You managed to get several of Tony Blair’s cabinet members, including David Blunkett, Clare Short and Lord Falconer, to speak. How difficult was that and were you surprised to even get them to speak?
Amir Amirani: I was. I wrote to every one of the twenty three [members of Blair’s cabinet]. Ten or eleven never replied. Nine or ten said, ‘no’ and those that did reply, I gave them my word that I would interview them and give them a chance to put their case over, which they did. [Charles] Falconer said he thought then and he thinks now that it was right. Even if I don’t agree with them, I respect the fact that they at least had the courage to come on camera and state their positions. My feeling is, if you are going to send people to war, to kill and be killed, at least have the decency to come on camera and say why you think it was right to ignore all those protestors. The majority of them didn’t.
Q: You also have John le Carré, who rarely speaks on such matters. How tricky was he to get to?
Amir Amirani: Well, a few years ago, Jon Snow did an interview with him and it was announced it would be his last ever interview. I don’t know what possessed me – but I read somewhere that he’d gone on the demo. I thought, ‘Wow. Someone like him, quite establishment, went on the demo? Wouldn’t it be great to hear from him’ I found his address and I wrote to him. Initially, he was reluctant. I corresponded with him for a whole year, just writing letters back and forth, and finally he agreed. And I’m not sure he’s ever given an interview for a documentary film before that wasn’t about him or his work, so it’s a real coup.
Q: He refers to the war as the “crime of the century”. Do you both agree?
Amir Amirani: I do. I think it will stand as the crime of the century, just the brutal illegality of it. There was no reason to do it, and all these people have died for no reason. It’s a very pithy but very pointed and true statement.
Omid Djalili: Well… Secretary General Kofi Annan said at the time that in his view the war was illegal under the UN charter. So when an international peace keeping body declare a war illegal one can assume a crime has probably occurred.
Amir Amirani: Another way to look at this whole failure/success question…someone said to me, ‘Imagine if that demonstration hadn’t happened – not just here but all over the world.’ The people that perpetrated the war could always say: where was the opposition? But they’ll never be able to say that. They’ll never be able to say that they went to war and it had huge public support. They ignored people, they went to war, they killed people – they’ll never be able to say they had legitimacy on their side. And that counts for a lot.
Q: How do you both hope the film will be received?
Amir Amirani: I want people to change their minds about that day. So many first-timers took part, so many people who had never demonstrated in their lives before. They were moved to demonstrate their common humanity, that this was not being done in their name. That’s why I like it when Mark Rylance says, ‘it was beautiful.’ Several people use that word. So many people have said the film is a rollercoaster of emotions but glad at the end they feel uplifted. And that’s what I want: people to go away uplifted about what is possible when people come together. Some people have even said ‘it’s re-affirmed my faith in humanity. I can see it wasn’t a failure.’
Omid Djalili: It certainly re-affrimed my faith in humanity. The only sense I can make of what happened in Iraq in 2003 is that it could be considered a turning point. I was raised with this phrase: “the Earth is one country and Mankind its citizens”. My hope is that ‘We Are Many’ will be seen as a force for integration. That global response to war had tremendous global repercussions in ways we never imagined. The film is not saying it provides all the answers... I suppose, my hope is that it’ll be seen as a film that asks all the right questions… the most helpful questions.
May 15, 2015