We Are Many (Amir Amirani, UK, 2014)

Blogpost, British cinema, Documentary, Film reviews

I am only going to write a brief blog about We Are Many, Amir Amirani’s documentary about the 2003 anti-war march in London.

For, while there are two things that I personally did not enjoy so much about the film, it has at its core some truly extraordinary ideas that are worth pondering for a brief while (well, they’re worth pondering for a long while, but I shall only briefly ponder them here/today).

The film opens with a 20-minute or so introduction to the 2003 war in Iraq. The films countdown structure towards the war suggests that it was inevitable, no doubt as a result of the fact that we know now, in 2015, that the war has indeed been and gone. The events of 11 September 2001 of course play a key role in this countdown, and while in some senses it is necessary to mention this and other events as context for the war in Iraq, to me it felt like we have seen all of this many times before. Or rather, the film did not in this section add anything about this moment to what we do already know.

The second issue I have with the film is its reliance on celebrities to lend credibility to the story being told. I hate to sound like an arse – not least because I could just plain be wrong – but when we see and hear Richard Branson telling us that he was moments away from preventing the Iraq war as a result of a meeting that he set up and bankrolled between Saddam Hussein and Kofi Annan, and which oh-so-nearly took place, one just wants some critical scrutiny to emerge to check whether this is really true, nice guy though I am sure Richard Branson is and all that.

Indeed, the seemingly obligatory celebrity vox pops from the likes of Susan Sarandon, Damon Albarn, Brian Eno, Mark Rylance, Danny Glover, Ken Loach and more can lend to the film a touch of the self-congratulation that is celebrity culture, and which stands in some respects in stark contrast to the extraordinary ideas mentioned above and which the film also contains.

For, one of the most extraordinary ideas in the film is its celebration of mass human gatherings, especially when carried out with/for political intent. Repeatedly the vox pops do emphasise that being in a massive crowd is moving, joyful and special.

More than that, though, is the crowd footage that Amirani uses in his film. If in asserting that ‘the people are missing’ from cinema, French philosopher Gilles Deleuze was referring to the way in which movies rely perhaps overly on the individual agent who will overcome the world, here we get a sense of the presence of the multitude, and of how, when gathering in huge numbers, an emergent, borg-like identity might well emerge from crowds, which do indeed challenge individual agency and the notion the individual as agent and the agent as individual full stop.

Joy, a term used repeatedly to describe the experience by crowd participants in the film, is, I wish to suggest, felt when humans realise that they are not alone, adrift in a solipsistic daze, but are thoroughly enworlded, and enworlded with other human beings. We do, at such moments, stand looking not just with our own eyes at events, but beside ourselves. And as to be beside oneself with laughter is joyful, so to be beside oneself and simply seeing that one is part of a huge, magnificent and shared existence is joyful because literally mind-expanding: we are forced to recognise both that we are tiny in the world, but that irrevocably we are with the world. Indeed, this sense of joyful withness, with the world and with our human conspecifics, is inherently comedic.

Comedy’s etymology is, according to this site

probably from komodios “actor or singer in the revels,” from komos “revel, carousal, merry-making, festival,” + aoidos “singer, poet,” from aeidein “to sing,” related to oide.

In other words, comedy is a sing-along, a festival of withness (‘com’), a revel and a revelation, in which our eyes are opened to see beyond/beside ourselves and to see that we are with the world.

That Amirani’s film suggests this via its treatment of crowds is, like I say, extraordinary, even if at odds with the celebration of individuality with the emphasis of celebrity that the film elsewhere conveys.

The second extraordinary thing about We Are Many is its insight into subsequent mass movements, especially in Egypt’s Tahrir Square in 2011. For, participants in that crowd suggest that coverage of the anti-war marches in Britain played a key role in inspiring Egyptians themselves to take to the streets several years later. This is extraordinary, because while we may sit pessimistically thinking that the crowds achieved nothing in the UK and elsewhere, and that the war with Iraq took place anyway, that it had a legacy elsewhere in the world suggests that we need not be so pessimistic. And whatever one makes of the consequences of the s0-called Arab Spring, the film thus brings about a sense of hope in collective expression and maybe even of collective change, or change that has as its principle interest not the benefit of the few, but the benefit of the many.

An independently produced film, We Are Many is an extraordinary achievement that, while not a film with the seeming restraint of, say, a Claude Lanzmann, nonetheless is a great rabble rowser, one that makes us question events both from our recent past and ongoing, and which gives us a sense at times that we are all part of the human comedy that is life.