In 1819, when British troops fired fired on protesters demanding the right to vote and against famine in Manchester, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley responded with stanza after stanza excoriating the courts, the cavalry, and the king, but he reserved the closing of his poem for a paean to the people:
“Rise Like Lions after Slumber / In unvanquishable number / Shake your chains to earth like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you / Ye are many—they are few.”
It’s that last line that Iranian-born filmmaker Amir Amirani borrows for his moving documentary about the worldwide demonstrations against the Iraq war on February 15, 2003. We Are Many tells the inside story of the day that millions of people took to the streets to say no to war, in over 800 cities, 72 countries, and even in Antarctica.
Robbie Lieben, a former science support technician at the McMurdo Research Station recalls how that last one happened. “I had a subscription to The Nation.” In a column, he read that there were to be demonstrations worldwide, including in Antarctica. “We can’t let down the great Alexander Cockburn, so we’re going to have to do something,” he says. Days later, he and 70 of his colleagues bundled themselves up in bright red parkas and sprawled on the ice in the shape of a peace sign. It got Lieben fired. “Even if I’d known, I think I’d have done just the same thing,” he concludes.
We Are Many is full of stirring stories like Lieben’s. From London, to Barcelona, to Cairo, and New York, the film fills in some lesser-known details, for example, about a last-minute peace effort by Virgin CEO Richard Branson to fly Nelson Mandela to Baghdad by private jet in the hope of persuading President Saddam Hussein to leave office. Amirani re-interviews outspoken insiders, including UN weapons inspector Hans Blix and Colin Powell’s chief of staff, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, who says bluntly, “We lied to the American people; and I wish I had resigned.”
Amirani does what mainstream media typically don’t: He puts the event in the context of a large historical sweep. “Mainstream media don’t want to know the history of anything,” said the film maker at a screening last year. He traces the origins of February 15 back to the Stop the War Protests in London immediately after 9/11, and the gathering in Florence after the World Social Forum in 2002 where the decision to call a globally coordinated day of protest was apparently taken. Leading lights of the left, from the late Tony Benn to Harry Belafonte, appear next to first-time protesters (Amirani was one of those). “The people will be heard. There will not be a war against Iraq,” rally organizer Leslie Cagan is seen, telling the massive, frozen crowd outside the United Nations.