Sunday, November 30, 2008

Iraq in Fragments, dir. James Longley

Most of the documentaries I have seen on Iraq have been made for television, usually by television journalists, with lots of hand held camerawork, found footage taken by journalists, often material that was never shown on television. What I loved about Iraq in Fragments was that it was photographically stunning. It captures the vivid colors and textures of life in Baghdad, as well as in the Kurdish North and the Shiite regions of Moqtada Sadr, the vast desert, and the drab world of the war that goes on in its present. It's a documentary that has won a slew of awards, and the beauty of the country and the people it depicts must have something to do with that.

The fragments of Iraq are not only these three segregated regions, all struggling for independence, even if only from the Americans, but also the fragments of the past that still emerge around corners and behind the doors of the present turmoil, and the fragmentary dreams of the future. Similarly, the three parts of the film are fragmentary in their vision of the trauma of living in a country ripped apart geographically, historically, politically and socially by the invasion of America. If we are to believe the voices of those who speak in this film, the only apparent reason for American destruction and colonization is oil.

What binds all these fragments is perhaps the most powerful element of Iraq in Fragments. Namely, again and again, what Mohammed Haithem, the 11 year old boy who the film follows in its first fragment, the Sadr followers in Najaf who comprise the second fragment, and the elderly farmer, Mahmoud, whose thoughts on family, people and God are the centrepiece of the third fragment, all have in common, is they belong to a country, and a culture whose people and history are not just misunderstood by America, but wilfully ignored.

The focus on children and the old man in the north make for appealing subjects, and clearly, Longley has chosen his characters carefully, especially given the apparent absence of scripting. However, what I kept wondering throughout the film - how can this be a balanced vision of the many Iraqs and its people when there is not one woman interviewed, and only a handful appearing throughout the 90 minute film? Is this indicative absence of women another of those elements of Iraqi lore and life that we will never understand? Or is it the filmmaker's decision making?

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