James Longley discusses the danger and excitement of filming in Iraq in 2002/03
Who deserves an Oscar more? A man giving a high-tech audio-visual presentation or someone who risked his life to bring his film to the screen? James Longley received death threats making the Sundance hit Iraq in Fragments, which along with Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth – and 13 other films – has been short-listed for an Oscar nomination for best documentary. Both films have been acclaimed by critics and won numerous awards. Both bring important subjects to life with striking immediacy. Longley, though, believes that Gore’s heavy-hitter has more chance of bagging the Oscar. “It has a big studio behind it and it made $30 million in US box office whereas my film has made less than $100,000 in US box office.”
Still, I would not write-off Iraq in Fragments just yet. Gorgeously shot (mainly by the director himself) and sometimes startling in its intimacy, the film presents three compelling up-close-and-personal portraits of every day life following the US-led invasion in March 2003, as seen through the eyes of ordinary Iraqis. Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds all get to speak in their own voices, offering points of view largely absent from the mainstream media in Longley’s native America. Filmed over two years, the documentary attempts to give “a more detailed impression of what’s happening in the country and how the people feel,” he explains. “I think it’s filling a void that is not filled by daily journalism.”
The film takes us from Baghdad to the Shiite stronghold of Naseriyah in the south, and a Kurdish farming community in the north. Longley originally wanted to film a single family before, during and after the war. However, he discovered during two visits to Iraq in September/October 2002 and February 2003 that his kind of filmmaking, involving interaction with ordinary subjects over long periods of time, was incompatible with Saddam Hussein’s regime. “You could either film people who were vetted by the regime or film people and then hope that they wouldn’t be interrogated by the Baathist intelligence services, which of course they would have been,” he says. “So it made it impossible to really start a documentary in the way I had hoped.”
Instead he filmed what journalists were permitted to film, such as a visit by a US congressman opposed to the war and locations where weapons of mass destruction were supposedly being manufactured. “The Bush administration would say, ‘There is a site out in wherever where they’re making tubes for uranium enrichment’ and then the Saddam government the next day would ship 400 journalists out there in buses and you’d have permission to film a steel factory or whatever.” Permission to film during the war was not forthcoming, however.
When Longley left Baghdad at the end of February 2003, there were still Iraqis who did not believe the US would invade. “To the last minute they felt unsure about what was going to happen,” he recalls. The atmosphere in the city had grown strange and foreboding; the air was filled with wild rumours. “As you can imagine in a country where a lot of people that you saw around you are connected with the regime, and they have the sense that maybe the regime was in its last days, there was this extremely paranoid and panicky kind of feeling.”
Longley watched the war on television in Cairo and then returned to Iraq after it was over. Getting back in was easy, no visa was required. “In the absence of government everything becomes very simple,” he smiles. “If you have the urge to do something, you simply do it.”
The film-maker admits that he had known very little about the country when he first went there. But while not wanting to advocate an approach started from a position of ignorance, he argues that Iraq was a special case. By the time he began filming in spring 2003, the country was under occupation.
“Anything you might have known about Iraq prior to that really no longer applied as much. A lot of what had been written about it was really regime-centric and had to do with how Iraq functioned under Saddam’s government. I think even if you had studied the country in that context it wouldn’t have done you a lot of good after the invasion.”
Longley installed himself in a seedy apartment in southern Baghdad and then set out with a translator (he does not speak Arabic) to document the country. Although he would increasingly fear for his personal safety, he says initially a lot of Iraqis were more afraid than he was. Under Saddam, everyone knew what was dangerous and what was not. With the police and military now removed, crimes such as car-jacking, looting and mugging suddenly skyrocketed. “People were afraid to come out of their houses and sometimes after three in the afternoon all the shops would close down, and that lasted for some weeks and months, that paranoia.”
To his surprise a period of “guarded optimism” followed, during which people started to believe that maybe the Americans would invest in rebuilding Iraq. “But then hope for that gradually began to wane as months and months passed and nothing had been done in terms of the rejuvenation of the basic social services and infrastructure.”
Disillusionment and cynicism thus colour the opening story (what might be termed the Sunni chapter) about a shy and wistful 11-year-old called Mohammed Haithem who supports his family by working as an auto-mechanic in the Sheik Omar district of the city. Torn between work and school, his experience is fairly common in a country where only about 30% of children are now in regular education, according to Longley. What mostly fascinated the director, though, was his relationship with his boss, a sort of surrogate father figure who hits and taunts him, and complains how life for working-class Sunnis has deteriorated since Saddam was toppled.
“Mohammed loves him and believes that he loves him as well,” says Longley, “but also it’s this kind of despotic relationship. I think it allowed me to give a more allegorical layer to this story where it also becomes about the ambivalent relationship to power that is also in this society.”
There’s nothing ambivalent about the radical Shiite cleric Moqtadr Sadr’s followers’ bid for power in the film’s second and strongest story. They are flexing their muscles after years of oppression under Saddam, and burning with political and religious zeal. Longley got extraordinary access to the movement after a chance meeting with Sheik Aws al Kafaji, head of the Naseriyah branch of Sadr’s organisation. He filmed political strategy meetings, rallies, marches, religious ceremonies. He was even allowed to ride along on an alcohol raid, filming as Sadr militia beat-up, blindfold, and then haul men they suspect of selling alcohol off the streets. A gun is brandished. Longley thought they would shoot someone. How did feel filming the scene, I ask?
“Being in that kind of situation is disturbing. I suppose there is a line beyond which you can’t really cross and maintain your sanity, humanity, whatever. On the other hand, if they shoot someone in front of you, well, it’s too late for you to do anything then, isn’t it?” It then “one of those interesting moral quandaries”, he says.
You get a sense in the film of things heating up and the mounting levels of danger. The tipping point came in April 2004 with the blockade and bombing of Fallujah, confirmation of rumours about abuses at Abu Ghraib, and the Shiite uprising in Najuf. “It doesn’t take very many incidents to turn an entire society against you,” says Longley, “and in the case of Iraq there were thousands and thousands of incidents about which everyone knew. All the things that were not done well or not done at all, combined with the things that were horrendous, I think by the Spring of 2004 had basically added up to the general population of Iraq no longer wanting the United States to be in their country at all.” Foreigners were being kidnapped and beheaded. “I began to receive death threats in some cases at the locations where I was filming where people would tell me, ‘Masked gunmen have been here and told us if you come here again they will kill you and kill us.’” Longley even found himself being hauled before the Islamic court in Najaf, accused of filming the bodies of Mehdi Militia fighters in the Najaf cemetery, though he had intentionally left his camera in his hotel room that day, expecting trouble.
“The situation that I found myself in in Iraq was not something that I was enjoying as a filmmaker, as a human being, in any respect,” says Longley, who already had experience of shooting on the West Bank, for his documentary Gaza Strip. “I kept on telling myself the next film I make I’m not going to do it in a war zone.”
Even in Baghdad where he had previously felt safe, Longley started to sense the anger of locals. Eventually the situation became so dire that in October 2004 he left Baghdad for the north of the country, and never returned. It was not just his own life that was at risk, he says, but also those of the people he worked with. One of his translators on a short film he made in Iraq was actually killed while working with a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor.
When Longley edited Iraq in Fragments, it broke down along religious and ethnic divisions. However, he says he is not advocating splitting the country up, nor suggesting that his film is a comprehensive portrait of the country.
“The fact is Iraqis have been living together for a very long time. They are capable of doing so again. I think a lot of what was done by the United States when they entered the country served to fan the flames of sectarian division and ethnic division, and allowed people to see it as their chance to gain power based on sects, based on ethnicity instead of encouraging them to develop a government based on actual political parties that had political platforms instead of dividing themselves by their religious affiliations.”
Longley laughs when I ask him what he would like to see happen. “I think the United States should leave the country and pay Iraq reparations, in the same way Iraq paid Kuwait reparations after they invaded them,” he says. “But we all know that the United States is not going to do that so it’s a moot point.”
This article first appeared in The Independent
Copyright Stephen Applebaum, 2014