Amir Amirani is behind the BBC’s Timewatch, Correspondent, Newsnight and holder of an Amnesty International Award.
With his upcoming documentary, We Are Many – which documents the mass global protest against the Iraq war on February 15, 2003 – soon to be released, we caught up with the critically acclaimed director for a chat.
HTF: How are you today Amir?
AA: I am very well, thank you. Excited about receiving the poster for our film ahead of the festival premiere this weekend in Sheffield.
HTF: How has 2014 been so far in terms of work? Has it been a good or bad year for you?
AA: 2014 has been good so far, and all of it taken up with the final stages of the feature length documentary, ‘We Are Many’, that I have been working on since 2008. So it feels like a very good year to be finishing and screening the film.
HTF: Of course you have your new film, We Are Many, coming out in less than a week’s time on June 8. If you had to choose one single thing that you’d really like your viewers to take from the film, what would it be?
AA: That’s a nice question – though a hard one, but here goes. The one single thing I’d like viewers to take from the film is that when people come together, they really are a force to be reckoned with – so, demonstrations and protests are not a waste of time. It is the idea embedded in the title. ‘We Are Many’, which is inspired by the poem Masque of Anarchy, by Shelley, in which he wrote:
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 Ã¢â‚¬” they are few”
Demonstrations need dedicated people to organize them, and such people spend most of their lives working hard in whatever political or social movement they identify with. But we each have a responsibility to organize around whatever hopes and aspirations we have for ourselves and the society at large.
People, when they come together and organize, really are powerful, we must never forget that. And the great thing is, it is also enjoyable. In the final scene of the film, I try to show that there is beauty in the massed ranks of people taking to the streets, a kind of collective act of heroism.
HTF: What did making the film mean to you, personally?
AA: Making the film meant a great deal to me personally – the protest on 15 February 2003 was my first ever demonstration. I already felt strongly about the injustices of previous military interventions in the middle east. Coming as I do from Iran, it is hard to escape the implications of such events.
But this was a moment of awakening. I realised that the scale of the protest on that day, the global nature of it, in advance of a war breaking out, signalled something important, to be investigated and even celebrated.
I did not realize, when I started working on it in 2006, how long it would take me. But the journey itself has been enriching for me personally, in terms of my political education, and in terms of staying the course. It has been extremely challenging, but equally rewarding. I have met remarkable people, and learned about what it takes to take on such a mammoth project. Previous films for the BBC and Channel 4 were fully funded and were made to a fixed budget and schedule. But they were sprints compared to the marathon of this film. I could have completed 2 PhDs in the time that I made this film!
And finally, I feel glad that I have been able to make a film about what I regard as an important story, and to do it free from interference and
HTF: What were the main obstacles you had to overcome whilst filming?
AA: Funding – always funding. There are only so many things you can do on favours and with your own efforts. It is the major obstacle for all film makers. Unless the filmmaker has his or her own money. Which in this business is one of the truths that dare not speak its name. There are plenty of producers and directors who have private means, and in the absence of broadcaster support, increasingly those are the people whose films get made and seen. Otherwise you struggle for 8 years as I did, living on borrowings and whatever scraps earned from other work, to survive and get a film finished.
Broadcasters are retreating from funding important and interesting films, and have been doing so for a while. In the UK, others sources of funding are few and far between. There are too many ideas chasing too few slots and sources of funds.
There is a gap in the market for a shrewd investor or groups of investors to back amazing films and get them to the public. The appetite is there, what is missing is the funding.
HTF: Aside from We Are Many, have you got any other work or ideas on the go in regards to film?
AA: I have been gathering ideas for the past few years while I have been working on this current film. I have not put any into development, but I hope to soon. I have several front runner ideas, and as soon as I have some space to think and focus, I will start to move on with some of the other ideas.
HTF: Why is it that all of your films follow a documentary style rather than fiction? What is it about the documentary that is so appealing to you?
AA: More often than not, truth is far stranger and more wonderful than fiction. I have written some short dramas in the past and even directed a soap for Channel 4, and I do love fiction films, and would love to make some one day, and hope to do so.
In the meantime, there are so many fascinating stories from the present and the past to make films about, that I would be happy doing those until I am offered a great fiction film to make, or can write one based on my own ideas or experiences.
HTF: What is it for you that makes a good documentary?
AA: All sorts of things really can make a good documentary, and I would not presume to set out any rules. The story of one person, or one object, or even one place, can be absorbing.
I think when there is a sense that the director is really in control of the subject, has really researched and understood the story, and has an empathy with the characters, then you feel that you are in good hands and are being taken on a journey.
The atmosphere of a film is very important – the rhythm of the film and the choice of music all contribute to that atmosphere. A good editor is worth their weight in gold.
It’s also great when you see that a film has a coherent idea, or view of the world, whatever that view is. You have a story in a film, but you then have what the film is ‘about’, be it hope, loss, redemption, forgiveness, whatever it is the director set out to explore through their story. And when that shines through, it is very satisfying indeed.
HTF: If you had to give your audience one reason why you direct films, what would it be?
AA: I don’t know that I can answer that question to be honest. And if I could, I don’t think there would be one reason or that it would be a good answer.
I don’t think it is something that lends itself to being put into words. Most writers can’t explain why they write – maybe it’s just an instinct. On some level, all artists feel they have a need to express themselves, whether it is through music, or writing or films… the simplest answer is probably that there is an instinct to express certain ideas or views, and film allows you to combine pictures, words and music and to present a singular whole that you yourself find satisfying, and hope that others agree with you!
HTF: Give us your top 3 documentaries of all time and why.
AA: There are really too many, and I have never been good at top ranking lists. And there are many documentaries that I have not had the time to watch, so it would be very unfair.
Let me put it this way – I love music documentaries, and I can never get enough of them. But I also like quirky history films, characters studies and biographies, and political films too.
In no order, here are some: Act of Killing, Hoop Dreams, The Kid Stays in The Picture, Bus 174, and there are many many more which I want to see and which would expand my list more into a top 20 than a top 3.