In the last five years, nothing has dominated the political landscape quite so completely as the Iraq war. On both sides of the Atlantic, and to some extent around the world, the 2003 invasion is still a topic upon which almost everyone has an opinion.
The movie industry often waits until the actual fighting dies down before it starts cranking out the fictional battle scenes, but documentaries suffer from no such restriction. In fact, Fahrenheit 9/11 apart, one of the most surprising things about the Iraq war is how few documentaries have been produced on one of today’s hottest topics.
James Longleys Iraq in Fragments, therefore, would seem to have this market at its mercy. But despite his cataclysmic sounding title this isn’t a war documentary, rather a documentary set in a country at war. His fragments are the three ethnic groups into which Iraq is very loosely divided – Sunni, Shia and Kurd, and his documentary is in fact three shorts following groups from each background.
It opens with Mohammed Haithem, an eleven year old caught half way between school and an auto-repair shop in Baghdad, missing his father who was imprisoned under Saddam’s regime. Part two was filmed from within Moqtada al-Sadr’s movement in Sadr city, and follows the assumption of control by the Mehdi army. Part three travels north to the more peaceful Kurdish region, and ruminates on the strong sense of Kurdish identity and the weak feeling of any ties to Iraq.
Longley’s footage is superb, and his access to material probably unrivalled among current Western film makers. His courage in capturing some of these scenes should not go unnoticed, and his ability to add the quiet human touch to something that could easily have focused on attention grabbing explosions is impressive. The sense of unease and dislocation generated by the war is everywhere, even if the soldiers and guns aren’t.
It’s cut together in a dreamlike manner. Slow snatches of ambient music play against Longley’s subjects talking about their lives, ambitions, and various philosophies. Longley himself is never present and interview questions, if they were asked, are all erased from the film. In a way this gives it almost too much languor, an inescapable feeling that he was essentially filming what passed by his window – even if that can’t have been the case.
The largest problem is his decision to run it as three separate shorts, which is only partly vindicated. The confusing amount of characters would have become almost unmanageable had it all been spliced into one whole, yet at the same time the middle piece, which is by far the most engaging, could have been used to support and balance the other two far slower paced ones. By the end of the film conclusions from the very slow beginning have been forgotten about, and it’s hard to see what really unifies any of his characters apart from their shared nationality; which even then is not that strongly felt.
It was his intention not to try and offer any conclusions about Iraqs future, which is understandable but does feel a little limp. As someone who spent more than three years in the country talking to people Longley is almost uniquely positioned to offer an insight into what could be done better – it’s a bit hard to understand why he shied away from the chance.
Iraq in Fragments isn’t a classic exercise in documentary making then, but its still a unique angle on the one thing everyone is still talking about. And it’s worth catching for that alone.