Just got back from watching James Longley’s Iraq in Fragments, which is among the nominees for this year’s Academy Award for Best Feature Length Documentary. A three part film, Iraq in Fragments tells the stories, in sequence, of an 11-year old Sunni boy in Baghdad, the growing Shia unrest in Najaf and Nasiriyah, and a Kurdish family in the North. It’s a visually stunning film, and a considerable cinematic achievement, combining brisk, almost chaotic editing with breathtaking use of colour and a flair for the dramatic. The last section in particular looks like every frame could be an award winning photograph all by itself.

How insightful the film is as a documentary is another matter. Longley’s decision to let the film reflect the chaos and incoherence of Iraq as it exists today, rather than trying to draw out a consistent message, is a bold one, but it leads to a film that, true to its name, is fragmentary and somewhat bewildering. The film has the immediacy of lived experience – nothing is explained, no facts are double-checked, no stories followed back or forward in time – it is as thought the viewer had been plunged deep into the intimate heart of Iraq and had just enough time to gather a few quick impressions and opinions, before he was whisked away. This makes the film exciting to watch, but it also makes it frustrating to think about. The fact that in all but the second section Longley chooses to go micro, focussing on particular individuals and never really drawing back to look at the big picture, only makes this sense of fragmentation more severe.

Two things do emerge consistently. First, the unsurprising fact that many people in Iraq really, really hate the Americans. Time and time again we hear people proclaiming that the coming of the Americans may have helped get rid of Saddam (which they see as a good thing) but on the whole, it’s made things in Iraq worse. It’s not hard to see where this idea comes from. As Longley faithfully portrays, Iraq’s cities have been turned into battlefield. In Baghdad, as the film shows, tanks and humvees ply the streets while helicopter gunships roar through the skies. In a scene from the Shiite south in the second section, two old men sit smoking their hookahs and complaining about the US, their conversation punctuated by the sound of gunfire and explosions.

Second, the film highlights, I think, just how much the mess in Iraq is an administrative failure. If the people of Iraq are unhappy with the Americans, it is not out of some sort of Islamic idealism, certainly not out of loyalty to the old regime – it is because their day to day lives have worsened with the coming of the US invasion – law and order has broken down completely, cities are in shambles, unemployment is rampant. Longley doesn’t quite explicitly say this, but it’s not hard to see looking at the disillusioned faces of the young men in this documentary, hearing their stories about the absence of jobs and the pointlessness of schooling, where the next batch of terrorism recruits is coming from.

Not that there isn’t hope. Iraq in Fragments ends on a note that is hopeful, if guarded. Longley shows footage of an election in the Kurdish provinces, where a voice exhorts the people to vote, telling them that their vote in the ballot will be worth more than thousands of bullets for the propagation of Kurdish interests. We see the shoving, chaotic lines outside the polling booth, we see the woman handing out the ballots helpfully telling everyone to vote for number 130, since he’s the Kurdish candidate. The flowers of democracy blossom in the Kurdish spring, though whether they will bear fruit remains to be seen.

Advertisements