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Approaching Iraq: Poetry and Nationality
By Beige Luciano-Adams
Iraq in Fragments
Directed by James Longley
Distributed by Arab Film Distribution, 2006
“Iraq in Fragments,” director James Longley’s lush and haunting dreamscape of “post war” Iraq, won critical acclaim, including an Academy Award nomination and three 2006 Sundance Film Festival awards (Best Documentary Director, Editing and Cinematography). The documentary is broken into three parts: Sunni, Shia and Kurd.
The first chapter, “Mohammed of Baghdad,” follows an 11-year-old boy in the Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad where he lives with his mother and grandmother, working to support them. Mohammed narrates the inner and outer landscape of his world in a child’s voice: internal, quiet, subdued, fanciful, wise and poetic. Longley uses selective synchronous recording, relying more on Mohammed’s voice-over narration, which he layers upon beautifully composed scenes of varying intensity and meaning. The mise en scène is felt not so much in the presence (or absence) of Longley, but in his allowing the textures and rhythms of “reality” to take shape.
“It was beautiful,” Mohammed recalls of Baghdad, “the river… there were fish in it …” Cityscapes appear through swimming goldfish. The sounds of water under Mohammed’s voice are a surrealist complement to the film’s lyricism without neutralizing its inherently political significance. An accelerated pan through the streets brings us to an extreme close-up, Baghdad through Mohammed’s eye.
Mohammed works in an auto-repair shop, for a man who has told him, “I am like your father…”
He loves me, loves me.
He’s nice to me.
He doesn’t swear at me or hit me.
Although we see brief moments of tenderness between the two, Mohammed’s delicate illusion is shattered by his boss’ bouts of uninhibited cruelty, perhaps provoked by the presence of Longley’s mechanical eye. He mocks him, smiling with each swat. A terrified Mohammed cowers before him, then is shooed into the shop’s interior, defeated, trembling, flies crawling on him. “Open your mind! You scum!” His boss swats him again on the head, angry that he played marbles with other young children in the street.
Social and political commentary among the shopkeeper and his friends – Adult talk, mostly showing a mesmerized Mohammed, large eyes soaking up the world or staring off into space – is woven with Mohammed’s inner world through his narration. Adult worlds, children’s worlds, and Mohammed in the divide. War and occupation, development and foreign aid, religion and education are all addressed through the unfolding dialogue, while Mohammed goes about his day: school, work, dreaming…
I used to dream about work.
What is work? How do people work?
How’s it done? I didn’t know anything back then.
I used to dream about it. I worked and I dreamed.
I kept working and stopped dreaming.
When Mohammed is berated – which happens over and over again, his boss calling him a dog, humiliating him because he can’t write his father’s name – we are drawn into the scene through the textural weight of the image: extreme close-ups, textures and richly-colored film create a viewing environment of heightened sensitivity breaking the conventional specular relationship. Instead of watching a remote subject moving through the film, you feel as though you, too, are being watched; as though you, too, are moving.
Thus, it does not offer the conventional comforts of spectatorship, but rather a rich sensory immersion in the illusory world of the subject. It is a boy’s illusion, but it is also a historical one, a shared documentary space brought together with interior, subjective identification through the narration of a Baghdad beyond the lens.
The second chapter, “Sadr’s South,” follows a young Shia cleric through southern Iraq during Moqtada al-Sadr’s rise to power. (Sadr appears every now and then, a glowering, insulated V.I.P.) Cleric Sheikh Aws, jailed for a year under Saddam’s regime, seems to hold a position of relative power in the community under Sadr’s leadership. He provides a quiet narration, a notable contrast from the intense sounds and imagery of the outside world, and with his own provocative public speeches.
Courtesy of Typecast Films/ADF
Sheikh Aws tells us that “there is no dispute between Shia and Sunni, especially in Iraq. The only differences were created by Saddam.” This is heard over scenes of the Shia ritual ashura in a colorfully lit nighttime marketplace. Participants mourn the death of Husayn ibn-Ali, the grandson of the Prophet, killed at the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD. Wearing black, they flog themselves to express their grief. Men, some bloodied, flagellate themselves with lengths of metal chains. Bodies, Shia bodies, male bodies, move rhythmically as one – individual and collective, indistinguishable where one ends and the next begins, men holding hands in a circle surrounding other men, flagellating themselves over the shoulder in unison.
There is a concrete, fluid sense of corporeality – of rhythm, blood, flesh and music. The scene is unabashedly carnivalesque. A momentum, a flow of energy and collectivity, connectivity, speaks through Longley’s intimate but unobtrusive, subtle but unflinching, camera work. The sounds and beautifully filmed images engage the spectator through both poetic and corporeal expression.
In stark contrast, the following scene finds Sheikh Aws speaking to a subdued, pensive crowd of kneeling men gathered in the midst of a desolate townscape. Addressing his audiences in the ensuing scenes of town meetings, he discusses the U.S. occupation, civil disobedience and non-violent opposition, as well as democracy. He narrates a Shia body politic, in broad strokes outlining a collective history of oppression, and a coming-to-consciousness in the post-Saddam era.
Let them not imagine that in Iraq, though we faced 35 years of Baathist oppression, that we don’t know the meaning of democracy.
Sheikh Aws’ rhetoric becomes progressively more revolutionary, evolving from elections and non-violent resistance to inciting a roundup of alcohol sellers in the Naseriyah marketplace and reminding a crowd what happened to the “spies” who aided the Americans: “They were hanged from the electricity poles!”
The third chapter, “Kurdish Spring,” follows the lives of a shepherd, his son and his neighbors in the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. The chapter opens with a scene of a thick, black mountain of smoke billowing from brick kilns under a hot summer sky, a young boy standing in the foreground. Through the changing seasons, against a shifting palette of great swaths of color – violent sunsets, radiant snow, the opaqueness of midday heat – Longley follows Suleiman, the youngest of the shepherd’s sons, playing in a shelter of sunflowers with his best friend, consumed with determination in English class, rambling through the fields with his herd of sheep. In the end, after Suleiman’s father has narrated fragments of his own life, stories of regret and acceptance, we learn that Suleiman, too, will follow in the footsteps of his father, like his five brothers before him, herding sheep and cutting bricks instead of becoming an imam or going to medical school.
The history of the Kurds is told, not in a linear narrative but in memories and stories evoked more by the saturated imagery – nature-scapes, textures of flesh and cloth that set humans apart – than by any continuum of words.
Suleiman’s father says that “they” call the Kurds blasphemers, they say it is the Kurds who brought the Americans to Iraq, that they will behead all the Kurds. He speaks quietly, looking just above and to the right of the camera from behind thick, black-framed glasses, slowly drawing on a cigarette against a slice of colored wall. But if there is religion left, it is among the Kurds.
Toward the end of the film, Longley interacts with a crowd of Kurds who show up to vote in the first Iraqi election. An old man matter-of-factly notes: “Now it will be very hard for Kurds and Sunni and Shia to live together. The future of Iraq will be in three pieces.”
“Iraq in Fragments” is a film about men: men’s thoughts and men’s bodies, individual and collective; a nation of men; the political vigor and rising, shifting, fading dreams of old men and young boys. It renders the fertile dreams and subconscious patterns of its subjects in a unique play of light and shadows, and forays into the aesthetics of crowds and collectivity. Movement dominates the film, as of individuals, crowds, nature – and the implied movement of the viewer through the filmic text.
The result is a visually stunning and emotionally compelling film. Whether the country itself will end up in fragments, as the elderly Kurd suggested, is as yet unknown. As one of the film’s young subjects ruminates: Iraq is not something that you can cut into pieces. Iraq is a country. And how can you cut a country into pieces?
This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 12, nos. 56/57 (2006)
Copyright (c) 2006 by Al Jadid