A glimpse of life under occupation

The most honoured film about the Iraq war is opening at theaters across the US this month. The documentary Iraq in Fragments by James Longley won best director, cinematography and editing at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Since then, it has won awards at festivals in Chicago, Cleveland, Thessalonica, and at the Human Rights Watch film festival in New York.

What sets Iraq in Fragments apart from the mass of other journalism on Iraq is that it does not confront the issue of the war directly. US soldiers are on the periphery of the film, as are Iraqi politicians, Ba’athist insurgents and Al Qaeda terrorists. Instead, viewers are treated to a view inside Iraqi culture and daily life under occupation. It is cinematographically beautiful, taking viewers into places as diverse as schools, barber shops, auto shops, mosques, markets and train stations.

In production notes to the film, Longley writes about entering Iraq shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. “I could film whatever I wanted as long as I could stay alive,” he writes, with no government minders or stringent visa requirements. “My guess was that I would have about a year before either a new authoritarian government would be put in power or Iraq would descend into civil war and become too dangerous to work in. I needed to make my film while it was still possible.”

A full disclosure is in order. This reporter went after the breaking news and Longley would trundle off to film the same people:

a child labourer on Baghdad’s auto row, a leader of one of the Shi’ite Sadr movements in Southern Iraq, and a small farming family in Iraqi Kurdistan. In his film, Longley focuses in on the Sadr movement in the southern Iraqi city of Nasseriya, and in particular the local leader Sheik Aws al-Kafajji. Like the rest of Iraq in Fragments, Longley’s portrayal of the Sadr movement is intimate and fair. When the UnitedStates military appoints a local government, Sheik Aws tries to organise representative elections to promote democracy and self-determination.

He also sends out patrols of his Mehdi militia to beat up local businesspeople for allegedly selling alcohol, and brings them back to the Sadr office. “Saddam uprooted my family - now I’m alone! How can I be bound again? Even God cannot accept it,” one of the Sadr movement’s prisoners says blindfolded.

The film’s final chapter is set in Kurdish Northern Iraq. “It is written in Qu’ran that if we stay alive we will see any place touched by sunlight will be governed by Islam,” says an elderly farmer in Kureton outside Arbil. He hopes that as with the Jews and Israel, the Kurds will eventually have an independent state of their own. “They say that the Kurds are blasphemers,” he says. “That they brought the Americans to Iraq. But if there is religion left it is among the Kurds.”

Iraq in Fragments is a film that could not be made today. The security situation throughout the country has deteriorated to such an extent that it is no longer possible to follow regular people with a camera in tow. Virtually every foreign journalist left in the country is embedded with the United States military. The glimpse of Iraq you see in James Longley’s film is not one you’ll see on the daily nightly news on television, which is what makes it so important. — IPS