Iraq in Fragments

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


More articles by:

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad (@im_pulse) is a Lecturer in Journalism at the University of Stirling. He is the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative war.

Weekend Edition
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography
Kathy Deacon
Me, My Parents and Red Scares Long Gone
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Rexless Abandon
Andrew Levine
Good Enemies Are Hard To Find: Therefore Worry
Jim Kavanagh
What to Expect From a Trump / Kim Summit
Ron Jacobs
Trump and His Tariffs
Joshua Frank
Drenched in Crude: It’s an Oil Free For All, But That’s Not a New Thing
Gary Leupp
What If There Was No Collusion?
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: Bernard Fall Dies on the Street Without Joy
Robert Fantina
Bad to Worse: Tillerson, Pompeo and Haspel
Brian Cloughley
Be Prepared, Iran, Because They Want to Destroy You
Richard Moser
What is Organizing?
Scott McLarty
Working Americans Need Independent Politics
Rohullah Naderi
American Gun Violence From an Afghan Perspective
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
Why Trump’s Tariff Travesty Will Not Re-Industrialize the US
Ted Rall
Democrats Should Run on Impeachment
Robert Fisk
Will We Ever See Al Jazeera’s Investigation Into the Israel Lobby?
Kristine Mattis
Superunknown: Scientific Integrity Within the Academic and Media Industrial Complexes
John W. Whitehead
Say No to “Hardening” the Schools with Zero Tolerance Policies and Gun-Toting Cops
Edward Hunt
UN: US Attack On Syrian Civilians Violated International Law
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraq Outside History
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: The Long Hard Road
Victor Grossman
Germany: New Faces, Old Policies
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
The Iraq Death Toll 15 Years After the US Invasion
Binoy Kampmark
Amazon’s Initiative: Digital Assistants, Home Surveillance and Data
Chuck Collins
Business Leaders Agree: Inequality Hurts The Bottom Line
Jill Richardson
What We Talk About When We Talk About “Free Trade”
Eric Lerner – Jay Arena
A Spark to a Wider Fire: Movement Against Immigrant Detention in New Jersey
Negin Owliaei
Teachers Deserve a Raise: Here’s How to Fund It
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
What to Do at the End of the World? Interview with Climate Crisis Activist, Kevin Hester
Kevin Proescholdt
Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke Attacks America’s Wilderness
Franklin Lamb
Syrian War Crimes Tribunals Around the Corner
Beth Porter
Clean Energy is Calling. Will Your Phone Company Answer?
George Ochenski
Zinke on the Hot Seat Again and Again
Lance Olsen
Somebody’s Going to Extremes
Robert Koehler
Breaking the Ice
Pepe Escobar
The Myth of a Neo-Imperial China
Graham Peebles
Time for Political Change and Unity in Ethiopia
Terry Simons
10 American Myths “Refutiated”*
Thomas Knapp
Some Questions from the Edge of Immortality
Louis Proyect
The 2018 Socially Relevant Film Festival
David Yearsley
Keaton’s “The General” and the Pernicious Myths of the Heroic South