The impact of 2003's global anti-war protests: interview with 'We Are Many' director Amir Amirani 

Written by In what ways can the legacy of those mass demonstrations in 2003 be felt today? on 4 June 2014 in Diary
Ahead of the world premiere of his film about the global demonstrations against the Iraq war, Total Politics caught up with documentary-maker Amir Amirani 

Well first and foremost, many people lost their illusions about the nature of our political system on the day of the huge global anti-war protest. At least those that still harboured illusions. That was a comment I heard over and over again – along the lines of, "yes I was there, but fat lot of good it did".

And we must remember that the majority of people who came out to protest that day were not political, but just ordinary citizens angered by the lies that politicians were telling. On an issue as important as going to war, people expected their voices to be heard in the only way they knew to express it, which is peaceful protest.

So that loss of faith in politics and disillusionment is one of the legacies. And that can go both ways – it can mean total disengagement from politics, as has surely happened to some, and it can also mean even greater engagement through other means – direct action, people's assemblies, the Occupy movement, and so on, and that too has happened. Many young people who got their first taste of politics on 15 February 2003 became activists years later, and were involved in the Occupy movement and other social movements since.

But there is also a broader legacy, which is that anti-war sentiment in the country is now part of, and not outside, the mainstream. It is no longer just the domain of what are called crackpot lefties, but something that is a part of the national debate. And the movement that put that demonstration together, and the demo itself, are responsible for keeping these ideas in the public domain and part of the national conversation. The vote again against war in Syria, was a demonstration of that, as Cameron himself acknowledged in the House of Commons, when he said that parliament, reflecting the will of the people, does not want to see a war. "I get that," he said. 

The Ministry of Defence has carried out a study of the shift in society and came to the same conclusion: The Guardian reported sources saying that public opinion had swayed MPs:

"Senior figures believe the rejection of that action was not just the by-product of a political battle between Labour and the government, but revealed deeper-seated long-term trends in British society."

There is a greater awareness of the human and financial toll of war and more scepticism of the wisdom of foreign intervention. And even Obama made a speech last week which has been framed as the 'Obama doctrine', in which he signalled a retreat from military interventions.

The film also shows the extraordinary way in which Egyptian anti-war activists were heartened and inspired by the global demonstrations against the war, and went on to mount a protest on the outbreak of war that would prove to be a turning point in the Egyptian democracy movement in the long march towards their revolution in 2011. 


Do you foresee mass global protests on that scale ever taking place again – or do we live in different times where the public will have less of a need?

No-one could have predicted the scale of what happened on Feb 15th 2003. And so it would be foolish to predict what kind of protests may or may not happen. But it seems safe to say that we are going through a phase of public protests around the world. In 2011, Time Magazine named "The Protestor" as the person of the year, and every few months, we see more and more demonstrations around the world.

We may not see a demonstration like the one we saw in 2003, but it can't be ruled out. At same time there may be less of a need as the military powers retrench from intervention. The new forms of warfare include the use of drones, and economic and cyber war.

The demo in 2003 took a lot of organisation, by numerous individuals, activists, anti-war organizations, all connected through personal contacts as well as social movements such as the European Social Forum and World Social Forum, which were platforms for discussion and organisation.

The networks are in place – and could be activated again. In 2003, the cause of the anti-war movement aligned with how most people felt, but the movements found a channel for which people could express their anger in an organised global day of protest ahead of the war.

There is still a lot of work to be done!


The film features some huge names – including Damon Albarn, Noam Chomsky and Richard Branson – from many areas of public life. How easy was it to get them involved in the project?

Not very easy as you can imagine. It took a lot of time to do the groundwork of meeting people, making connections through trusted connections, and slowly, one by one, I made contact and was able to persuade people to talk. Some were easier than others.


Did your background working in broadcast and print journalism help with making this film?

Yes it did. My first job out of university was as a journalist, and then as a TV researcher and producer at independent companies and then the BBC, where I have worked on Newsnight, the Today programme and other series. But making this was an amalgamation of everything I'd done, and learned, and the contacts developed over many years.

In the end, it is also largely about determination and stamina. And being fired up to get to the bottom of a story.


How did working on this film differ from other projects you’ve worked on? Was the change of format from a documentary to a feature film an easy transition?

This wasn't very different – all my previous documentaries for the BBC and Channel 4 had been fully funded by the broadcasters at the start with a fixed schedule. I had a mass of research to do on this, which took a long time. The length of the film was not much of an issue in terms of a transition from a TV documentary to a feature length cinema film.

I had to put my own infrastructure into place, and raise the money, in effect producing and directing the film. I did not shoot or edit it, but found people along the way, through my networks, to help in making the film. Raising funds was very hard, but it started to come together towards the end.


How does it feel to see the final edit after eight years of working on the film?

It feels great – I am relieved, exhausted and excited all at the same time. I am grateful for the journey and I have learned a lot, about the subject, about myself, about what it takes to make such a film. And also about what can and cannot get funded.

I've realised how important it is to stay determined and never to give up. And finally very happy that I've had the privilege of telling an important story, that now will not go untold. Oh and next time, I will look for a producer to work with!


Do you hope the film itself will have a positive impact on the actions of world leaders in the future?

Naturally I hope it will do that, by my expectation, and hope, is that it will have a positive impact on the public first, and then through them on leaders. It's an open question whether leaders are affected by films, but I suppose anything is possible!

However they might be swayed by mass public opinion and action. A lot of people will need to see the film, (and that is what we hope of course!), for there to be the kind of discussion that will reach a tipping point, on such issues as a War Powers Act and so on.

I think the social movements have had that kind of impact on society, and the film is reflecting that. Most people don't know much about the global nature of the protest – many think it just happened in their city and a few other places at most, rather than in nearly 800 cities in 72 countries. Nor do they know much about the legacy of it, since no-one has done the work piecing together the story in the way we have, at least not in a film, so that aspect is new. So it is important for people to know that the protest which they thought was a failure, was anything but. That although it did not stop the war, it did have other far reaching effects, which we show in the film, and which are being felt now.

So hopefully that will be something a new generation can learn, and which can reassure or embolden the current and previous generations. We must always remember that the rights we enjoy, and which are constantly under threat, have been hard fought for and won through generations of struggle, they have not been handed down to us.

As Tony Benn says in closing the film: "There are two forces at work always – a hatred of injustice, which makes you angry, and a belief you can make a better world, which makes you optimistic. And anger and optimism coming together are a very powerful force."


We Are Many celebrates its world premiere at Sheffield International Documentary Festival on 8 & 9 June.,,

Tags: Amir Amirani, We Are Many

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