Iraq in Fragments
2006Director: James Longley
Cast: Mohammed Haithem, Suleiman Mahmoud
rejoiced when Saddam was overthrown! And now here I am, sitting down with a blindfold over my eyes. What’s changed?” -- Iraqi prisoner
The above lament is only one particularly jarring insight among many others in Iraq in Fragments, a beautiful, heartbreaking new documentary about that country’s current experience with war, disintegration, and occupation. Spoken by a man “arrested” and taken prisoner by the Islamic army of Moqtada Al-Sadr for allegedly selling alcohol, it suggests that in at least part of Iraq, a new form of tyranny may be replacing Saddam’s brutality. But by this point in the film (roughly halfway) the viewer barely requires such direct speechifying to realize Iraq’s painful new reality—it’s already been brought home with a combination of haunting subtlety and overwhelming force.
Iraq in Fragments succeeds on so many levels that it’s difficult to know where to begin. It works as a stunning piece of cinematic journalism, with director James Longley dividing the film into thirds—one third each for the Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds—and attempting to capture a slice of life reality for the three major ethno-political forces in Iraq. The result is a panoramic portrait of Iraqi society that to my knowledge has never been equaled, or at least portrayed so vividly. The overall picture is not so much hopeless as it is bleak and unsparing. Even the Kurds, the most pro-American, anti-Saddam segment of Iraq, express misgivings and doubt regarding the future of their country—as well they should, if the rest of the film is to believed. The opening shots of Baghdad focus on smoke pouring out of numerous buildings, as the camera moves through the ravages of Iraqi urban life. “Baghdad used to be beautiful,” ruminates 11-year old Mohammed, the central player in the first part of the film. Occasionally, the crackle of gunfire can be heard, which the local men react to less with terror than a kind of weary resignation.
It’s, of course, true that while listening to various Iraqis (and there are many) lament the American invasion either directly or indirectly, we ought to be wary of false nostalgia in the face of a grim new reality. Life under Saddam could not have been a picnic, after all. But what is eye-opening about Iraq in Fragments from this perspective is the number of people who frankly and openly denigrate Saddam’s memory while still believing his reign to be superior to the utter non-functionality of their current society. Between the grueling poverty and physical devastation of the Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad, the chilling speed with which the Sadrist militias seem to be taking over southern Iraq and imposing religious law, and even the anxiety expressed by the rural Kurds, the overall impression of modern Iraq is one of a collapsing society barely held together by the American troops who are occasionally seen riding around the cities in tanks. In response, the various subjects interviewed express mixtures of frustration, annoyance, anger, and helpless worry at the states of their particular worlds. But, as with any great film, more powerful than the spoken feelings of the people Longley portrays are their actual experiences—the true drama, heartbreak, and depth of Iraq in Fragments comes from its depiction of what day-to-day life is actually like in postwar Iraq.
And there is plenty of drama to go around. This film is not a polemic, but rather a piece of reportage, which is where its effectiveness lies. Of the three segments, the most wrenching has to be “Mohammed of Baghdad,” the opening third featuring young Mohammed shuttled between work and school in his bombed-out city. Essentially parentless, the closest thing Mohammed has to a father figure is his boss, a man who alternates between kindness and pitiless cruelty, berating Mohammed for his struggles in school (he’s four years older than the first-graders in his class but cannot write his own father’s name) and foisting verbal abuse upon him with the ease of a man reciting the weather. Out of this little chamber drama emerges a larger truth—that the men in Mohammed’s immediate social and economic circle see no future for themselves, and indeed, Mohammed’s own prospects are limited, at best. With no aptitude for school and no love for his menial job, Mohammed’s mind drifts to touching fantasies about becoming a pilot and flying away to “where it’s nice—not Iraq.” It’s at moments like this where Longley (a truly gifted visual stylist, among other things) can, without exaggeration, be compared to giants of Italian neo-realism like De Sica and Rossellini.
The second segment, “Sadr’s South,” is the least character-driven but perhaps the most harrowing. It’s the one part of the film that focuses on masses over individuals, and to great effect. I suspect Longley is specifically trying to portray the mob mentality, which he does brilliantly by intercutting between pro-Sadr speeches before rapt audiences and vigilante raids on Iraqis not considered sufficiently Islamic (our alcohol-selling prisoner, whose guilt is not at all clear, is one such Iraqi). How Longley gets such access to the inner workings of these roving vigilante gangs baffles me, but he actually rides around with them as they raid markets and brandish their machine guns for the camera. Although little actual violence is shown, the sight of extremist religious militias wreaking havoc with no apparent fear of official reprisal is more terrifying to a believer in liberal democracy than a single beating would ever be.
Finally, Longley lets his audience have a bit of a breather, although the quiet tranquility of Kurdistan is just as effective, if not more so, as any other part of the film. Not incidentally, this segment is the most astonishingly photographed sequence of a beautifully shot film, with lovingly composed wide shots of a sunset descending over the vast expanse of the Kurdish fields (if this were a silent film, it would still be worth watching for it sheer beauty). Narrowing in on one Kurdish family, with a quiet, chain-smoking old man as the patriarch worrying about the future of his children and his people, Longley provides fitting closure to the occasional mayhem that has gone before. While the Kurds, not surprisingly, represent the most optimistic of the three ethnic groups depicted, there is anxiety beneath the seemingly tranquil surface. Desperate for independence from the rest of Iraq and amazed by the religious violence that besets so much of the country, the aging patriarch ruminates on what is to come: “Two men are wrestling. How do we know which has God on his side? The winner—that is how you know who has God on his side.”
If this piece of weary cynicism is not the best epitaph for the quickly disappearing dream of a stable, free Iraq, I don’t know what is. For this insight and many others, Iraq in Fragments is a must-see film.
Iraq in Fragments is currently playing in limited release.