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French Version

Cinema verite in a land where the truth hurts

Director James Longley's award-winning 'Iraq in Fragments' was culled from hundreds of hours of footage shot from 2002-2004

It's been a busy year for James Longley. In January the filmmaker took his documentary "Iraq in Fragments" to the Sundance Film Festival. It was nominated for the grand jury prize and later won awards for cinematography, direction and documentary film editing. "Fragments" later took the jury prize at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. In October, the film took the Gold Hugo for best documentary feature at the Chicago International Film Festival. A few days later Longley became the first documentarian to win in the film category of Seattle's Genius Awards.

Not bad considering that "Fragments" comes pretty close to being a one-man show - Longley co-produced, wrote, soundtracked, directed, shot, miked and co-edited the film - even better when you realize it's only his second post-student film.

His first professional film, 2002's "Gaza Strip," was praised around the Middle East as the most sensitive and perceptive portrayal of the intifada ever made by a foreigner. It revealed Longley's skill in cinema verite - which presents its subjects without editorializing voice-over, allowing them to speak for themselves.

The festival circuit took Longley to Beirut in mid September, where "Fragments" received its regional premier at the Ayam Beirut al-Cinemaiyya festival of Arab film. While he was here - about a month after Israel ceased its July-August bombing campaign against Lebanon - Longley was as likely to be visiting bomb sites in South Lebanon and Dahiyeh as to be socializing in northern Beirut.

He says he'd like to make his next film in Iran, but he's kicking around the possibility of shooting a documentary in Lebanon as well.

For all this, Longley had no particular connection to the Middle East before making "Gaza Strip." His area of expertise is, in fact, Russia. His student documentary, "Portrait of Boy with Dog," about a boy in a Moscow orphanage, won an award in 1994. He lived in Siberia from 1995 to 1998 and worked as a newspaper copy editor in Moscow. He worked as a Web designer in New York until the "dot-com" bubble burst.

The other thing in the news at the time was the intifada.

"No one has filmed in Gaza since 1984," he says, recollecting how he decided to shoot his first film. "TV was afraid of it. I felt like it was my civic responsibility to inform people about what was going on here. It drives you mad not knowing. I'd rather film it than watch it on TV.

"It's a pain to film in the Middle East, but it's the most important place you could film. There's no place that people need to know about more. My motives were partly selfish, of course. I basically want to know what's going on here myself. Making films for me is about getting to know a place I haven't seen."

Longley mobilizes the same cinema verite sensibility in "Fragments," though the geographical exigencies of his subject - Iraq is somewhat bigger than Gaza - made it necessary for him to film several different stories. So the film is divided into thirds.

The most powerful of the three chapters, "Mohammad of Baghdad," focuses on 11-year-old Mohammad Haithem, an auto mechanic's apprentice who lived and worked in Sheikh Umar - a light-industrial quarter in the center of the capital.

An orphan, Haithem is the focus for the Sunni community's alienation from both the American occupation and the rise of political Shiism. The center of the story, though, is his relationship with his boss, who abuses him and mocks his going to school and still being unable to write his own father's name.

Longley's main informant for "Sadr's South" is Sheikh Aws al-Kafaji, a 32-year-old cleric who then ran the Nassiriyyah offices of fractious Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr. The events the filmmaker captures make Aws' personal story more marginal here than in the other two chapters.

Of the three, this one comes closest to journalism. Focusing on the April-September 2004 uprising of Sadr's Mehdi Army militia against the occupation, it takes Longley's camera from Nassiriyyah to Najaf. The filmmaker also accompanies the Mehdi Army on a candid raid of a Nassiriyyah souk in search of alcohol vendors - a vignette that captures the downside of informal justice.

The focus returns to a more intimate level with "Kurdish Spring," which focuses on two boys and their fathers who divide their time between agriculture and brick-making in the Kurdish village of Koretan, just south of Irbil. With a decade of de facto Kurdish autonomy behind them, the boys discuss their future - a view at odds with the goals of their more religiously minded fathers.

"My intention wasn't to make a feature film but a series of ten one-hour films," Longley says. "The country'd been closed for a quarter of a century and no one was covering it. I wanted to do it while it was still possible. In the end, I only filmed six stories and three made it into the film."

Longley's doggedness in filming as much as possible contributes immensely to the visual impact of the film. He says that between April 2003 and April 2005 he shot nearly 300 hours of footage.

"I first went to Iraq in September 2002, just after 'Gaza Strip.' Everybody assumed the invasion would happen in winter 2002. I tagged along with several US journalists following [US] Congressman Jim McDermott to Baghdad. I returned in February 2003 - just before the invasion - and filmed material until I was thrown out of the country for lack of a visa extension.

"Lots wasn't used. I spent about a year - between August 2003 and September 2004 - with a family in Mahmoudiyyah. It's one of the stories that never made it into the film."

Of the three existing voices, Longley says that of Haithem comes closest to what he aspires to in his work.

"I couldn't find exactly the voice I was looking for in the second profile and we faced plenty of restrictions during the shoot in Nassiriyyah and Najaf. So I went with Sheikh al-Kafaji.

"In a way," he continues, "I was sucked onto the Mehdi Army story. It just happened and I would've been remiss to ignore it. Yet I wish I would have found someone to deliver a personal story like the first and the third."

The main problem with the three fragments of Iraq that Longley has chosen to document is that it replicates an analytical division of the country into Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds that has irritated Iraqis for decades.

"I don't think the film is representative of Iraq in its totality," he says. "By the same token, the country is extremely varied. My thought was to capture this geographical diversity and it so happens these three parts of the country are very different from one another. I didn't set out to shoot 'a Kurd' and 'a Sunni' and 'a Shiite.'

"For the people that I interviewed, religious differences just weren't important and none of them want Iraq divided. In fact, they're afraid of the worst-case scenario - that the country will break up into three parts.

"People are terrified of civil war. It's going to be very messy if it does happen.

"There's 2 million Kurds in Baghdad alone, let alone the Shiites and the Sunnis."

"Iraq in Fragments" will receive its theatrical release at New York's Film Forum on November 8.

Beirut,11 13 2006
Jim Quilty
The Daily Star
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