James Longley captures "Iraq in Fragments"by Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
Documentary-maker James Longley believes in legwork. That's why he spent two years in Iraq. His new film "Iraq in Fragments" examines the lives of ordinary Iraqis caught up in the turmoil of war. The film was just nominated for an Oscar. It opens in Minneapolis this weekend.
James Longley says he headed to Iraq when it became clear war was inevitable. He wanted to chronicle the conflict.
"This is really my attempt also to put a human face on a country which you know is often a little bit faceless, I think, in our minds," Longley says."
Initially Longley wanted to follow a family, perhaps in Baghdad, before, during, and after the invasion. But when he arrived in late 2002 interference from the Saddam government made that impossible.
So he shot some footage of pre-war Baghdad, then left, only to return shortly after the fall of Iraq. He immediately began wandering through the community looking for possible subjects.
"It's almost like casting the movie," he says. "You are looking for someone who has an interesting story who isn't afraid of the camera, and someone who you think you will have access to, for a long time."
And that's how he came across 11-year-old Mohammed Haithem.
Mohammed works for a mechanic in a working class neighborhood in Baghdad. He's bright and articulate. He's trying to get by in a chaotic world, where military helicopters hover overhead as he tries to do his job. Longley focussed on Mohammeds relationship with his boss who has become a surrogate father.
"It's kind of this almost Dickensian kind of relationship, where you have this kid, he loves his boss and his boss is kind of abusive to him." Longley says. "You know, he has grown up there, you know taking apart and putting back together automobiles ever since he was five years old, so he is kind of this fixture on the street, almost like a mascot."
Mohammed is repeating the first grade for the third time, and is thinking about dropping out for good. He turns up at school in a crisp white shirt, but never learns to write more than his first name. In Iraq he gets lost in the press of humanity.
Longley also spends some time with the Shia Muslim group led by Moqtada al-Sadr, profiling one of the clerics at the head of the movement.
"I think that because I got in early, and developed a strong relationship with Sheik Aws al Kafaji, who happened to be the head of the Sadr movement in Nasaria, I was able to maintain that access much longer perhaps than some other journalists," Longley says.
Longley followed the group to rallies, and then later on a raid to arrest alcohol sellers at a market. He says that while he was clearly an American through talking to as many people as possible and explaining what he was doing he was able to gain remarkable access.
The third section of the film follows a family of Kurds in the northern part of Iraq. Their lot is much improved since the fall of Saddam. They are now hoping for autonomy, but are struggling with the Iraqi government who are reluctant to let them go.
James Longley shot 300 hours of material during his two years in Iraq. As the situation in the country has worsened he admits he's not sure what has happened to his subjects. He's heard the Kurdish family is doing OK. He believes the cleric was arrested and is being held by the US forces, but he doesn't know for sure. And the others like Mohammed? He has no idea.
"I don't feel that I am in a position to ask people to go an check up on the subjects in the film on my behalf, simply because you know they could get killed just going through a checkpoint in Baghdad."
Longley says "Iraq in Fragments" nomination for best documentary Oscar is a film makers dream. However he is already planning his next project. He doesn't think he'll go back to Iraq, simply because he won't get the access he needs. He's looking elsewhere.
"I'm trying to get a visa to Iran," he says.
James Longley says in the meantime he'll keep working on the material he gathered in Iraq. He's editing short films telling the stories of other everyday Iraqis.
- Morning Edition, 02/15/2007, 7:50 a.m.