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 5:38 PM
Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Pajamas Media BlogRoll Member



Testimonials

"I'm flattered such an excellent writer links to my stuff"
Johann Hari
Author of God Save the Queen?

"Terrific"
Andrew Sullivan
Author of Virtually Normal

"Brisk, bracing, sharp and thoughtful"
James Lileks
Author of The Gallery of Regrettable Food

"A hard-headed liberal who thinks and writes superbly"
Roger L. Simon
Author of Director's Cut

"Lively, vivid, and smart"
James Howard Kunstler
Author of The Geography of Nowhere


Contact Me

Send email to michaeltotten001 at gmail dot com


News Feeds




toysforiraq.gif



Link to Michael J. Totten with the logo button

totten_button.jpg


Tip Jar





Essays

Terror and Liberalism
Paul Berman, The American Prospect

The Men Who Would Be Orwell
Ron Rosenbaum, The New York Observer

Looking the World in the Eye
Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic Monthly

In the Eigth Circle of Thieves
E.L. Doctorow, The Nation

Against Rationalization
Christopher Hitchens, The Nation

The Wall
Yossi Klein Halevi, The New Republic

Jihad Versus McWorld
Benjamin Barber, The Atlantic Monthly

The Sunshine Warrior
Bill Keller, The New York Times Magazine

Power and Weakness
Robert Kagan, Policy Review

The Coming Anarchy
Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic Monthly

England Your England
George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn