Sep 12, 2007

'Iraq in Fragments': In the chaos (2007)

There is much to admire about Iraq in Fragments, director James Longley's Academy Award-nominated portrait of life on the ground in three parts of Iraq during the first year of American occupation.

Most striking is how it manages to be both immediate and reflective at the same time. Because Longley uses a technique that forgoes interviews and voiceover commentary in favour of observation and revealing juxtapositions, his movie puts you both in the chaos and just above it. As a result, it is easily the most thoughtful example of a veritable growth industry in non-fiction filmmaking: the Iraq doc.

Longley took his camera to three parts of Iraq in 2003-04 to record the impact of the U.S. invasion and Saddam's rout. While the situations he finds in these places have for the most part already been swept away by the country's state of constant turbulence, the snapshots they provide are still pertinent in terms of understanding the war's almost instant descent to the status of quagmire.

In Baghdad, Longley finds an 11-year-old Sunni boy named Mohammed. The son of a policeman who disappeared without a trace into Saddam's prisons, Mohammed works at a garage for an embittered veteran of the war against Iran and struggles mightily to learn reading and writing at school.

Beneath skies regularly intersected by U.S. choppers and aircraft, Mohammed lives in a world framed by uncertainty and hopelessness. Abused by his boss for his failures at school and estranged from his classmates because he's the oldest student in his grade, the boy seems doomed to fail everyone's expectations. Needless to say, these intimations of Mohammed's gloomy prospects are only made more poignant by the fact that the city he lives in has become that much more dangerous in the four years since the Mohammed segment of the movie was shot.

In two Shiite cities, Longley finds fundamentalist followers of the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr preparing for elections. Their zeal for justice sharpened on the hard edges of retribution and resentment, the Sadr followers are determined to enforce Islamic law at any cost, even if it means terrorizing alleged alcohol-peddlers at gunpoint.

As it was with Mohammed in Baghdad, the situation is most fascinating for what it portends: the imminent rise of factionalist violence among fundamentalist groups and the inevitable toll about to be taken by the unleashing of mutually unyielding ideologies.

Finally, in the Kurdish regions in the north, something approaching calm prevails, as Longley comes across a farming family for whom the American presence has actually delivered what the world was told it was supposed to: freedom from tyranny, persecution and the long-dreamed-of possibility of an independent state. But it's a qualified sense of hope. We already know what's raging in the south and we're fully aware that what we're watching already belongs to the past.

The war, nearly four years later, continues without end in sight.

Easily the most challenging, ambitious and technically innovative of all the films nominated in this year's Best Documentary category of the Academy Awards, Iraq in Fragments is also the hardest sell to a mass market. That's why it's all the more remarkable that it's even being considered, surely a sign of unsettled times.

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