IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS (James Longley, 2006)

Impressionistic, poetic, dynamic, Eugene, Oregon-born James Longley’s documentary is the most exciting work yet about the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. (Longley started shooting before the invasion; the digital video result has been transferred to film.) Unscripted, brilliantly edited (by Longley, Fiona Otway and Billy McMillin) from more than 300 hours of material, Iraq in Fragments shows Iraq from different perspectives, all of them Iraqi. The “fragments” of the title refer to people’s lives in disparate territories and to conflicts among different Iraqi peoples, Sunni, Shia and Kurds.
     Parts I and II are the most hectic and journalistic of the film’s three segments. The first unfolds in Old Baghdad, from the perspective of an orphaned, largely uneducated 11-year-old Sunni boy (in a mixed neighborhood) who is apprenticed to an auto mechanic. To this portrait of poverty and the eking out of any possible hope, Mohammed, the boy, lends haunting voiceover, a pure, intimate record of his bleak, fractured existence. Tight closeups of Mohammed observing his environment stress his sense of imprisonment; long shots of him running, his yearning to flee. But where? In some instances, it turns out, the persistence of innocence is far worse than its easily sentimentalized “loss.” Others speak more knowingly, for instance, an elderly man with no such fantasy of escape, who refers to the United States: “Why don’t they just take [the oil] and leave us alone?”
     While the first part is primarily social, through the two prisms of Mohammed and the camera surveying his environment, the second part, set in Naserijah and the holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq, is primarily political. With fortuitously gained access that has already become legendary, it records the rise of Moqtada al-Sadr, the fundamentalist Islamic cleric who rallies crowds and consolidates his own political power, exploiting Iraqi history: Western colonialism; Sunni oppression of Shia, including the assassination of two of Moqtada al-Sadr’s own brothers and their father, the Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, directly or indirectly by Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime; the U.S. invasion. This, the film’s centrifugal dead center, draws fierce flurries of Longley’s most dazzlingly experimental editing in a near assault on our familiarity with cinema correlative to two possibilities: utter chaos; a national undoing, cut along the lines of the outcome of Iran’s fundamentalist revolution. Mediating between Longley and al-Sadr’s radicalism is the cleric who works in al-Sadr’s office, accompanies Longley and provides voiceover commentary. We may think of al-Sadr as this young cleric’s surrogate father.
     This is a film about fathers and their disappearance. (One can add Saddam Hussein, the nation’s deposed, now hanged father, to the list.) In Part I, Mohammed’s anonymous father is missing; in Part II, Moqtada al-Sadr’s murdered father contributes to his own rise to power. In Part III, which is set in Iraq’s Kurdish rural north near Arbil, an elderly farmer, approaching his own end, worries about Kuridsh freedom, his faith, his farming community, his legacy and the future of his teenaged boy. This, the most lyrical and traditional part of Iraq in Fragments, is, then, primarily communal and familial, and set among those Iraqis who are, as a group, glad for the U.S. invasion. But that is not to say it is a segment without conflict, for, while the farmer hopes that his son will devote himself to their faith, the boy dreams of becoming a medical doctor. In time, the old man’s death may decide the boy’s future. In the meantime, this final segment is divided fairly equally between father and son.
     Iraq in Fragments is a film in three parts; but in another sense it is a film without a beginning and without an end.

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