There’s a gold-rush mentality in many of the documentary films coming out of Iraq right now, as filmmakers race overseas to make their movies and then hurry back home to make their names. It’s an understandable urge in the face of such opportunity—and even sometimes a commendable one in the face of such danger. But what makes James Longley’s Iraq in Fragments so powerful—and why it’s likely to be one of the most-heralded films at Sundance—is that he spent enough time there for unpredictable ideas to incubate and shot enough footage to explore them. From 2002 to 2005, Longley (Gaza Strip) filmed an Iraq that you likely haven’t seen before. Mirroring the way post-invasion Iraq has splintered, he splits his own film into detailed thirds, tracking a young kid in Baghdad, two brick-baking Kurdish families in the north, and the Shiite movement of Moqtada al-Sadr in Najaf. Each is composed with a sharp, vérité eye, narrated only by its subjects, and rendered with an intimacy that we haven’t seen since, perhaps, the Oscar-winning Born Into Brothels. Without editorializing in any obvious way, the film delineates how very differently Iraqis regard their country’s future, from Sadr-acolyte outrage to an old farmer’s exhausted fatalism. And though Longley’s dramatic footage of a brutal militia raid on Nasiriyah liquor merchants and a violent clash with Spanish troops in Najaf is stunning, it is no less affecting than the quiet way that a boy’s apprenticeship to a crude Baghdad auto mechanic becomes an understated metaphor for life under Saddam’s reign. More filmmakers should learn from Longley’s patience, as should more producers—it’s well worth the investment to fund long-term projects like this.
Directed by James Longley