Iraq in Fragments

James Longley’s Iraq in Fragments (IMDB) is one of the more compelling documentaries to focus on post-invasion Iraq that I’ve seen. Beautifully shot over the course of two years, Longley’s documentary focuses on three stories coveringwhat might be regarded as the three major perspectives that could be divided into Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish points of view, a structure that seems to suggest the country’s ongoing fragmentation, but the most remarkable quality of Iraq in Fragments is its attention to the intimate details of everyday life, its ability to capture the fears and frustrations of post-invasion Iraq.

The first and strongest section of the film focuses on Mohammed, an eleven-year old living in Baghdad and working for an auto mechanic who alternately dotes on and abuses the young boy whose father is absent. Muhammed’s voice-over narration has a kind of lyrical quality that is reinforced visually by Longley’s “almost poetic” (to use David Ansen’s phrase) footage of Baghdad. The boy speaks wistfully about the material effects of the bombings (“Baghdad used to be beautiful”) and the developing insurgency (“the world is so scary now”). At the same time, Muhammed finds himself in and out of school, with his boss hounding him to return to school and then berating the boy when he is unable to write his father’s name before demanding that he leave school again or risk losing his job.

As Chris Knipp points out in his review (scroll down), Muhammed’s boss becomes a kind of mini-tyrant, while we begin to see the tension and frustration mounting in Baghdad through Muhammed’s eyes and ears, with Mohammed listening while the men in the repair shop complain that conditions were better under Saddam. Muhammed tells us that he dreams of becoming a pilot so that he can see someplace better than Baghdad, but his section offers little hope of escape.

The second section offers the least focused story, in part because it does not focus on a personal story but on the political movement being led by Muqtada al-Sadr to empowermembers of the Shiite population. This section features a far more frenetic camera with jump cuts and rapid camera movement that suggest mounting tension. In one scene, Sadr’s men harrass and beat a group of merchants who are accused of selling alcohol (Longley reported in the Q&A that the men were soon released). At the same time, we see wounded men directly addressing the camera and asking “Is this democracy?” Because of the frenetic camera work and quick cutting, we never get a coherent sense of al-Sadr’s followers or the politics associated with his movement, but that seems to be Longley’s point. All we are left with is what Knipp calls a “chaos of images” that reflect the mounting danger and tension of that time.

From there, Longley takes us to Koretan, a town in the Kurdish section of Iraq, introducing us to Suleiman, a serious young boy who tells us he wishes to become a doctor, although because he is forced to work to support his aging father, we are left with little room for optimism. The smaller story represents a major departure from the broader picture of al-Sadr’s movement, but it also prvides us with a glimpse of another boy with little hope for the future.

Put together, the three stories offer a compelling account of a fragmented nation in a state of turmoil immediately after the invasion. However, because the three-part structure typically remains on the level of the personal (and because the stories are isoalted from each other) we don’t get a clear picture of the past and present relationship between these three groups or any real synthesis of their perspectives, although it can certainly be argued that the film’s structure represents the difficulties of achieving any kind of synthesis. It’s also notable that the film features very few images of US soldiers (although the Sadr section does feature a brief conflict between members of his group and some Spanish soldiers) and almost no images of women. The latter can be attributed to the suspicion that many male documentarians face when attempting to document the lives of Iraqi women, but I think it’s a testament to Longley’s patience as a filmmaker that he was able to capture much of the footage he presented in the film (he reports that he has 2-300 hours worth of footage, some of which will hopefully find its way to the DVD), and his presentation of the everyday experiences of a small number of Iraqi people is a valuable contribution to our collection of documentary images of Iraq.

6 Comments »

  1. Bo Said,

    April 25, 2006 @ 9:08 pm

    The America SAD DENIAL Case

    Your war against Fear is not justified. It is actually a Resource War for oil, and a currency war for the dollar. Global Oil production has peaked and US will suffer the most from this crisis. The United States uses 25% of the world’s oil yet only has 5% of the world’s population. America is heavily in debt and bankruptcy is unavoidable. The coming housing bust will send the economy into a second greater depression.

    [....]

    Dick Cheney pontificates about Israel bombing Iran *after he has just handed over to Israel the long range bombers and bunker busting bombs* required to do the job.

    Meanwhile, the United States undertakes economic warfare against Iran, interfering with its business dealings with third party countries, trying to scuttle a pipeline deal with India, and it goes on and on. The hysteria about the Iranians nuclear program is just more of the same.

    Now how in God’s Bloody Name do you think the Iranians are going to respond to that. Should they concede the nuclear program, abandon their pipeline project? If so, its not going to do them any good. America will just seek more concessions. Each surrender will be met by new demands. This isn’t hard to figure out. It’s exactly what Bush did with Iraq.

    Perhaps overtures, good will gestures, trying to act like a peaceful nation. Did all those things, doesn’t matter. The Bush administration is still on a collision course.

    Something to think about ya know…

    I should point out to you that terrorism is actually a war tactic.
    One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorists. If you apply
    the strict definition of ‘terrorism’ and not that of the FOX 4 version, you would see that America sends their own ‘terrorists’ to foreign lands much more than the number of terrorists who have come here to attack the U.S.

    Terrorism is much like asymmetric warfare. It is a tactic deployed by the weak against the strong. That fact in and of itself should answer your question as to why ‘terrorists’ don’t rebuild power plants, schools and water systems…

    Then let me give you this cool movie clip, perhaps it can enlighten you of reality.

    http://festival.sundance.org/2006/watch/film.aspx?which=402&category=DOC

    Best,

    Bo Chen

    Comment edited by blog author for length

  2. Chuck Said,

    April 25, 2006 @ 10:48 pm

    Bo, this is an awfully long comment (perhaps you should start your own blog!), and while I may disagree with some of the details (I don’t buy the WTC conspiracy), I think that if you look closely, you’d probably notice that I agree with the gerneralities of your argument. Is America using too much oil? No question. Should we have attacked Iraq? Absolutely not. Do the actions of the Bush administration represent the views of all (or even half of all) Americans? Not anymore. And, yes, you’re right about Iran’s nuclear capabilities. They’re a long way from having the bomb. So I guess I don’t really understand why you left this rant here where you’re essentially preaching to the choir.

    BTW, the link you included took me to some film about an office worker who does karaoke. Was that the clip that was supposed to “enlighten” me?

  3. Amardeep Said,

    April 28, 2006 @ 10:23 am

    Chuck, Bo Chen has posted the same comment on numerous other blogs (for instance, here)

    Incidentally, I saw this documentary out in Portland (Oregon), and liked it. I didn’t quite know what to say about it, so it’s nice to see your review/summary.

    I did like the Sadr City section, partly because it gave a strong, absolutely compelling account of the Shia insurgents in the moment of their emergence. The fact that he was able to get all the way inside that world is pretty impressive (no one else, I don’t think, has that kind of footage).

    I almost wish he’d made this documentary less artsy, and focused on making some specific political arguments. If he had released a longer version of just section 2 with the title “Inside the Insurgency,” this film would be everywhere.

  4. Chuck Said,

    April 28, 2006 @ 11:44 am

    Amardeep, I wondered if Bo’s comments were a form of blog spam. I gave the benefit of the doubt because he didn’t hyperlink his name.

    I think you may be right about the Sadr City section. I think the “everyday” sections in Baghdad and Kurdistan can also be “political” in that they suggest the long-term consequences of the invasion and the potential for further fragmentation, but the instructive or eductaional value of the Sadr City footage is too high not to place it in a somewhat clearer context.

  5. Andrew Said,

    April 29, 2006 @ 4:07 pm

    Great review! Iraq in Fragments was by far the best film I saw at Bellingham, WA’s True/False documentary film festival a week ago, and you highlight many of the same impressions I had about it.

    I personally think most of the drawbacks of the film are more a comment on the medium of documentary filmmaking in general, and I think its wonderful that Longley chose a method of storytelling and stuck with it. I have never seen a documentary rely so strongly on its sounds and images (mostly as metaphors) to convey so much. Its remarkable how the film’s messages (which are hardly straight forward, which is the point) relate to its structure, and vice versa.

    The absence of American servicemen is also somewhat refreshing, after seeing so many American documentary filmmakers stick so close to American forces, probably because its where they feel most safe. Iraq in Fragments is not a movie about the Americans, and the only documentary film I could say the same thing about would be Dreams of Sparrows.

  6. Chuck Said,

    April 29, 2006 @ 4:17 pm

    Andrew, I think you’re right about the lack of images of American military and especially it’s significant to see a documentary about Iraq in which they aren’t the primary point of identification (not that those films shouldn’t exist but I think it’s also impotant to see the situation in Iraq through the eyes of Iraqi civilians).

    Dreams of Sparrows is also very good, and if you haven’t seen it, I’d highly recommend Sinan Antoon’s About Baghdad, which covers similar teritory with a specific focus on Baghdad’s universities.

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