Film: Pieces of a War

'Iraq in Fragments' looks at Iraq from three different perspectives

Mar 14, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Typecast Releasing

Followers of Muqtada al-Sadr listen in rapt attention at a rally.

When James Longley's documentary Iraq in Fragments premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, the biting, cautionary, tragic double meaning of the title wasn't so readily apparent as it is now.

It was clear it referred to the classical three-act structure of the film — Longley first follows an orphaned 11-year-old boy in Baghdad's Sunni neighborhood, then conservative Shiite militia members in the south and finally a Kurdish farmer in the north. And that structure was part of what made the film so special among the increasing number of Iraq-related documentaries that had been already begun coming forth since Michael Moore's 2004 Fahrenheit 9/11.

Not so much journalistic or — so it seemed then — political, Iraq in Fragments was literary and artful, egoless in favor of constructing memorable short stories.

It won the Best Documentary award at Sundance as well as honors for its smooth editing and strikingly rich high-definition-video cinematography. It also was nominated for an Academy Award this year as Best Documentary.

Now, with just a little more time and distance, it's evident the film has a strong political meaning that's reflected in its very title. Iraq, itself, is in fragments — divided into the three disparate worlds observed by Longley. And it is the disastrous war brought to the nation by President Bush's administration — a war that stays in the background in the film, although it is frequently discussed — that has caused that.

In its own poetic way, Iraq in Fragments reaches the same point as Moore's polemical Fahrenheit — what a mess we caused!

That Iraq in Fragments isn't polemical is what makes it deserving of attention. But it also leads to its one weakness — a flagging dramatic arc that a passive directorial voice can't enliven when it needs to.

Working on his own over two years, patiently using a fly-on-the-wall vérité approach where he'd spend time winning trust from subjects until something happened, Longley tried to be an observer rather than a shaper of action. His filmmaking model is Frederick Wiseman more than the post-Moore Young Turks like Morgan Spurlock.

In the first "fragment," he follows the boy Mohammed Haithem, who works as an apprentice to a Sunni auto mechanic. There are plenty of occasions for Longley to hear what the men at the car garage and elsewhere think about the war and its resultant chaos — they're his Iraqi Chorus.

But they actually take a back seat to Mohammed. His story has Dickensian dimensions as it's revealed the mechanic is not kindly to him. And, as Baghdad has gotten so much more dangerous since this was filmed, one wonders his fate now.

The second "fragment" is the most overtly political one and also the most exciting — one marvels at Longley's access to its subjects and his ability to survive them without getting killed. In Shiite southern Iraq, he follows around the Islamic religious zealots of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.

This section is tense and furiously paced and Longley's camerawork becomes more urgently pulsating and on the run to keep up with the men. The highlight comes when they raid liquor sellers in Nasariyah trying to take advantage of the new "democratic" Iraq. The zealots are sure of themselves and all the more dangerous for it.

The third "fragment" is intended to be poetic in the pastoral, quietly lonely tone of recent Iranian films. In the Kurdish north, Longley follows a farm family somewhat sheltered from the passions and violence of Shiite-Sunni warfare. Here the day for a father and son revolves around sheep-herding and brick-making. It is the separateness itself that makes this story fit into the film's larger picture. But it doesn't have the drive or obvious relevancy of what came before.

By the way, there was an outstanding documentary about Iraq at this year's Sundance — Charles Ferguson's No End in Sight, which won a Special Jury Prize for painstakingly tracing how U.S. policy decisions after the 2003 invasion led to the Iraq in Fragments that exists today. Be sure to see that, too, when it comes around. Grade: B+

IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS, presented by Cincy World Cinema, screens at the Cincinnati Art Museum 7 p.m. March 20-21.