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Iraq in Fragments
Of course the good ole U.S. of A. has long since moved on from even thinking about Iraq - not that we were much thinking about Iraq when we went in to occupy the place originally. We've got other things on our mind, but if you're interested in learning more about that conflict from a perspective you might not have considered, James Longley's Iraq In Fragments represents an astounding glimpse into a very complex situation. I know, it's an old-fashioned technique, thinking about something we've done, of huge historical significance, a year or two after the fact, but that's the way they did it in the old days, and it's a great way to gain additional insight into something many would rather forget.
So here is director James Longley's 2006 Academy Award nominee, in a power-packed 2-disc DVD addition, for those of you willing to look a little deeper. In following with the title, which of course refers mainly to the condition in which we've left Iraq, Longley's film, a tone poem and a radical approach to the documentary form, unfolds as a three-part drama of everyday life in Iraq, told from the Iraqi perspective.
Our first hazy, golden-hued tale is Mohammed, about an 11-year-old boy without a father, without much of an education, and without much love in his life. The owner of a garage in Baghdad takes in - in a way - Mohammed. When he's not struggling in school, which he has fitfully attended off and on for years, he's doing menial work in the garage, surrounded by idling men and brow-beaten by his surrogate father. It's a truly heartbreaking piece of reportage that feels more like a drama than a documentary. Longley's unprecedented access means his camera hovers at Mohammed's eye level as he moves throughout bombed streets with uniformed American soldiers hovering mysteriously in tanks on the periphery. While the men decry Saddam's reign of terror, they clearly have trouble making out what to do next in their newly upended world. Hot breezes still blow, and Mohammed seems doomed to perpetually suffer at the hands of indifferent fate.
Sadr's South finds Shiite city-dwellers agitating for free elections while hoping to maintain their fundamental ways. It's here that Longley truly exposes some realities from Iraq that we might never have considered, as he documents two hugely different yet essential aspects of this new Iraqi life. Men swat flies while drinking thick coffee during interminable council meetings wherein they debate the meaning of and implementation of free elections. Voices drone or rise in frustration while dry notions rise on gusts of hot breeze. American viewers likely never even thought about how cities and regions attempted to reorganize in a rudderless society, and how much of that work transpired in boring bureaucratic settings such as this. However, when folks begin selling alcohol in the local flea market, a homespun hell breaks loose, with the rogue merchants rounded up, beaten with rifle butts, and blindfolded without obvious recourse, just as it was when Saddam ruled.
Lastly, Kurdish Spring finds young rural friends grappling with the new order and American occupation, an occupation that grants them, at least for a time, more freedom than they had during the previous oppressive regime. This rural idyll also comes coated in a fine red dust, and like in the previous story becomes a chippy, fragmented scene when new elections and flaring tempers become the order of the day. In these three stories Longley provides a miraculous view into Iraqi life after the war. His omnipresent camera and dispassionate eye create a real-life drama that is far more transporting than your average documentary. With lyric strokes he creates both sympathy and wonder for everyday Iraqis, asking us to view them first as people, while considering from their perspective what their lives have become ever since the US set out to depose Saddam. It's a picture of rare power and thought that should be required viewing for anyone with a disdain for self-serving propaganda, and a real interest in the Iraq war.
Presented in a 16 X 9 ratio enhanced for widescreen televisions, Longley's film is gorgeous and harsh. Images - especially in more frantic scenes - are crisp and razor sharp. Colors seem dug from the very red soil of Iraq, coated in dust and baked by the sun. Compression artifacts are a non-issue, meaning this is one great looking documentary.
Presented in Dolby Digital Stereo or 5.1 Surround Sound, Iraq In Fragments will please audiophiles as well. While the stereo track is perfectly adequate, the 5.1 Surround track creates an immersive experience in which the babble of irritated council members comes at you from all sides, the haunting soundtrack envelops everything quietly and without conflict, and flies seem to buzz past your ears.
This 2-disc set (in a standard sized keepcase) packages its discs on either side of the case, and includes a catalog insert that might momentarily confuse you as it covers up disc number one. Disc One contains the feature film, some Trailers, and a Commentary Track by Director James Longley that is a very worthwhile listen. Not only do you get to learn about his filmmaking process, but you also get even more insight into the historical situation in Iraq. It's a great accompaniment that will deepen your understanding of the situation appreciably.
Disc Two contains a number of other extras, including the short, 21-minute documentary subject 'Sari's Mother', with its own Commentary Track Other short subjects are a 14-minute look at 'Iraq Before the War', the 20-minute An Interview with James Longley, and an additional hour's worth of IFTC Student Shorts. That's a whole lot of extra good extra content for your documentary dollar.
Director James Longley's Iraq In Fragments is an unprecedented, lyric and staggering look at the aftershocks of the conflict in Iraq from the Iraqi's perspective. Longley's deep access and sensitive, unbiased eye (occupying forces are occasionally seen but never demonized, they're just objects of mystery) creates a poetic, heart-wrenching drama out of his chosen subject, humanizing the Iraqi people while making real their desires, fears and frustrations. This is absolutely first-rate documentary filmmaking and something that should be on any concerned American's watch list. Highly Recommended.
- Kurt Dahlke