Mohammed Haithem isn’t an obvious choice for the main character of Iraq in Fragments,‘ emotional opening chapter. Forced to drop out of school to support his family by working as a mechanic, 11-year-old Mohammed isn’t particularly articulate. In fact, director James Longley recorded interviews with him for over a year before the boy began to speak freely and in full sentences. Yet Longley stuck with him. ‘You could read his mind just by looking at his face,’ explains the 32-year-old doc-maker. ‘He’s a kid with a strong internal life.’ Often ignored by the adults he works alongside in old Baghdad’s mixed Sheik Omar neighborhood, Mohammed is an observer in his own country. This, and his childish naiveté, makes him the perfect conduit between Western audiences and Iraqi society.
Despite providing perspectives not widely offered, Longley has a short but impressive track record for bridging the gap between Western viewers and fringe communities in the Middle East. His first documentary feature, 2002′s Gaza Strip, reveals the lives and views of ordinary Palestinians by following a 13-year-old paperboy in Gaza City. Using the money earned from Gaza’s home video sales, Longley shot Iraq in Fragments. The film, which won all three documentary craft awards (directing, cinematography and editing) at the Sundance Film Festival in January, deftly shows the complexity of Iraq’s current political situation by giving viewers an intimate look at the country’s citizens.
Shot between April 2003 and April 2005, Fragments is composed of three chapters. The first, with Mohammed, focuses on the country’s urban Sunni population. Chapter two was filmed inside the Shiite political/religious movement of Moqtada Sadr, near Najaf. Longley spent a year filming this segment, from August 2003 to August 2004. As a result, audiences bear rare witness to religious ceremonies and passionate political strategy meetings, and watch as armed Islamicists raid a market and arrest merchants suspected of selling alcohol as part of a push for local rule and a more fundamentalist interpretation of the law. The third and final chapter focuses on a Kurdish family in the north, and that community’s ongoing interest in independence.
Ironically, since Longley grew up without a TV in his home and to this day has never owned one, the feature was originally conceived as a series for the small screen. The concept was quickly thwarted by deteriorating circumstances in Iraq, particularly for Westerners, but it’s why Longley initially pursued multiple story arcs. More than 300 hours of material were captured with a Panasonic DVX-100 and 100A camera for six different stories, including the film’s final three. ‘I hope I can bring them back as extras on the DVD,’ says Longley of the material that didn’t make it into the feature.
One arc got as far as a polished 25-minute edit before it was cut from the final film. It followed a poor Sunni farming family over nine months as the mother struggled to get healthcare for her son, one of 10 children, who had contracted the aids virus through a blood transfusion received during Saddam Hussein’s rule. ‘My main concern was that without it, there isn’t a strong woman’s voice in the film,’ says Longley, who had to abandon the story after the family started receiving death threats because of his presence. ‘Unfortunately, I had to stop filming the story before it was complete,’ he says. The filmmaker also shot footage inside a womens’ shelter near Arbil, where about 20 residents were seeking protection from honor killings and one woman was filing for divorce. Longley captured interviews with survivors of Hussein’s 1998 extermination campaign against the Kurds.
Longley wasn’t able to secure broadcast support to film Fragments, but the doc won a us$75,000 production grant from the Sundance Institute last October that financed its post-production costs. At press time, he was hoping the film would be released theatrically, especially since there was substantial buzz about it during Sundance.
In the meantime, the director is already considering his next project. ‘I’d like to do something on the people of Iran, but it’s contingent on whether I could get the access I’d want,’ he says. ‘I’m interested in ordinary people and ordinary life perspectives.’ Longley’s films, however, are anything but ordinary.
As a student at the All-Russian Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) in Moscow in the early 1990s, Longley was exposed to the work of filmmakers such as Andrei Tarkovsky. But he also cites the French New Wave director Francois Truffo, Jean-Luc Goddard, and Martin Scorsese among his influences. Indeed, Longley notes that the editing of the market raid in Iraq in Fragments was inspired by the style of the fight scenes in Scorsese’s Raging Bull, while the Shiite religious ceremony sequence shares similarities with French director Chris Marker’s 1983 film Sans Soleil. ‘I had DVDs of Sans Soleil, Raging Bull, and Lawrence of Arabia with me in Iraq. It’s hard not to be influenced by the films you watch.’