In spite of having a team of critics watching and reviewing films at Sundance, Iraq in Fragments, which ended up sweeping the Sundance documentary competition, slipped through the Cinematical cracks. When I saw the film was screening last week in Seattle as part of the Seattle Arab and Iranian Film Festival, I immediately made plans to catch it. I knew very little about the film in advance, but given the popularity of political documentaries at film festivals, I suppose I was expecting Iraq in Fragments to be a film about how the United States is destroying Iraq. What I saw instead was a beautifully shot portrait of the human side of Iraq -- the differences that divide Iraq's Shia, Sunni and Kurdish population, and the similarities that, as is so often the case in cultures around the world, get overlooked in the need to identify with a group. For there to be an "us", it seems, there must be a "them", and in the Iraq of the moment, that need to define by differences seems to be prevalent.
Director James Longley first went to Iraq before the U.S. invasion, but found it impossible at that time to get permission to film. He returned in 2003 and spent the next two years living and filming in Iraq, gathering the stories that would ultimately become the pieces of Iraq in Fragments. Longley, in his director's notes for the film, insists that he wasn't looking to make a political film or a war documentary, but a film about the people living in Iraq. He filmed six stories, three of which became the framework for the the film, one each from the Sunni, Shia and Kurdish populations of Iraq -- groups that, with the fall of Sadaam Hussein and the demise of the Baathist regime, are struggling for power and autonomy within their country even as the United States struggles to maintain its own control.
Longley wanted to get up close and personal in his film, and the cinema verité 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?"
Mohammed's voice over, painstakingly recorded in hours of interviews with Longley, lets us inside the life and thoughts of a boy who, lacking his father to look up to, has turned to the shop owner he works for as a father figure. Mohammed wistfully tells us that his boss loves him like a son and never yells at him or beats him, even as we watch on screen as the boss grabs Mohammed by the ear and calls him names (largely, one suspects, for the benefit of the other men watching and laughing) and berates him for not being able to write his surname.
As Longley was finishing up filming the sequence with Mohammed, things were getting more dangerous in Baghdad for filmmakers and journalists, so Longley headed south to capture the rise of the Shia, long ruled by the Sunnis. In the most politically remarkable part of the film, he was fortuitously present for the rise in power of Moqtada al-Sadr, son of assassinated religious leader Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr. Moqtada al-Sadr's family history is filled with the lore of fighting against colonialists, and Longley's lens was on hand to capture al-Sadr's followers as the cleric seized the opportunity of the discontent and uncertainty in the wake of the U.S. invasion to incite his followers to rise up against the Western invaders.
Although Longley was not able to access al-Sadr himself, he was able to shadow one of al-Sadr's followers, Sheik Aws al Kafaji. In spite of Sheik Aws frequently accusing Longley of being a spy for the CIA, Longley was granted incredible access to political meetings, rallies, and the Sadr office organizing regional elections to usurp the U.S. government's efforts to put a puppet government in place. Longley was also on hand to capture the ugly side of the Sadr's uprising and attempts to make Iraq an Islamic state, as Sadr loyalists enforced their interpretation of Islamic law with force and brutality, tearing through a market and detaining vendors accused of selling alcohol while their families pled outside for their release and accused the Sadr of being as bad as the Baathists.
Longley was also on hand for the battles that raged after the U.S. government, in an attempt to neutralize the threat al-Sadr represented, had him arrested on charges of murder and ordered U.S. troops to shut down Sadr's Hawza newspaper. Longley spent several months living in the area during this time of tension and uprisings, as the Sadr took over a holy shrine in Najaf and publicly hanged their opponents, adorning them with signs reading "spy". Longley himself was dragged before the Sadr court at one point and accused of filming the bodies of Mehdi Militia fighters. Eventually, southern Iraq became too dangerous to remain in, and Longley headed to northern Iraq, where the Kurdish population has long dreamed of having an independent Kurdistan separate from Iraq, and flags bearing the yellow sun of the non-existant Kurdistan state fly from rooftops.
In Kurdish territory, Longley settled in a village so small it's not even on most Iraqi maps and got to know the locals, who eventually came to trust -- or at least ignore --him. Longley decided this segment of the film, after the heated turmoil and frenzy of the Sadr segment, would focus quietly on people: two neighboring farmers whose sons are best friends. An elderly farmer talks longingly of a free Kurdistan; his teenage son tends the sheep and dreams of going to medical school, while his father wants him to serve God. This segment was a relief after the intensity of the second segment quieter -- just some nice Kurdish families, farmers and bricklayers, going about their lives, teenage sons having dreams that differ from their elders, not so different, really, from the interactions that happen among families anywhere. Longley was also able to capture regional elections in the north, with voting personnel showing the farmers and bricklayers and their wives which column to check to vote for Kurdish candidates. Crowds of people crammed into line waiting their turn to vote -- a sharp contrast to the elections in my suburban American neighborhood, where I've never had to wait in line, even during presidential elections.
Iraq in Fragments is not a documentary of the war, or even an indictment of the United States involvement in that country, in spite of Longley's own political views, which he mostly keeps to himself. Longley deliberately took a step back from the politics to record history in the making through the portraits of three distinct segments of Iraqi society. The cinematography throughout the film is simply stunning. I saw Iraq in Fragments at the Cinerama, which boasts Seattle's biggest movie screen, and I would highly recommend catching it at a theater rather than waiting for the DVD release. Longley's filmmaking style transports you to the streets of Baghdad, the heart of Sadr political rallies, and the quiet of the Kurdish countryside, as he paints a portrait of a fractured country and its people far more powerful than a mere war documentary. This is a window into the lives of a people, not so different from you and me, living through a poltical upheaval that could well be a stone that casts waves far beyond Iraq's borders in the future. Longley captures their struggle -- Sunni, Shia and Kurd -- to determine their country's path. Time will tell how the pieces of Iraq will fit together in the long run, but in the meantime, Iraq in Fragments gives us a peek into a country long torn by conflict, and the people struggling to survive there.