The standing ovation that greeted 'We Are Many' at its world premiere at Sheffield’s Documentary Festival brought tears to the eyes of director Amir Amirani. It was heartfelt vindication for eight years of solid graft making a film about the biggest global protest in history, the 2003 March against the war in Iraq – a creative effort which involved flying across the world, filming hundreds of hours of interviews, sitting through days and days of footage, in between watching the money run out. Amir's had to re-mortgage his house three times.
What kept him going? "I learned I’m much more tenacious than I thought," he smiles today, an hour after receiving hugs from strangers, wiping his eyes and finally sipping on a long-deserved Prosecco. "I just believed in the value of this project, even when commissioning executives walked out on me, in some cases even refusing to watch the trailer. That got me fired up.
"I could have made this an anti-Blair film," says Amir, "but that wasn't the whole story"
"If you believe in a project, you have to see it through. It’s kind of a metaphor for life. It’s a long journey, you’re going to fall, you’re going to have to get up and that’s all you can do. Once you get to a certain point, you can’t go back.”
This tirelessness is evidently something Amir shares with the activists in his film, which is a roller coaster of surprisingly stirring narrative. An eclectic roll call of figures - from Damon Albarn and Brian Eno to Noam Chomsky, via Colin Powell's Chief of Staff - recall what began as anger about the West's reaction to September 11th 2001 - with its political agenda obviously focused on Iraq - to incredulous delight at the success of the Stop the War coalition. No one who joined in that day will soon forget the sight of two million people walking the streets of London, an effort replicated in almost 800 other locations and stretching as far as Antarctica.
Among the many voices in the film, including military veterans turned peacemakers, politicians and actors (including Mark Rylance who became part of the film after Amir bumped into him at a rally), the director’s strongest admiration is reserved for the “extraordinary dignity” of Colleen Kelly, who lost her brother in the Twin Towers, and has fought for peace ever since – “she told me she was proud she never gave up, and stayed true to her beliefs at the hardest time. Straight after 9/11, if you questioned the rush to war, you were termed unpatriotic, or a traitor.”
The film is ambitious in its sweep, both of contributors and subject matter, moving swiftly from the streets and snow of Antarctica - via the sails of Sydney Opera House where one galvanised protestor made his feelings known – and along the political timeline of the last decade, cutting between George Bush’s grinning face to the bombs of Shock and Awe.
Inevitably, Tony Blair comes across, with Bush, as the villain of the piece, something that was not Amir's main intention. "I invited him to take part in the film, but he declined, his response letter said that he was too busy," he explains. "I just kept in what he said at the time."
Comparing Blair's single-minded zeal with David Cameron's far more tempered response to the Government's defeat in the Commons over proposed intervention in Syria, I wonder if we will ever see again events resembling those in 2003?
"Never say never," says Amir. "But it was the first, and the biggest, and that was in the days before social media. People only had email and mobile phones to get organised and look what they did.
"I think people are surprised by the impact of the March, it was more than they thought at the time, because the dots haven’t been connected. If people see the film and see their understanding changed of what happened, it might make them realise it’s not futile.
“So it could happen again, and it might happen even bigger. But it won’t happen the way it did, and it will never be the first.”
'We Are Many' had its world premiere at Sheffield Documentary Festival last week. Click here for further information about screenings of the film and future release. Watch the trailer below...