I have had the pleasant opportunity to watch two Iraq documentaries made by James Longley, one of them, the 60-minute Iraq In Fragments, won several awards, including the Sundance Best Doc 2006 as well as being sidelined for Oscar, it's shot in the three major 'fragments' of Iraq, Sunni center, Shia south and Kurdish north, in the 2003-2004 period, the second documentary is much less shorter, at 21 minutes, which follows the story of a countryside mother which tries to find consolation for her small HIV-infected child, called Sari's Mother.
Iraq In Fragments (watch trailer here)
As a budding filmmaker myself, the first thing that struck me about this film was its sense of beauty and detail. Kurt Vonnegut said: 'The main objective of artists is to make fellow human beings appreciate being alive at least a bit more.", and when I gaze at these dirty, commoplace streets and signs that I never once batted an eye against while I was living there, I am genuinely delighted by the way Longley treats them, with care and beauty, it makes you feel significant to have been part of it. Director James Longley certainly has an eye for detail, and this documentary is chock-full of emphasis on poetic scenery, rather than becoming one of those docus whose most important objective is facts, often using people as nothing more than talking heasd, this documentary addresses a very important problem in the current coverage of Iraqi war: personalization of the Iraqis, something which have baffled and annoyed me for quite some time, the world must know that those "10 people killed" who appear everyday on the newsticker were once living, breathing humans who had stories, mothers, daughters, ambitions and dreams behind them. We are humans in as much as you are.
The documentary starts in Baghdad, in a ghetto area near Sheikh Abdul-Kadir al-Gilani, an important Sunni shrine, it follows 11-year-old Mohammed, a fatherless boy who works as a shop assistant in a dirty car-repair shop. His story is nothing special, as he treks around the few places which form his environment: his school, shop and home, but it is also the most fascinating part of the documentary. Before I watched the documentary, I read James Langely saying on his website that Mohammed was chosen partly because he had a 'Dickensian' quality about him. I was skeptical about this, but the description doesn't do justice enough to Mohammed. This unlikely hero, a thin, dirty, downtrodden existence whose most striking feature are unescapable eyes - forever locked in a state of inner sadness that greatly expresses what his broken, three-word sentences cannot. Mohammed is a convenient and true allegory for the way most Iraqis feel. The relationship he shares with the shopowner, who sometimes cuddles him but often hits and curses him, is realistic and emotional, and is a great deal more interesting than the later alcohol raid alongside Mahdi's army milita, for example.
The second part treks with Aws al-Khafaji, Muqtada al-Sadr's representative in Nassriya during 2003-2004, it alternates between ominous Shiiite Latmiyas (flagellation) processions, one brilliant shot is of al-Khafaji overlooking the processions beating his chest in silence, and official meetings and conferences, Sadr himself appears in two conferences, as well as rival Ammar al-Hakim, greeting protestors during the march against the death of his uncle in Najaf. al-Khafaji is a a very predictable result of his environment, while his organization is a rigid one that has caused more harm in Iraq than most, you cannot help but sympathisize with him in the same way some people sympathized with Saddam Hussein, the contrast between Sadr's meancing, boorish presence and al-Khafaji is striking, al-Khafaji looks like a kind, frail person who has been whipped up by the years of torment and violence that plagued Iraq, despite their savageness - they are still Iraqis, and one cannot help but recoil in regret as to why did it have to go so wrong. This part is not as immeidate as the first one, but it does contain some interesting incidents, like the alcohol raid by the Mahdi's Army on Nassriya's market. The filmmaker actually accompanies them throughout the whole raid. After the raid, the militamen recite the Ta'jeel supplication, which had hit international news after they used it during Saddam's execution.
The third part is filmed in Kurdish Sulaymaniya, in a rural outskirt with a farmer and his children, the Kurds have no holdbacks on how they see Iraq:
"Three pieces, Sunnis, Shias and Kurds - blood has been spilled between us, and that's why we can never be united again."
In reality, those people are not very much different than the rest of the hungry, poor, backward masses of Iraq - they are also very religious, but the ethnticity is more important than the religion, you can feel how anxious they are for their future. It is also the most uninteresting part of the documentary, but it is important in showing the differences between the Kurdish north and the rest of the country.
However, I must say that I felt extremely affected by the enchanting 21-min Sari's Mother. Almost ancedotal in comparison, but compact and concise - an epic of quiet, but ever so deadly, desperation. At least as visually astonishing as the first and with the same focus on beautiful personalization, Sari's Mother is a profound, interesting and greatly moving tale of a mother who finds all doors locked up in front of her and a wonderful, smiling boy who will not be alive in a few months...tears welled up as I finished it.
The documentaries show Iraqis as mostly poor, confused people and the Americans are often depicted as aliens, shot from faraway cuddled in their convoys, which is exactly how people see them...from a political slant, the documentaries imply that all the mishap has been waylaid by the American occupation, I think this statement is half-true, as Iraqis themselves have played a great deal in the destruction of the country, the documentaries does not reveal any secrets or construct anything politically significant, it is a mere look at normal Iraqis going about their lives, but all in all, these two documentaries are important for anyone who wants to understand why are these Iraqis not so grateful for being liberated from Saddam Hussein. Go see them.