Field Notes from Sheffield Doc/Fest — Amir Amirani's incredible documentary We Are Many looks at the events and repercussions of the global anti-Iraq war protests in 2003.

American think-tank GDELT recently produced an online tool that charts every major protest around the world since 1979. As the animation cycles through a month per second up to the present day, 250 million events flash up on a world map as small orange dots. Glittering constellations appear, including the marches against Thatcher, the protests in Eastern Europe in the 1980s that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the increase in mobilisations in South Africa and internationally that helped bring down apartheid.

But as the clock clicks over to February 2003, the screen is overwhelmed in a brilliant flash of orange, as whole swathes of the globe become illuminated and areas that had previously seen little activity come alive. Amir Amirani’s We Are Many recalls the story of this historic day on February 15, 2003 when up to 30 million people marched in 800 cities around the world against the Iraq war.

But who cares, it didn’t change anything did it? Despite being the first truly global protest and the biggest in wold history, the war still went ahead. By far the most interesting part of the film is its exploration of the effects of the protests that are still being felt to this day. Over the last decade, the lessons learned and networks created in 2003 have played a part in the Occupy Movement, online activism group 38 Degress, Egypt’s 2011 revolution and the UK parliament’s vote against Syria in 2013. Far from being a cause for cynicism, the Iraq protests and the broader anti-war movement they were a part of have ushered in a new superpower, global public opinion.

Did you go on the march and how did it affect you personally?
I was at the Berlin film festival and I found out it was also happening there, so I decided to stay rather than go back to London. It was huge! It was the biggest thing I’d ever been in, with around half a million people. It was really exciting but I came back to London and my friends told me it had been an extraordinary day there. Two million people marched and I felt like I had missed something really important. It just kept coming back to me, so I researched more and more and found out it wasn’t just in Berlin or London, but in nearly 800 cities around the world. I realised it was the first coordinated global protest and the biggest in history. I could tell there was a story here. Something like that doesn’t just happen on its own and I thought it signalled that something important was happening.

Why was the Iraq war such a strong issue and why did it generate such an unprecedented response?
In the film, Colleen Kelly from 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows says, ‘people around the world just felt in their guts that their was something wrong about this war. They just instinctively didn’t believe what they were being told and they thought that this war would be a terrible mistake and a terrible crime.’ When the case was being made everybody knew that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. Everybody knew that Iraq was already on its knees after many, many years of sanctions that had really destroyed the country. Iraq was no threat. There was just a sense amongst everybody that there was some other motivation for the war and that they were being lied to. The Americans and British were just squirming to find any reason to go to war. There was just a global sense of ‘this is just ridiculous, it’s getting out of hand.’ When you have so many people come out on one day around the world, most of whom have never demonstrated before, then you know that something’s really up, something’s really changing. So I think that’s what made that war so unique.

What were the repercussions of those marches?
A lot of young people got their first taste of politics on that day; a whole new generation was politicised. They are a generation that went on to the Occupy Movement and various other forms of direct action. The fact that such a huge demonstration happened and the war still went ahead, it has an impact on people in different ways. For some, they become disillusioned and disengaged from politics and don’t want to take part any more. That certainly happened and you see that more and more. People became very cynical. One comment I heard over and over again when I told people about the film, they said, ‘Oh yeah, I was on that demonstration, fat lot of good it did.’ A lot of people lost their illusions about politics. For others it confirmed what they thought about politicians, that they don’t listen to the people. They decided that other forms of political engagement, direct action and so on, is the way to go. So it had that kind of effect on the body politic.

But in many parts of the world, there was a far less cynical reaction, right?
It had interesting and really direct results in Egypt. Anti-war activists there held a demonstration, but only a small one. They could only muster a few hundred people and there were more police there than demonstrators. They could see what was happening around the world and they were amazed that people in Europe and America were coming out and demonstrating on their behalf when they could only muster a small demonstration. So they organised another demonstration when the war broke out, thinking that instead of a few hundred they might get one or two thousand. But in the end 40 or 50 thousand people came out and occupied Tahrir Square. That was March 2003, the night the war broke out. The activists realised that this was the start of their popular movement, the real start of the democracy movement. Those organisers went on to build various movements that eventually coalesced to topple Mubarak in 2011.

How does Syria come into the picture?
When the government wanted to go to war with Syria last summer the vote actually went against them. MP after MP stood up in parliament and said ‘we were lied to before, this time we have to listen to the public. The public don’t want us to go to war.’ Public opinion and opposition was nurtured and maintained by this anti-war movement, by the presence of this anti war community that kept issues in the forefront of people’s mind and kept campaigning. So what’s happened is that anti war ideas are no longer on the fringes, they’re part of the national conversation and the national debate around war.

So were people wrong to dismiss the marches as a waste of time in 2003?
When I interviewed Jesse Jackson, who’s a veteran of the Civil Rights movement and was close to Martin Luther King Jr., he said social movements are called movements for a reason, because they take place over time. Everybody has to take responsibility for their own role and things take a long time. It’s my belief and history bears it out, that every right we have has never been handed down to us from above, it’s been fought for. Whether it’s women rights, civil rights, working hours, minimum wage, everything has been a struggle and has been fought for.

Whilst february 15th was a fantastic high water mark of that period, the impact has to be seen in the long term. Obama recently made a speech which was interpreted as the Obama Doctrine and signalled that America has to retreat from military involvement abroad. I think that global demonstration has a large part to play in embedding anti-war ideas in people’s minds. I think there’s a much bigger awareness now of the costs of war, in terms of the human costs and the financial costs and so on, which there wasn’t before and that’s because there is more discussion of it now. So many people took part in that demonstration and they’ll never forget it, so I think that the changes are now long term.

But I’m sure the Vietnam generation felt they had learned the lesson that war was horrific and corrupting in the 1970s. Is there a risk of us forgetting again?
I think there are risks. Every generation has to almost learn things afresh. It took America decades for it to be finally ready to look itself in the mirror and deal with Vietnam. It may take a while before America and Britain can look back and really come to terms with what was done in Iraq and it is very easy to forget. I’m glad I made the film because more films like this should be made, to keep an awareness of it going so that the next generation can look back. I hope that this film and other films will remind people of what was done and what was done to try and stop it so that we can continue being vigilant.

The Vietnam generation thought they could fight to stop these things happening again and they didn’t completely succeed. But they had an impact on a whole generation and the succeeding generations, but obviously not enough to stop the gigantic military machine. To try and stop wars and military spending and so on is the work of several generations. It’s very easy to become complacent and we have to be constantly on guard.

Find out more about We Are Many.