"Iraq in Fragments, "The Lives of Others"

Max Goldberg February 13, 2007

Poetry and purpose in “Iraq in Fragments”

Any documentary filmmaker who takes the plunge with an ongoing, upending subject like the Iraq War risks irrelevancy with the unfolding of new events and rhetoric; at best, their work might come to be seen as prophetic or indicative, though the loss of currency surely blunts the overall effect. Digital technology makes the production and dissemination of moving images an instantaneous affair, but independent film distribution still moves at a snail’s pace, making the idea of documentary as reportage a difficult race against time. If director James Longley’s “Iraq in Fragments” stands out amongst the crowded field of Iraqumentaries, it is not just for its cinematography (which is dazzling) but also its distinct sense of purpose: to measure the conflict in terms of those for whom it simply represents reality, a slice-of-life portrait which finds universality in its kaleidoscopic lens.

The film, which had its local premiere in last year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, is divided into three parts, the first focusing on a young boy’s difficult coming-of-age amidst Baghdad’s chaos, the second a view of the noise surrounding a controversial cleric, and the third, a surprisingly reposeful vision of a rural town in the northern part of the country, where’s the war is more echo than explosion. Longley has a neorealist’s weakness for children’s perspectives (directors who wish to present a plain, unmediated perspective of the world are, naturally enough, drawn to young people), and the constant voice-over track belies a lack of confidence in his images’ ability to serve as narration: a misstep, I think, since Longley’s footage of Iraqi life — men talking politics in the dusty shade of the street, the blood trails of a political rally gone haywire, daily rituals of washing feet, cooking food, shaving shadows