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There are a lot of documentary films about Iraq now. Most of them are
about US soldiers in Iraq -- and that's fine. But those films are
really more about the US experience than about Iraq as a country.
What IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS does is show the country, the people, that the US has occupied. And it does so with such beauty. I have never seen such a gorgeous documentary as this. The cinematography will knock your socks off. And so will the access Longley has to his film subjects, which is amazing. It's almost like the camera is totally invisible, floating in the air around the people in this film. When the lights came up I was sad; I just wanted it to keep going. Watching this film is like being placed inside Iraq, like magic.
Let me just say right from the start that I came to this film not
expecting much. I saw some other Iraq films like Gunner Palace and
wasn't too impressed, but this one is totally new. First of all, the
whole thing takes place from the POV of Iraqis - and I mean *really*
from their POV - like almost looking out of their eyes. I have never
seen a documentary that gets this close to its characters, both
physically and emotionally, but where the camera stays invisible the
This in itself feels like an innovation when you're watching the film, but beyond that there is the kinetic editing and the absolutely gorgeous photography. So what you get is a film of substance that not only shows you a reality we never get shown on TV, but a documentary that feels like a true step forward in style. Documentary film makers are going to be playing catch up now that films like this one are out there.
This documentary does what no other film I've seen has been able to accomplish: It shows the world of real Iraqis on the ground. In breathtaking photography we are guided through three different "fragments" of life in Iraq, in Baghdad, the south and the north of the country. What emerges is a portrait of beauty and complexity, revealing aspects of Iraq and the effects of war and occupation that we never see in this country. But the film is not overtly political, and is difficult to pin down. Instead of being an opinionated political essay like the work of Michael Moore, IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS sticks to the idea of showing the situation without adding political commentary and opinions from the filmmaker. We never hear director James Longley's voice in the film, but we see the world of Iraq through his perceptive camera work and patient skills as a documentarian. This film is truly unique, a work of stunning cinematic quality, both current and timeless in its themes.
Iraq as refracted in practically all American media is not Iraq per se,
but America in Iraq. "Gunner's Palace," for instance, isn't about Iraq,
but about how some metal-head American soldiers experience it. The
so-called "news" about Iraq is served up by a press core which barely
ventures outside the Green Zone, let alone Baghdad. Which is what makes
this movie so outstanding.
You sit there and wonder, "How did they ever get this footage?" Gunfire pops in the background, buildings burn, women and children run for cover. You're thrown into the midst of al Sadr's mobs, self-flagellating to the point of drawing blood, droning in unison like a headless monster, and descending on a market, beating the men in its path indiscriminately. It's so raw, so unedited, so slice-of-life, in other words, utterly unlike the self-referential media-for-media's sake, the prepackaged rant and cant of news-speak served up daily by the likes CNN, NPR, and the NY Times.
The movie has a well-thought out unity, a message not reducible to the congealed positions of the media, thus invisible to it. One unifying theme, for example, is democracy, vilified by the Islamisists, dreamt about by the Kurds. But because there's no narration, no talking heads, the connections come unannounced, naturally, as in life.
The disparate lives of children, Sunni and Kurdish, bookend the movie, start and end it. The children speak in unadorned poetry.
Please, by all means, seek out this film, see it for yourself, if possible without preconception, and make up your own mind.
Getting pretty tired of these conservatives taking cheap shots at
Michael Moore every time they review a documentary. It's as if they're
obsessed with the guy ever since he exposed their lies. In this film,
however, Longley wanted to get up close and personal, and the cinema
verite approach he chose lends itself perfectly to putting the viewer
in the lives of his subjects. In the first segment, Longley follows the
depressingly hopeless existence of young Mohammed Haithem, an
11-year-old boy living in the heart of old Baghdad. Mohammed's father
has disappeared, he lives with his grandmother, and seesaws between
struggling to get an education, where he is four years behind and
struggling to learn to write his name, and working as a shop apprentice
to help support his family.
Longley's lens captures Mohammed's gloomy neighborhood with dismal clarity -- the poverty, the frustration of the Sunni population at the sudden rise in power of the majority Shia, long repressed by Saddam Hussein's Baathist government, who are gaining power and control for the first time in years and making it difficult for the Sunnis to find work. Somber men play backgammon and talk bitterly about the United States only wanting Iraqi oil. "We don't care about the oil," one man says. "Why don't they just take it and leave us alone?" Rent it, buy it, watch it. It's worthy.
This is a documentary about three Iraqis. The first is a Sunni boy who
works and goes to school in Baghdad. The second is a Shiite religious
figure in a city to the south. The third is a Kurdish boy (and his
family) in the north.
I've seen a lot of documentaries and cinema verite, but this one is one of the most successful. It's as if the camera is invisible, and the photographer got access to whatever he wants. Any documentarian is going to be jealous of this one. I could give many examples. One of the more chilling is the Shiite vigilante raid on the town's market, in which they beat up and kidnap fellow Shiites for the sin of selling alcohol. How on earth does an American get access to that? He actually climbs right into the trucks with the masked militants and films the whole thing from beginning to end.
And the result is spectacular. There's this Iraqi fellow sitting on the floor, surrounded by men with guns, his hands tied and a bag over his head, and he makes the comment "What's changed since Saddam? I've done nothing and I'm still sitting on the floor with a bag over my head!"
When we move up north to visit the Kurds, we see a brick factory where men are making mud bricks, just as they have been doing for many thousands of years. This is clearly not Nebraska, and anyone who invades a country like this, even with the most altruistic of motives, clearly has no idea what Iraq is about. Whatever the American foreign policy mistakes, military and political mistakes, the bottom line is we lost totally the small window of opportunity we had to turn Iraq into a democracy.
Well, I finally found the very best documentary from 2006. This exploration of Iraq is reminiscent of the beautiful ethnographic documentaries (and faux-documentaries) of pioneer Robert J. Flaherty. The images are awe-inspiring and completely indelible. The film is broken into three parts. In the first segment, we follow the life of an 11 year-old Sunni boy in Baghdad. The second depicts Shia Muslims in Southern Iraq, particularly the followers of Moqtada al-Sadr. And the third follows a Kurdish family in Northern Iraq. Unlike Flaherty's documentaries, Longley's film is entirely real. The man spent two years wandering Iraq by himself with a camera starting in April of 2003, less than a month after George W. Bush famously declared that major military operations were complete. He's a white man, and it's stunning that he was able to infiltrate these people and film them on such an intimate level. The first and third segments probably held their own danger, but the second segment is especially impressive. How in Hell was Langley able to accompany Shi'ites as they kidnapped alcohol-peddling shopkeepers? It's mind-boggling. This is a rare documentary that is both informative and incredibly cinematic. As a whole, I think Iraq in Fragments comes pretty close to being a masterpiece. There's a silhouetted sequence of some Kurdish kids burning a tractor tire that is one of the most gorgeous shots I've ever seen. Definitely one of the best films of 2006.
This documentary, shot shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein, offers some remarkable footage of everyday life in post-war Iraq. What is suffers from slightly is its desire to work as art rather than documentary - there are a lot of fast moving montages, separated from the words of the people being shown, and often they're beautiful and striking; but you find yourself wishing that the film would slow down, and let you form a more definite, precise impression of the world being depicted. Equally, any of the three "fragments" of this film could easily have made a documentary in itself, and while exposition may be a the crime in fiction, I would have liked more of it here - who are these people, and what exactly is their position? But in spite of this, I still enjoyed the film, as an evocative glimpse into lives rarely seen; and knowing that things have got worse not better since it was shot, it's a heartbreaking glimpse as well.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
n fact the most disquieting aspect of the film is that it was shot
between 2003 and 2005, meaning that, however bad daily life seemed
then, things have grown far worse since the camera was switched off.
Director James Longley would no doubt concur but, cleverly, he never
makes his own views explicit, preferring to let the images speak for
And speak they do, whether it's the first section of the film in which 11-year-old Sunni boy Mohammed is forced to choose between work and education or, better still, a up-close look at the Shiite political/religious group run by Moqtada al-Sadr.
The third strain of the film retreats from the extremes of the first two parts by way of emphasising that these are ordinary folk unfortunate enough to live in extraordinary times and focuses on rural Kurdish families and, in particular, fathers and sons.
Throughout, it's shot so brilliantly that it feels less like a documentary than a superior drama. Best of all, though, is Longley's compassionate depiction of people to whom, crucially, we can all relate.
A brilliantly made documentary, the first about Iraq that focuses
exclusively on the people of that troubled land, rather than on the
U.S. military occupation forces. The title is a triple entendre. We
know that the country has been fragmented from its beginnings after WW
I as a stitched together confederation of disparate Kurd, Shia and
Sunni territories. Iraq was, of course, further fragmented as a
consequence of the recent U.S. invasion. The title also refers to the
cobbling together of fragments of footage shot at different times and
places to create this film.
James Longley shot nearly 300 hours of film over a two year period, from April, 2003, to April, 2005. He has edited his material to produce a series of three stories, film fragments skillfully arranged to show us differing perspectives. Part I is set in Baghdad, and is Sunni slanted. Part II is set primarily in Naseriyah and features the radical Shia movement led by Muqtada al Sadr. Part III is set in the north, in rural Kurdish country.
Longley permits the people who live in these places to tell their own stories. There are no expert talking heads, no editorializing voiceovers. Youngsters as well as adults have their say (though every speaker is male; Longley says he has footage of women that could become the focus of another film). We venture into schools, marketplaces, religious and political rallies.
It is evident that only the Kurds here consider the American presence beneficent. But the only Shia element that is given voice here is the most anti-American, al Sadr's group (in Part II). We know that among the larger Shia majority, opinions about the U.S. are to some degree more variegated. It almost goes without saying that the Sunnis, the group most closely affiliated with Saddam's reign, is almost unanimously anti-U.S.
The artistry of Longley's film is breathtaking. His cinematography is first rate, with marvelous use of close-ups of people from imaginatively conceived camera angles, sometimes against distant scapes. One scene shows just hands and forearms of people in a crowd as they are reaching up for pamphlets: it is a stunning image.
The footage is high resolution with vivid coloration, except for several minutes of grainy footage with poor light quality near the end of Part II. The editing and sound are also wonderfully realized. While someone is talking, the camera drifts to images that complement or supplement what the speaker is saying. The film won best documentary awards at Sundance 2006 for direction, cinematography and editing. All well deserved. (In Kurdish, Arabic & English) My grades: 9/10 (A) (Seen at the Portland (OR) International Film Festival on 02/23/06)
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