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War and Pieces 

Award-winning and now Oscar-nominated filmmaker James Longley describes his beautifully shot film Iraq in Fragments as being about fathers and sons, which requires a little explanation, but the film is not what one might expect from either the title or the timing of its filming and release.

The film is not really a war documentary, though the American military occupation is unavoidably its context. Longley actually tried to start making his film six months before the invasion but never received permission from Saddam Hussein's government. He was able to begin filming without permission before his visa expired, when he had to leave for Cairo. When the fighting started (March 19, 2003), however, he realized that the border was effectively open and all he really needed to concern himself with was his own safety. Longley filmed in three different areas of Iraq between February 2003 and April 2005.

Longley is a talented filmmaker as much as a documentarian and has rendered an astonishingly beautiful film, sometimes dwelling on brick-making in dusty burnt orange landscapes in Kurdish-populated regions, or scanning the tilework on ornate mosques in Naseriyah, or editing in flashes of flowing Arabic script and billowing clouds of smoke. There is no narrative but rather a stream-of-consciousness portrait of three divergent segments of Iraq. From a slum in Baghdad to the fierce outrage among Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's young followers to a rural area in the north populated by Kurdish farmers, there is little consensus about what Iraq's future should be.

Longley's very patient approach led him to spend months with his subjects, until his presence and camera became as common as the walls. He even succeeded in gaining trust (though he was detained and interrogated once) and access to the movement of Moqtada al-Sadr. The narration in the film is mostly comprised of the daily and immediate thoughts of the subjects he follows. Rarely does anyone seem to address the camera.

The film won several 2006 Sundace awards including best documentary cinematography, best director and best documentary editing. Longley's other works include Gaza Strip, about the lives of ordinary people in the occupied territory, and Portrait of Boy with Dog about a Moscow orphanage.

Iraq in Fragments opens in a slum in Baghdad and follows Mohammed Haithen, an 11-year-old boy whose father disappeared after he criticized Saddam Hussein. To help support his family, Mohammed spends his time apprenticing in a mechanic's shop, fetching coffee for old men playing backgammon, and tries to learn to read during the times he is able to go to school. The shopkeeper is taking care of him but goads and ridicules him for being unable to write his disappeared father's name. The old men gripe that Saddam was bad but that the Americans are worse. They are also skeptical of Islamic political parties that they feel did little to oppose Saddam but now demand their loyalty.

As Mohammed struggles to master Arabic script, the film focuses on young Shiite men who have taken to following Moqtada al-Sadr. His father, the Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, was also killed by Hussein's government, leaving Moqtada with a large religious and political following, though that is a subject Longley is aware of but does not broach in the film. The Shiites are enraged about being repressed by Saddam and his largely Sunni-dominated government, and they are opposed to the United States. Some of the film's most vivid scenes come as Longley is able to film Shia men marching in a self-flagellation ritual, a bloody and intense parade through crowded streets at night. Later, he follows as Shia men take the law into their own hands and decide to detain and punish men selling alcohol at a local market. Masked Shiites rush to the stalls and beat and drag off men accused of selling wine. They interrogate and terrorize the men in the name of their Islamic beliefs while women come to plead their innocence and beg for their release. Clearly, al-Sadr's followers have an agenda for Iraq's religious and political order that pre-dates and transcends the current war and is in conflict with secularism and longtime Sunni-dominated rule.

The final segment takes place in rural northern areas and follows Kurds subsisting on farming and brick-making. The billowing black smoke of the ovens provides a contrast to the smoke from fires and bombs in Baghdad, but the Kurds are not removed from the struggle. A man watches over his sons and asks why the Kurds cannot have what Israel has -- their own flag and nation.

Longley's greatest talent is in capturing the inner thoughts and emotions of people struggling with far more than the war. What emerges from his portrait of Iraq is not just a nation shattered by the conflict, but one that was comprised of ill-fitting pieces before it. Regardless of whether these fragments were made by Saddam Hussein or the war, or just spilled out afterwards, it remains a great challenge to forge a lasting peace.

click to enlarge In Baghdad, Mohammed Haithen apprentices to a mechanic - and struggles to learn Arabic script.
  • In Baghdad, Mohammed Haithen apprentices to a mechanic and struggles to learn Arabic script.
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