Saturday, November 04, 2006

Iraq in closeup

The winter issue of Cineaste, coming soon, has two good articles in it. [Actually, as it should be said without saying, it has more than that, including, ahem, an outstanding "Communique" from the Montreal World Film Festival.] One is a provocative roundup of documentaries (and the upcoming feature, Home of the Brave) about the Iraq war, filmed before the insurgency closed that window of opportunity; the other is an interview with the director of the best of these portraits, James Longley, whose Iraq in Fragments (Typecast Releasing/HBO Documentary Films) opens at New York's Film Forum on Nov. 8.

Longley directed, photographed, co-produced, co-edited and did the sound and music for the film, his second following the harrowing Gaza Strip (2002). Iraq in Fragments, shot over a two-year period, deservedly won best director, cinematography, and editing prizes at the Sundance Film Festival. While it has the immediacy of a documentary, it has the hallmarks of good feature filmmaking--vivid imagery, tight, attention-holding editing, and a fine score, qualities unevenly distributed among its peers, which are more journalistic or propagandistic in tone. In 94 minutes it tells three stories, one from each of the country's three most prominent groups, the Sunnis, the Shiites, and the Kurds.

These were culled from footage obtained from right after the war began in 2003 to 2005 (a fourth story, Sari's Mother, became a short film on its own). We meet a fatherless 11-year-old boy, an auto mechanic who tries in vain to placate the owner of a Baghdad garage, to whom he has been apprenticed; gun-toting Moqtada Sadr followers in Shiite cities as elections loom; and Kurdish farmers who are pleased to see the arrival of the Americans following the downfall of Saddam Hussein. That the film is willing to showcase some display of good feeling among so much loss is proof of its open-mindedness, not that Longley is advocating the aims of the conflict itself.

A restless account, filmed with an eye toward the poetic, Iraq in Fragments is by turns discomfiting and moving--for as much as we have let these people down, inflaming distrust and disturbance, they go on. They are part of our story now. For their sake as much as our own, we need to send a clear signal on Tuesday. It's not the economy, stupid. It's Iraq.

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