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.