"You have to study the Iraqis to know them," says an old man taking a pull off a hookah about halfway through the new documentary Iraq in Fragments, right as an artillery shell sounds in the distance. "It's impossible to change us with the barrel of a tank."
Made over the course of three years in the U.S.-occupied country, director James Longley's Oscar-nominated film suggests that we've got a lot of studying left to do. This isn't one of those incendiary docs that popped up in the wake of Fahrenheit 9/11. Iraq in Fragments is far more measured, contemplative and atmospheric than the foaming-at-the-mouth lefty agitprop however right some of it may be that has pervaded the national discourse in the past two years or so. Like the best fictional filmmakers, Longley knows that by keeping his focus small, he can say much more about a nation's conflicts both with themselves and with their unwanted "liberators" than he ever could by recording a bunch of talking heads making sweeping pronouncements.
The title is both literal and philosophical: The Iraq we see through Longley's lens is ripped apart, its buildings in rubble, its people on crutches, in casts, on stretchers. At the same time, the director has fragmented his film into three distinct segments, each of them touching upon the ideological chasms that separate the different ethnic groups and warring factions. In Baghdad, we're introduced to the 11-year-old Mohammed, who views his abusive shopkeeper "boss" as a sort of surrogate father. Through snippets of overheard dialogue, Longley encourages the parallel that the people of Iraq, like Mohammed, view their deposed leader Saddam Hussein the same way: "So what if he oppressed us. He would never let this happen."
In a section entitled "Sadr's South," Longley tags along with the strict followers of Moqtada Sadr who fight to exert control over regional elections and drive alcohol sellers and other "depravity" out of their villages. "They kicked out Saddam and brought 100 Saddams to replace him," an accused merchant shouts. It seems a long way from there to the eerily tranquil northern farmlands of the Kurds, whose resilience and pride belies a fear that persecution will be at their doorstep once again.
As our government tells it, you'd think that the U.S. was in the country to quell specific, isolated uprisings. But to watch Iraq in Fragments, the entire country is "the resistance," whether violent or not. Time and time again, we hear voices young and old echo the sentiment, "It's for the oil." Longley's approach is more artful than journalistic: Instead of names on the screen to identify whom we're seeing or hearing, we get impressionistic, first-person narration over a montage of horrifying yet dream-like images of everyday life in an occupied Iraq. He lingers on a seemingly idyllic Kurdish snowball fight or a burning building or the tradition-steeped rituals of the Shiites. Some of the artier techniques are a little overwrought: the Brian Eno-ish soundtrack, the quick cutting, the occasional feedback sound effect. But Longley's stunning camerawork rich in contrast and saturated in color is enough to immerse you in the experiences of a people whom, callously, we've only come to know through body counts.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 23, 24, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 25.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.