December 29, 2007

Iraq in Fragments

COMMENTARY’s online editor Sam Munson asked if I’d like to write a short piece about what I think are the top five movies of 2007 from and about the Middle East. Sure, I said. But once I got started I found I couldn’t write about five. I started with a two-paragraph blurb about James Longley’s masterful Iraq in Fragments, but I exceeded the word limit before I could even get to the second film on the list. Iraq in Fragments is too good for a blurb. So here, instead, is a piece about the top single film from the Middle East, or at least Iraq. One caveat: Iraq in Fragments actually dates from 2005, but it was released on DVD only a few months ago, and it’s such a powerful and important film that it should make the cut.

Most recent documentaries filmed in Iraq can be fairly categorized as liberal or conservative. All are about the war, and most are cinematic equivalents of op-eds. James Longley’s lush and intimate Iraq in Fragments is different. While the director appears to be some kind of liberal or leftist, his film is refreshingly none of the above. Iraq in Fragments is about the war only insomuch as it was shot in Iraq during the war. This film is a collection of portraits of Iraqis, not Americans or the American military. And unlike almost any other documentary out there, Longley’s includes the Kurds.

The director is invisible. We never see him or hear him, and he uses his camera as though he were shooting a fictional film. This is emphatically not the kind of documentary you’re accustomed to seeing. Longley’s camera and editing work are so stylish and deft that the end result is perhaps the most artful documentary ever made on any subject. (Watch the high-definition trailer here for a powerful preview.)

The title refers to Iraq as it is now—a geographic abstraction made up of fragments. But it also refers to the film’s structure. The first third is a story of Sunni Arabs in Baghdad, the middle chapter covers Moqtada al-Sadr’s radical Shia Mahdi Army militia, and the final third is about the Kurdish Spring in the northern autonomous region.

A Sunni Arab boy named Muhammad anchors the film’s opening segment. He works for his cruel and abusive uncle in a machine shop, and his ability to lie to himself and the camera is a painful revelation.

“He loves me, he loves me,” the boy says about his tyrannical guardian as we see him smacked in the head and called a dog. “He’s nice to me. He doesn’t swear at me or beat me.” What are we then to make of Muhammad’s uncle when he says he wishes Saddam Hussein were still in charge? “So what if he oppressed us and was hard on us,” he says.

Muhammad knows cruelty and loss, as do all Iraqis. His father was a police officer. “Then he started talking about Saddam,” he tells us. “They put him in prison.” We never find out what happened to his father, but he appears to have vanished forever. Contrary to what some naïve Westerners seem to believe, Iraqis, even children, know very well that they live in a hard and tragic country even if they have never known anything else.

“It’s not safe here,” Muhammad says. “It’s scary. There is no security. I want to go abroad. When you are abroad, nothing will happen to you. My teacher told me I could be a pilot. I want to fly the plane, to see a place that’s beautiful and nice. Not Iraq, but a beautiful place. I imagine . . . I imagine . . . I’m high in the sky. I can see the doves, the sky. I can see the birds. I am in the plane and seeing countries beautiful and nice. I fly down to those countries. I’ll go to that country. The beautiful one.”

Read the rest at Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at December 29, 2007 05:38 PM

Hi Michael,

Great topic to write about, the 5 best movies about the Middle East of 2007, even if you focused just on one. I'll check out Iraq in Fragments.

I'm reluctant to see western films about the Middle East. Certainly at least new ones. Rendition, Redacted. I saw a trailer for the latter. As one soldier in it dragged an Iraqi girl off to rape and another lecherously licked his lips I felt Mr. De Palma owed our military an apology.

Not In the Valley of Elah, not Badland.

I ultimately saw Syriana and the first half of The Kingdom. (My girlfriend & I fell asleep as we were exhausted after a long day's journey to Maine from NYC).

I'm reluctant to watch these films for several reasons and I say this without self-righteousness. First I don't want to pay a man like Mr. De Palma who has a bone to pick and who seems to know less about the Middle East than I do. Second, we know movies work on our emotions. I'm wary, old-fashioned as it might seem, to swallow anything that might be appearing on the screen just for dramatic effect.

Third, Mr. Berg / Mr. Carnahan profess in The Kingdom’s opening scene Osama bin Laden offered to send mujahideen armies into Kuwait to expel Saddam Hussein so U.S. forces wouldn’t have to land on Saudi soil. "Boy, if I knew that,” my girlfriend's intelligent step-father remarked,
“I'd forgotten." That sort of education worries me.

Given my intense interest I like to see dignified films about the Middle East. Perhaps you can just list another 4 films from ‘07 or any other year that could have rounded out your top 5.

As you're aware, I wrote a novel based on my experience in Kurdistan last December I'd like to convert it into a screenplay and I like to know of film-makers thinking similarly to the way I am.

Last week, I saw Persepolis, which was wonderful and worthwhile even if only for the thrill of seeing a cartoon version of little Marjane Satrapi singing, in a heavy accent, Eye of the Tiger.

There was also a wonderful Iranian comedy called Maxx, which as a story of mistaken identity
and cultural repression, was entertaining and enlightening.

Happy 2008 to you, your loved ones, and your readers…!

Posted by: Scott Moshen at December 30, 2007 11:08 AM

A very moving review Michael Totten.

Posted by: anand at December 30, 2007 11:13 AM

I just saw Iraq in Fragments last night (recorded a while ago) on TiVo. It was beautifully filmed. Longley has a real gift for getting kids to feel comfortable in front of the camera - and for blending images with music. The fluidity of the words/music/images was amazing.

I just saw Persepolis too (my family is visiting and they do love movies). According to my daughter, who loved the graphic novels, the story in the movie wasn't as detailed as the story in Satrapi's books, but it was still very well done. I love her simplified drawing style, and the warm portrayal of her family.

Posted by: mary at December 30, 2007 11:34 AM

The remaining of the top 5, not necessarily from 2007, are Voices of Iraq (American/Iraqi collaborative documentary), Turtles Can Fly (fiction, Iraqi Kurdistan), Paradise Now (fiction, Palestinian), and Rachida (fiction, Algeria).

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at December 30, 2007 01:09 PM

That's great, thx Michael! I’ve Netflix’d ‘em. Speaking of things movies, it was interesting to stumble across Ron Silver's essays at Pajamas Media.

Posted by: Scott Moshen at December 30, 2007 03:22 PM
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