07 January 2007

Iraq in Fragments

I’d forgotten that you could make a documentary outside of the Michael Moore/Robert Greenwald style of made-for-TV, cut-and-paste jobs. Many of the recent documentaries (eg. Who Killed the Electric Car?) have been no more cinematic than an episode of Frontline, so James Longley’s Iraq in Fragments was a pleasant surprise. It’s an artful and poetic collage of images of destruction, commingled with a humanizing portrait of ordinary Iraqi civilians; above all, though, it is cinematically interesting. Langley’s camera is restless, and the effect is hypnotic and literally dizzying. There is so much fascinating fodder all around him that it seems he can’t film it fast enough.

The title refers both to the film’s tripartite structure as well as the fragmentary nature of contemporary Iraq. There are no interviews with pundits or talking heads -- all the footage comes from the ground. Each section of the film examines life among one of the country’s different ethnic groups – Sunna, Shia, and Kurd – usually focusing on one or two individuals. By examining the different microcosms he hopes to elucidate the state of affairs in the macrocosm.

The violence is as ubiquitous as the cigarette smoke (Iraq seems to have no shortage of cigarettes and guns). As a small Sunni boy says, “it’s scary, there’s no security”; a group of Shia fundamentalists beat and kidnap a group of men at gunpoint whose only crime is the purveyance of alcohol in the market (“and I used to complain about Saddam!” one declares); Kurdistan is perpetually covered by billowing streams of thick black smoke. Peter Galbraith, in his new book The End of Iraq, argues in support of breaking the country up into three autonomous regions, getting a divorce so to speak. Langley demonstrates that the country seems headed that way because of the deep, and partly manufactured, divisions between its rival groups.

Iraq’s future, for now, is uncertain except in that it will certainly be violent. The depiction of Shia religious fervor in the second part is especially frightening to consider as the future of Iraq, particularly as it seems probable given their majority position. One cleric cryptically contends, “The true democracy is Islam.”

Nearly all the Iraqis on-screen gripe about the American presence (fairly enough). But Mohammed's, the child protagonist of the first chapter, father is absent because he was disappeared by Saddam. Iraq was vicious under Hussein, it’s just as, if not more, miserable now under the Americans, and the prospect of a fundamentalist Shia domination on the horizon is less than promising. The poor Iraqis seem perpetually fucked.

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