James Longley’s Iraq in Fragments is a one-man production of startling audacity and aesthetic provocation. It isn’t just that Longley (Gaza Strip) worked unembedded in Iraq for two years after the start of the war, gaining access to the stories of Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds in wartime and risking his life at almost every turn. It’s that he used this occasion to make an art film.
Iraq in Fragments has kept the Seattle-based Longley on airplanes and in hotels for much of the past year, and is still making its way, accompanied by the filmmaker, around the United States and the world. In between flights, Longley, 34, talked on the phone about his film.
Rob Nelson: You’ve said that the film was made to spur discussion and debate, that it’s a political film only “under the surface.” But was the style of the film — your choice to make Iraq look immensely beautiful — a political decision?
James Longley: Well, the fact is that Iraq is not an ugly country [laughs]. But of course there are a million ways to film any subject. On some level, the beauty of the film is a reflection of the reality that I found. A lot of Iraq is stunning in that sensual kind of way, with very lovely, earthy colors. I wanted the film to be experiential, for people to really be in this place when they’re watching it. I don’t want the viewer to be pushed out. I want them to be almost seduced by the visual world, to feel beckoned inside.
Nelson: Most docs aspire to pure reportage rather than poeticism. Do you find that audiences are taken aback by the film, that they don’t expect to see so much longing?
Longley: Well, that’s funny, because I feel that the film is pure reportage [laughs]. If “pure” reportage conveys the essence of a place and a situation, then yes, that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m not trying to make a film that has a lot of assumptions built into it. If you look at the reporting of Iraq on CNN or PBS or whatever, it comes with political assumptions. I don’t blame them: In mainstream media, there’s almost no way to escape that kind of issue-driven, news- and event-driven work. For me, the work is a way to play a game with myself as a filmmaker. I’m almost trying to escape my own politics.
Nelson: When you were shooting the film unembedded, under extremely harrowing conditions, did you think a lot about the politics of embedded journalism?
Longley: I can’t blame any journalist or filmmaker who chooses to be embedded with the US military. I don’t think that side of the story is illegitimate; I just knew that it was already being covered.
Nelson: Has it been possible for you to stay in touch with the people you filmed?
Longley: One translator I worked with has been seeing the family I filmed, the one with the brick farm, and he says they’re all the same, doing well. But Sheik Aws al Kafaji, the Shiite cleric from the film, is apparently in prison. He was arrested by the Americans. I don’t know exactly why; I’d love to find out more about that, but it’s kind of tricky. He was arrested and tortured under Saddam, so it’s kind of ironic now that he would be arrested by the Americans. I imagine him taking a very ironic, darkly humorous perspective on that. I hope he makes it through.
Nelson: I wrote from Sundance that your film is without precedent in the history of documentary. Would any of your influences encourage you to disagree?
Longley: I have a lot of heroes in documentary filmmaking. But my style probably comes more from the fiction films that I’ve seen and liked in my life. I’m working within the documentary form, but most of the people who have really pushed the aesthetics of film have worked in fiction. I don’t see the two forms as being mutually exclusive.
Nelson: Certainly fiction has incorporated elements of documentary.
Longley: And vice versa. The documentaries I like most are quite old: Berlin, Symphony of a City, or Man with a Movie Camera. Those films are from before the age of television, before documentary was corrupted by talking heads, before this marriage of newsprint and radio media with the moving picture. Watching Berlin, you get a better sense of prewar Berlin than you would get from any history book. And that’s an inspiration to me. You’re taking the audience and saying: Experience this thing — this multidimensional, extremely complicated, million-legged beast — through the medium of cinema.