Thursday, January 25, 2007

Iraq In Fragments

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.


Iraqi Mojo said...

Looks like a great documentary. I'll have to watch it. Thanks Kid.

the iraqi roulette said...

Very interesting, must be seen. Thanks for telling.

annie said...

hi kid,

i'm glad you saw the movies. a few months ago i mentioned iraq in fragments in a comment. james longley is the brother of my next door neighbor. i had the pleasure of attending the opening here in seattle, an excellent film. the filmmaker attended answering questions about the 2 years he lived and filmed in iraq.

i have passed on the link to your post to my neighbor (and friend), perhaps james will read it.

excellent post btw.

Lynnette in Minnesota said...

...from a political slant, the documentaries imply that all the mishap has been waylaid by the American occupation, Kid

Yes, unfortunately it is difficult for some people to disassociate themselves from their political leanings. The more powerful films, or books for that matter, are those that can get beyond politics and be objective. But it is rare to find those.

I have always preferred the films that follow individual people also. They put a more human face on what is happening.

I will look for these.

What is the title of the second one?

annie said...

iraq in fragments website. i recommend both the background and synopsis links.

Sara said...

Hi Lynette,

The short film is called Sari's Mother; it's a chapter that didn't fit with the three segments that became Iraq In Fragments. It was finished after Iraq In Fragments and is being shown at festivals now.

annie said...

kid, here is a link to a forum longley participated in that includes tech info, as a filmmaker i thought it may be useful.

hi sara! hope james visits.

Thomas said...


Sorry to leave this as a comment, but I was unable to message or email you through your listed contact info. I work for an American magazine based out of New York called Vice. We're putting together an issue written entirely by Iraqi citizens and expats and wanted to see if you would be interested in doing some movie reviews for us. Please shoot me an email if so, and we can discuss the details.

Lynnette in Minnesota said...


Thanks for the info. :)

Hedi said...

Hi Kid,
I see I'm not the only one trying to get in touch with you. I'm a journalist working for a magazine in the Netherlands (living in Amman). I hope you can email your contact details to:
I'm working on a piece on Iraqi's in Amman, would love to include your ideas. Deadline this week, so no time to waste. :)
Thanks, Hedi

duguyisheng said...

First of all, I have followed the writings of you and Zeyad and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your efforts and how many best wishes I send. You are both terrific human beings.

I have a question for the two of you. I have read that in some areas of Mahdi Army control, inhabitents pay $2.40/month protection money. If that is true, it is easy to imagine that when they help find someone a job, they ask for a percentage of the salary as a kickback. Do you have any information on that?


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