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In the years since the invasion of Iraq, many documentaries have attempted to record its consequences: the violence; the occupation; the plunder. The focus has ranged from the anthropological to geopolitical, just as the production has varied from the bland to the spectacular. With the urgency of the political reality taking preeminence, the myriad documentary renderings have hitherto failed to present a sustained portrait of life in occupied Iraq. Iraq in Fragments–the distilled product of more than two years and 300 hours of filming–is James Longley’s splendid contribution towards filling this void.
The title, like the rest of the film, is open to interpretation: it could be a description of present day Iraq disintegrating into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish fragments; of the internal fragmentation of the Iraqi society; or the three fragments from which the film is constructed. What distinguishes the film from all others, is the hypnotic intimacy that puts the viewer into the heads of Longley’s subjects. The stunning cinematography and the profound subjectivity add depth to this masterful work of art.
Muhammad of Baghdad, the first part, follows an 11-year-old Sunni orphan who apprentices for a mechanic while struggling at school. Despite the abuse he has to endure at work, Muhammad continues to look up to the boss, whose frequently cruel treatment is interspersed, at times, with avuncular generosity.
Sadr’s South, the second part, follows Sheikh Aws al-Khafaji, a 32-year-old member of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Hawza movement as he organizes local elections to preempt the American orchestrated electoral charade designed to give legitimacy to appointed surrogates. Hope, apprehension and fear, in a backdrop of slow burning rage. The insistent beat of the self-flagellation in an Ashura procession could be the rhythm driving the inexorable march of history that carries the Shia, with their new found confidence, towards the dominance long denied them; here is a People asserting its identity in bloody rituals long suppressed under Saddam’s imposed secularism.
Kurdish Spring, the third part, follows two families in the almost idyllic setting of Koretan, near Erbil, straddling the contradictions of the promised “liberation and progress” with the tangible reality of their daily lives, yet to see the promises materialize. An appropriately bleak motif is lent the story by the dark billowing smoke of a brick factory. The deep friendship between the children of the two families develops oblivious to the developing circumstances, even as unemployed men–able bodied, “with big moustaches”–find it harder to ignore as they are turned away from the brick factory empty handed.
In his superb use of Cinéma vérité techniques, Longley has developed an impressionistic portrait rich in moving detail. By spending endless hours following his subjects without inserting himself into the narrative, he allows their stories to develop organically. The occupation itself receives a second billing where all the references to it are passive. It is clear, however, that the occupation has added another layer of complexity to lives already disrupted by the crippling privation of two brutal regimes: Saddam’s; and the US-UK imposed sanctions.
The film’s greatest achievement is perhaps also its biggest weakness: the film’s intimate focus and the virtual absence of the occupation–except in the occasional ruminations of subjects–fails to take into account its all encompassing embrace. It is the saturated, often dazzling, hues of the beautifully shot images, as much as the endless grays of the narrative that perhaps account for its appeal, which transcends ideological boundaries. The film, in the end, is vague enough that it could serve to reinforce views whether for, or against the war. This might ensure a wider audience for the film, but contributes little to the understanding of what afflicts the subjects, so beautifully humanized in the film.
The immorality of the invasion and occupation of Iraq is unquestionable; there are non-controversial standards–the Nuremberg laws for instance–to judge it by. For all its brilliance, the film scrupulously avoids articulating a position on the occupation. For this–while it deserves each one of the awards it has receieved, not to mention those, like the Oscar, which it may receive in the future–it remains a compelling work of art, rather than an instrument of political change.
MUHAMMAD IDREES AHMAD is a researcher at Spinwatch. His regular commentaries appear on The Fanonite