By the time you finish watching the film Iraq in Fragments, you have a strong sense of what director James Longley and the Iraqi people are made of.
It doesn’t really matter whether the 34-year-old Seattleite won Best Director at Sundance or lost this year’s Oscar for Best Documentary to Al Gore. Longley survived making the film.
From April 2003 to April 2005, he canvassed a nation in ruins and listened to its people, often spending a year or more to gain people’s confidence, fade into the background and watch their lives unfold in the inescapable uncertainty of war.
The result is a triptych of haunting portraits—an orphaned boy apprenticed to an auto mechanic who constantly berates the child, a young Shiite cleric raising the holy ire of a chanting crowd in Naseriyah, an old Kurd whose last remaining son gives up his dream of an education to stay home and make bricks.
The landscape is large and the transitions abrupt. The only voices heard are those of the boy, the cleric, the old man, and others sharing disillusion, triumph or fear. Once a student of Moscow’s Russian Institute of Cinematography, Longley calls the riveting trance of Iraq in Fragments a sort of “magical socialist realism” mixed with just a dash of stark expressionism “for good measure.”
He originally went to Baghdad in September 2002 in a press group that followed Congressman Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) in his quest to stop the war. He stayed until right before the invasion, when the Baathist government threw him out. But the filmmaker returned.
In the two years that followed, he rode along with what became a Mehdi Army kidnapping. He got dragged up on charges of filming dead Shiite fighters and managed to talk his way out of court. And, somehow, despite a few death threats here and there, he escaped abduction. Fellow filmmaker Micah Green was not so lucky, but the man whom Longley’s film makes clear is running Shiite Iraq—the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr—eventually had Green released.
Longley, who made the film on royalties from his 2002 documentary, Gaza Strip, is nonchalant about all of this. What matters to him is that he brought the stories back.
Real Change: How did you start the project? Was there a concept—or did you roll with what you found?
James Longley: I originally thought I would make a film about a family in Baghdad, before, during, and after the war. Because I wasn’t able to begin filming until after Saddam’s government had fallen, I wound up making a film about life in different parts of the country instead, showing the change that happened during the occupation period. I filmed six different subjects, but only three of them wound up in the finished film.
RC: Did you choose the subjects you followed in order to make particular points— or did they choose you in a sense? Why a boy, in particular?
JL: I filmed people who I thought would make good subjects and points of view to illustrate larger trends in the society, broader themes, and also people who don’t usually have their voices heard in the mainstream media. It was a combination of luck, practicality, and some idea that I had at the time.
RC: As an American in Iraq after the invasion, how did you establish trust and rapport with your subjects? How did you get inside their heads?
JL: The most important thing is to spend enough time with people. When the people you are filming see that you aren’t just filming for one day and then leaving — that you are staying for months and years to document life on the ground — then they open up to you in a different way. They start to trust you more because you take the time to get to know them, and they can judge your character and your intent.
RC: There’s a scene in the film where you ride along with armed men who harass and then abduct a vendor for selling alcohol in a market square. Were those men extremists or ordinary people?
JL: Ordinary people who believe in a cause can do extraordinary things. I think the group mentality has something to do with that. People in a militia like the Mehdi Army are constantly encouraging each other to believe that they are doing the right thing and they have the right to do what they’re doing—just like people in any large organization, like the U.S. Army, for example.
RC: How in the world did they let you go along on the raid?
JL: It was far more casual than you make it out to be. I had been filming the Mehdi Army for almost six months when I took that footage—I just asked their permission to go along with them on the raid and they said yes. It was easy for me.
RC: What is Moqtada al-Sadr to the Iraqi people versus how he is depicted to Americans? You always see the term “radical cleric” in front of his name in the U.S. press, yet your film captures his “star power” and mass following.
JL: Moqtada Sadr means different things to different people. His followers in Iraq respect him as the continuation of his father’s movement [the family of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr helped drive out the British], and as a popular figure who opposes an unpopular occupation. Of course, there are those who see him as a potential religious tyrant, and he is less popular with the more secular Iraqis. And, of course, he is largely unpopular with Sunni groups, though his organization has at various times reached out to the Sunni resistance and called for unity between sects.
RC: Was being allowed to film a large gathering of his followers a sign of their power or their recklessness? Will the Shia end up controlling Iraq?
JL: The Shia already do control Iraq—or at least they control the Baghdad government and large parts of the country. The Kurds have their own government, effectively, and there are large areas controlled by Sunni factions, but you can say that the Shia have replaced the former Sunni hegemony in the country.
RC: How does Sadr fit into the political picture you found? How do you characterize the government—and what control does it exert outside the Green Zone?
JL: The Baghdad government is very weak because it is seen as a puppet regime of the occupation. Everyone knows that the government will fall if the U.S. leaves, so the government is not respected that much. The fact that the government is also very divided along sectarian lines means that it is also part of the catalyst for sectarian violence in the country. It will probably be impossible for a unity government to be formed until the U.S. leaves Iraq— and that’s unlikely to happen in the near future.
RC: What can or should be done in Iraq?
JL: I think the U.S. should leave Iraq and allow the Iraqis to form their own government and constitution without foreign influence. It’s the only way of eventually stabilizing the country.
INTERVIEW by CYDNEY GILLIS, Staff Reporter
Iraq in Fragments airs March 20 on HBO’s Cinemax channel.
For copy of actual issue, go to https://www.realchangenews.org/2007/03/14/mar-14-2007-entire-issue