Friday, November 02, 2007

Documentaries to Revisit: Iraq in Fragments

While every documentary should be unique, it is important for documentary filmmakers to be well-read when it comes to documentaries to see different ways that those who have come before them have dealt with the joys and challenges of non-fiction storytelling. Until recently, it has been difficult to see documentaries on demand. But now many documentaries are easily available through Netflix, Amazon, or the local video store. With this in mind, we wanted to revisit a few documentaries which reflect a wide variety of styles, but all share the power of effective story structure and character development. Docs in Progress co-founder Adele Schmidt recently took a look at IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS, James Longley's 2006 Oscar-nominated film.

When I was watching the film IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS, I was asking myself what is it a documentary filmmaker can learn from this film. I would like to focus on three points which this film is mastering at a high level.

1. Even if we are confronted with a situation of chaos, it is important to find order in the chaos and give a precise structure to the film.

2. Access to the characters is key to tell a compelling story.

3. The early determination of the stylistic approach (how to tell the story) helps to set the path for the whole film.

Order in the chaos

The chaotic situation of an ongoing war is not the easiest place for a filmmaker to organize production and find a structure for telling the story in a meaningful and comprehensive way. James Longley's approach to divide the film into three parts makes complete sense. Each part spotlights a different side of Iraq: The Sunni, Shiite and the Kurd perspectives.

The division in the film reflects the fragmentation of the social and political landscape of Iraq, a fragmentation which has deepened over the years of war and which presents one of the greatest challenges to initiate a process of reconciliation and peace. By presenting each side, the filmmaker is not trying to give a broad perspective; instead he concentrates in each part on one personal story, the story of ordinary people. The director uses no voiceover or narration to move the story along. He just holds the camera close to the characters and events we see unfolding. If we get to listen to a voice, it is the voice of each character who comments on situations and reflect about their lives.

In the Sunni side, we get to know Mohamed, an 11-year old boy who lives in a working class neighborhood in Baghdad and who works in a mechanic shop. The Shiite section is narrated by young cleric, Sheik Aws al-Khafaji and with him, the camera leads us into different situations with militant Shiite followers of Moktada al-Sadr in Nasiriya and Najaf. The third story is filmed in a pastoral Kurdish region, in a small village outside of Erbil. Each story is filmed with immense closeness to the characters and it is the payoff of Longley spending almost two years in Iraq to film this documentary.

Access to characters

Getting close to the characters allows James Longley to access the chaotic situation and through their eyes and voice we have a deeper look into war torn Iraq. It seems contradictory but the closeness opens us up a wider picture of each section.

Mohamed has lost his father to the regime of Saddam Hussein. His boss, owner of the mechanic shop, is like a father for him. Or at least that is what Mohamed says at the beginning. But the camera tells another story. The boss mistreats him and humiliates him on a regular basis. Mohamed cries and the boss laughs in satisfaction. In the relationship between boss and Mohamed, we observe the components of living under a dictatorship: the abuse of power and irrational violence of the oppressor and the fear, confusion and frustration of the oppressed.

If the first story is concentrated on the inside of the mechanic shop and the tense relationship between Mohamed and his boss, the second story happens mostly on the streets. Young men scream in a religious procession and hit themselves with chains. We are now on the fanatic side. In another moment, young men organized in their own sectarian group decide to execute their view of law and order a market turned upside down in search of vendors of alcohol. Covered with masks, they beat their victims and detain them randomly. It seems that the reality is dominated by young men. If women appear at all, we see them crossing the street in the background of the frame or kneeling before men in power, begging to free their husbands.

It is the setting of a little village and the landscape which makes the third story quieter. An aging Kurdish father and his son are the main characters. They express they desire for normality and peace, but again, as soon as politics gets involved, chaos breaks out. On voting-day, the Kurds get into a fight with the police.

All three stories give an unknown look into the life in Iraq today and each story makes clear that the human sacrifice paid in this war has huge dimensions.

Stylistic Approach

In this film it is clear how important it is to define a style before even setting up the camera. The close and immediate camerawork makes this film authentic and compelling. The camera is on a constant move and is followed by a fast and extremely nervous editing. James Longley is the director, photographer and co-editor of the film. It is the same hand which executes all three departments with restlessness and precision.

This stylistic approach is appropriate for a situation of chaos and uncertainty. In a certain way, we feel thrown into that dangerous and complex reality out of which it is difficult to make sense.

Conclusions about the war in Iraq will be drawn in years to come. IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS does not pretend to have conclusions, but it tells an internationally relevant story on a human scale.

© 2007, Docs in Progress
This article may not be reprinted without permission.

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