Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Film Review #65: Iraq in Fragments *** 2006 *** Director: James Longley *** The afternoon two weeks ago that I spoke with James Longley by phone, he was feeling pretty good. The Seattle-based Longley was in New York City, bunking in with his fellow filmmaker Andrew Berends for the theatrical premiere that night of his new documentary, Iraq in Fragments. It’s a film I hope will come to Central New York. Longley was going to do a Q & A after the 8 o’clock screening at Film Forum and so far opening reviews were sweet. The Village Voice’s Nathan Lee said this film would still be there when the war itself was long gone. Lee offered his own lyrical riff on Longley’s “rhyming” circle images – a boy’s eye echoed in the rotary blades of ubiquitous hovering choppers, a ceiling fan, sewing machine wheel, bullet holes and the burning auto tire of the film’s final moments. *** Longley filmed Iraq in Fragments between February 2003 and April 2005, first in Baghdad among the Sunnis, then in Naseriyah and Najaf among the Shiites during the uprising that coincided with the US siege of Falluja and the Abu Ghraib torture revelations, finally in the northern Kurdish settlement of Koretan near the city of Erbil, an area of farmers and brick-makers. *** Longley had been in Iraq earlier but unable to get permits to film in the last days of Saddam’s regime. So he left, paced out the US invasion from across the border, returning when it was possible to work unfettered. During this period Andrew Berends also shot a documentary set among the Shiites called The Blood of My Brother. Longley handed his cell phone to his old friend and Berends told me that they go way back; in college together, Longley was the cinematographer on Berends’ first student film. In Iraq each crossed paths and hung out with four still photographers who approached their work in the same guerilla fashion. Later, the Unembedded Project emerged – first a website and joint gallery exhibit among the six, then a book by the four photographers. *** Although Longley’s adult work has been about the moving image, he says his aesthetic is grounded in the photography and painting of his student days, so he is at home with the stillness of composed images and it shows. Time after time as I watched Iraq in Fragments I wanted to reach up and take some frame out of the film’s flow and hold it still. I think Nathan Lee was surrendering to the same sheer power of Longley’s arresting, lovely images too – like the little girl in the pink dress and the Kurdish boys throwing snowballs in the last third of the film that appear like sudden oases after a long desert march. *** Iraq in Fragments is made of three parts, each a resonant story of sons in a society both used to and suddenly free of a dictator who for decades cast himself as a fatherly disciplinarian. You see how confusing that might be on an intimate scale immediately. Like his 2001 film, Gaza Strip, this one begins with a boy named Mohammad. Eleven-year-old Mohammed Haithem of Baghdad has lost his policeman father, who spoke against Saddam and disappeared. He lives with his grandmother and works in a sweltering, grimy mechanic’s shop for a man whom he swears loves him like a father. Soon Mohammed is insisting on this through his own tears, repeatedly slapped and berated by the boss who growls that Saddam would never have allowed the chaos that surrounds them. Mohammed’s boss does not mind that Longley films him behaving this way. Just as you’re thinking this little boy should be in school, that fantasy is slapped away with unnerving, brutal swiftness by a trip to the regimented classroom that Mohammed sometimes attends at his boss’ behest – where he feels only stupid among the younger boys. Mohammed’s great revolt and liberation consists of leaving both the garage and the school behind by escaping to a distant uncle’s sweatshop. *** Moving south to the Shiite stronghold of Moqtada al-Sadr, himself a fortunate son with inherited power, Longley switches to a whip-lash cinematic style that manages to re-create the fresh sense of assault and visual overdrive first felt years ago with Tarantino’s Natural Born Killers. This matches the frenzy of the religious self-flagellation with whips and chains that Saddam forbade, in which masses of young Shiite men now freely indulge, the clamoring rallies, and a zealous arrest and beating of a suspected alcohol seller at a local market. For this section Longley followed Sheik Aws al Kafaji, a cooperative and thoughtful young cleric in charge of Sadr’s office in Naseriyah, Iraq’s fourth largest city. This section also features repeated, haunting glimpses of a sort of ghost boy, unidentified and peeking out from the chaos – as if there were no time or space for his story. *** This middle part of the film is strenuous and frightening, raising the obvious question of how one gets access. Longley says the months he spent establishing relationships is key; Andrew Berends elaborated, “Some of these boundaries we just imagine. After a while I realized, why wouldn’t they want us there? It’s easier than filming in New York City, where people are more self-conscious, aware of the camera, more private. People in Iraq are extremely hospitable and open.” *** This is easier to see when Longley goes north for the section he titles Kurdish Spring, to vast plains, skylines and fields. The billowing smoke from the ovens of the region’s brick-makers merges with images of Saddam’s burning of Kurdish villages, even as the sons of neighboring farmers walk hand in hand from school, tend their sheep and try to put into words how hard their fathers have worked. Across Iraq, old men play board games and criticize the politicians, and little boys carefully wash their feet from pumps and spigots, trying to do much with little. Among the Kurds Longley finds the space to contemplate those common national images, despite the commonly voiced belief that Iraq will inevitably pull apart. *** Longley himself says, “The best way to see it is in a theater. None of us wants our films seen on those little screens by people busy doing something else.” Opening at Manhattan’s Film Forum guarantees respect and savvy audiences. Besides that, Iraq in Fragments has opened this month in seven other major US cities after nearly 60 festival screenings. It hit three Best awards right off the bat at Sundance, and has more theaters slated for January. This is a substantial release for a documentary, so Iraq in Fragments will surely get a DVD issue. But you might say that Iraq in Fragments comes most into its essential movie-ness in its final Kurdish section, which is why I hope this film comes to Central New York. ***** This review was written for broadcast on Women's Voices Radio, 88.3 FM WAER Syracuse, on the Thanksgiving show, 11/23/06.