Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Iraq in Fragments

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Iraq in Fragments

Mid-decade, filmmaker James Longley took his small camera to Iraq, where he shot, directed, and sound-recorded, and later composed music for and co-edited, a truly fascinating movie. Insinuating himself into various Iraqi populations, he formulated a graceful, poetic film which feels as different from other Iraq docs as a verse feels from a newspaper article. Iraq in Fragments presents the documentary as art film, in an unusual but captivating approach. Much of the film has the feel of narrative fiction, but by sidestepping continuity - the cutting is impressionistic, the sound design musical, the photography close-quartered and graceful - the movie avoids most of the compromises inherent in documentary form. This is a good movie with which to draw my election series to a close, because it's a reminder of the humanistic and individualistic elements underpinning politics and world affairs...the soul in the body politic.

Iraq in Fragments exists in three fragments of its own. The first fragment follows a little Sunni boy in Baghdad - he has difficulty in school and works for a machinist who is alternatively tough-loving and physically rough. The second fragment does not focus on one individual but rather the collective passion of the Shiites in Iraq's South as they coalesce around Moqtada al-Sadr to discover their post-Saddam identity.The third and final fragment travels to the north, visiting with Kurdish peasants who bake bricks, herd goats, and rush to polling places when they get the chance to vote, hoping to stake a claim on their own land. Each fragment is poetic in texture, ranging from the distracted sadness of the little boy to the fierce, frenetic violence of the militias to the cozy pastoral lives of the Kurds. Form scrupulously echoes content and the free flow of impressions and experiences and images and sounds is liberating and indeed startling after experiencing so many informationally-focused documentaries.



Ironic that Iraq in Fragments sometimes feels far from documentary in form when in fact it is almost purely documentary in the strictest sense. That is to say, there are no talking head interviews, no outside narrator to impose form (the only voiceovers we hear are those of the subjects themselves), no sidestepping from a singular focus on the subject at hand. The movie immerses us into the world of the Iraqi people whose stories it chooses to tell. American soldiers appear sporadically, as something foreign, vaguely threatening, otherworldly, and as viewers we are led to identify with the Iraqis we see.

Hence this movie provides the emotional, psychological connection I was looking for but missing in the otherwise excellent "Frontline" specials. It does not deal with terrorists but the middle fragment is immersed in radical Islam and, watching the celebrants experience the rapture of religious experience, and slowly descend into a fanatical violence, we can share their passion and understand what motivates them. This does not mean that the violence is presented sympathetically - in fact we see it as horrible - but that somehow we understand the motives and the drives of the perpetrators. This is the most powerful segment of Iraq in Fragments, the most political, and the most gripping and exhausting.

The first fragment, about the boy, is more problematic; it exudes a kind of uncanny valley effect - in which we're uncertain if we're watching fiction or documentary. We know it is not the former yet the graceful cutting between reaction shots and the semi-narrative laid out (the boy is fired from his job, and moves in with his uncle) make it feel more De Sica than direct cinema - or perhaps more like Flaherty than anything else. But I have seen no suggestion that the events were staged (though obviously a smoothing took place in the editing process) so the resemblance to Flaherty has an ironic context. Usually we are wary of documentaries for making us believe that which is manipulated - here the opposite is true. Longley fashions reality into a story and we end up being aware of more manipulation than may actually exists.

The final fragment fits the most naturally with Longley's aesthetic. His playfulness suits the boys who are far from urban violence and religious upheaval; his penchant for beauty (which contradicts the little boy's no doubt accurate statements that Iraq is an ugly place) fits the old man's sad and wise visage as he regards his ancestral home. Even here turmoil is not avoided: the elections turn into a melee as police officials push voters around, and there is an immense sense of futility and frustration as the Kurds speak of their desire for secession from Iraq. But the overall tone is quietly joyful and this fragment, set in the most obstinately independent and removed "piece" of Iraq, ironically offers the greatest hope that Iraq could remain bonded as a nation, and not fall into the different fragments that the title suggests.

I think there is something revolutionary about Iraq in Fragments. It plays like neorealism with the startling caveat that this isn't feigned reality, but actual - documentary as fiction rather than fiction as documentary. I'm hard-pressed to think of another documentary which achieves this effect, and the result is a weirdly convoluted aesthetic and ethic. There have been critiques of documentaries for feigning verite, for making the viewer feel that they're "there", that they're getting the whole picture, when of course they are not. Usually a deeply-experienced documentary gives you the feel of objectivity - here this immersion and experience is provided through stridently subjective approaches. Subjective documentary - strictly disciplined in its raw material (no outside perspective, focus on a single subject, just captured material and sounds), free-form in its execution (avant-garde and impressionistic in its aesthetic, lyrical in its mood). This could offer a fascinating way forward, not just for documentaries, but for narratives as well, and all cross-breeds in between.

I first saw Iraq in Fragments a couple years ago, in theaters, and felt that it would probably outlive its contemporaries; that it was more human and infinitely more inventive than most other Iraq documentaries. But it also didn't seem to be exactly what I - and the country - needed at the moment. It did not provide context, or facts, or a way of understanding all the chaos that was going on over there. Indeed, its subjects, caught inside the maelstrom, seem even more perplexed and confused than those of us on the outside looking in, trying to figure out what was going on. A couple years later, having dug deeper into the events of postwar Iraq, I have a better understanding of the full context, a better - if inevitably incomplete - picture of the war.

With that in mind, it's easy to forget how frustratingly oblique Iraq seemed in 2006. We were fighting a war, but nobody seemed to know what it looked like (footage from inside the conflict was limited, both by the violence and threat thereof on the ground and by government obstruction) and there was a sense of futility and shame in the air for anybody who felt a gnawing sense of responsibility and duty (if this American decade could be summed up in one line, it would be Bush's admonition to go shopping after 9/11). Iraq in Fragments provided a piece of the puzzle, a ground-level understanding, but not the big picture. It was not intended to do so. Now that I better comprehend the big picture, Iraq in Fragments seems more vital, more important, than ever. It is important as an experiment with the documentary form, it is important as a document of Iraq, and it is important as a work of art in its own regard.

Finally, it is a reminder that at the heart of geopolitics and historical events, lie individual people and their own narrow yet infinite shards of experiences. Ultimately there may not be any master puzzle which makes sense of it all. Yet the individual pieces, the fragments, have their own power, beauty, and sadness, and at the end of the day, those are what one may remember best.

7 comments:

Tony D'Ambra said...

I have not seen this doco, but your exhaustive discussion of the issues, corroboration efforts, and well-argued conclusions provide a worthwhile overview.

I would be interested in your views on movies such as Rendition (2007) and In the Valley of Elah (2007). My views are set out in this post and comments: http://wondersinthedark.wordpress.com/2008/10/15/thoughts-on-in-the-valley-of-elah/

Tony D'Ambra said...

PS: The previous comment refers also the previous post - No End in Sight.

MovieMan0283 said...

Tony, at one point I hoped to tackle the Iraq/War on Terror fiction but given limited time, I decided to focus on docs instead. However, I may tackle these and other movies (Stop-Loss, Redacted, the near-universally reviled Lions for Lambs or whatever it's called) in the coming months. I heard mostly poor things about Rendition and some positive things about Valley of Elah. I've had problems with Paul Haggis' work so far, though I think there's talent there, so I'd be interested to see that film most of all. Do you think I should wait till after I've seen the movies to read your post?

Tony D'Ambra said...

Yes, skip my post until you have seen the movies.

There is a disconnect between the reception for Rendition and Elah in the US and here in Australia. Both films received good press and did well at the box office for their class.

I found both movies imperfect but powerful and very worthwhile.

As Peter Travers wrote in Rolling Stone on Elah:

"Paul Haggis actually thinks movies can mean something, even change things. So, of course, critics like to crush him. Ambition equals pretension every time. Crash won the 2005 Oscar, but detractors tarred Haggis’ race parable for overreaching. Right. Feed us more pap, please. Haggis haters will have a field day with In the Valley of Elah… Haggis’ script, loosely based on a true story, isn’t about the war. It’s about the humanity being sucked out of the soldiers we send there, and how that process reflects on us as a nation. Yes, Haggis stumbles and loses focus. The haunting, heart-piercing Elah isn’t perfect. It’s something better: essential. 3/4"

MovieMan0283 said...

"Ambition equals pretension every time." I don't think this generally has to be the case, but I think it has been the case with Haggis' work so far, at least in my opinion. I'll be curious to see Elah.

Just Another Film Buff said...

MovieMan,

I saw the film today. I liked it, although, especialyl in the final section, I thought it was too beautiful for its own sake. The second segment reminded me of The Battle of Chile where we are actually witnessing the making of a true democracy. Very good segment that.

MovieMan0283 said...

Fair points, JAFB. For me the first segment was the most problematic for the reasons I wrote about in the piece. The third seems to strike the best balance between human interest and the bigger picture. I think the doc is best conceived as a whole, of which the fragments are a part (kind of like the country it documents). Each fragment has its strengths and its flaws but together they form a fascinating mosiac.