Unseen Iraq By Adina Bradeanu

in 8th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival

by Adina Emilia Bradeanu

Iraq in Fragments adds to an already crowded territory in which mainstream media, cell phone images and cartoons dissolve into a moving landscape of issues surrounding Iraq, and where figures, maps and charts are often brought forth to grasp the skin of life after Saddam.

There is a sequence in the film where Iraqi school children learn about the singular and the plural. “How do we write ‘many houses’?”, the teacher asks, and the children write the word in the air with their fingers. “And how do we write ‘one house’?”, asks the teacher, and again the children come up with the right word and draw its shape in the air. The film itself can be described following this switch from plural to singular, from group portraits usually conveyed by mainstream media to individual voices and life experiences that hardly make the news.

The film’s title refers both to its subject matter – a country torn apart by war and political and religious mayhem – and to its stylistics – an approach which stays with the snippet and the ‘slice of life’ rather than plunging explicitly into the issues. “Iraq is not something you can cut into pieces. Iraq is a country: and how can you cut a country into pieces?” asks a child in voice-over.

Iraq in Fragments starts precisely from that conventional perception of a country fractured by religion and ethnicity. Structurally the film is broken-up in three parts meant to account for the allegedly distinct ‘Iraqs’ inhabited by the Sunni, the Shia and the Kurds. The film moves on from a first part which evolves around the daily life of a child working in a car repair workshop (Mohamed of Baghdad], captures the turmoil inside the radicalised religious-political movement of Moqtada Sadr in the process of assuming control over the region (Sadr’s South), and ends-up with a more minimalist part shot among brick-makers in an isolated village in Northern Iraq (Kurdish Spring).

Each episode has its own distinctive rhythm provided by the often contradictory snippets of reality captured across the country. Longley manages to create individual portraits of people who are neither the victims of circumstances entirely beyond themselves nor the dangerous fundamentalists who have created those circumstances. Iraq in Fragments does not condemn and refuses to victimise.

People living in violent environments are usually doomed to the continuous present of the live news feed. Longley’s film goes beyond that and makes room for the past and the future. The film collects memories and dreams from the children, wisdom and fears from the elderly, captures poetry and humanity behind mayhem, and places everything against a landscape of war and confusion. One of the most memorable sequences of the film remains that in which, in an attempt to visualise memories about a lost Baghdad, shots of multicoloured fish swimming are superimposed with the deserted streets of the city.

Longley refuses to build his film on the illusion of documentary as a window on the world. Iraq in Fragments acknowledges a degree of construction and reminds one that, despite pointing at reality, documentaries remain texts which translate individual perspectives. The film is shot mostly verite style, but the observational sequences are sometimes framed within poetical structures that break the action and provide an insight both in the distinctive breathing of remote corners of Iraq and in the perceptual reality of the film-maker immersed in those human environments.

Iraq in Fragments has the intimacy of observation provided by the long time spent on location and the sense of balance given by the absence of explicit statements by the film-maker. Although he does not appear in the film, there is a sense of privileged access on location which successfully complements his overall commitment to partiality and understatement. Longley jump cuts and speeds-up the image to translate the sense of a transient reality that cannot be grasped in a purely observational manner.

In a similar vein to his work in Gaza Strip (2002), Longley relies on children to deliver the more explicit meanings of his film. This does not lead to comfortable, easy-to-digest images. There are children playing, dreaming or working, but there are also snippets of children caught in political rallies alongside radicalised adults, such as the shot of the boy (in Sadr’s South] who cries out an unsettling ‘Beware of us’.

Longley’s film also calls on recurring scenes of children in schooling. At some point in the film a teacher gives a speech in front of the children gathered in a schoolyard, about their duty to work harder for the future of a new, democratic Iraq. Longley edits the voice of the teacher against the voice-over of a child commenting that nothing has really changed: now that Saddam is gone, another president will come and they will still have to sing a new anthem every day for the new president, just as they used to do for the previous one.

Education involves explicit as well as implicit training of the mind. It is in school that children learn about the world, but it is also schooling that makes them naturalise practices and ceremonies that would later ensure their obeisance to authority.

There are hidden curricula to schooling as there are hidden agendas to mainstream media. Iraq in Fragments is an inspiring piece of cinema which adds to the growing counter-currency of images opposing the widely available ‘official’ representations of Iraq. As Emile De Antonio once put it, “Let the networks sell news, let the documentary world be full of surprises”.