James Longley's documentary Iraq in Fragments is a one-man production of startling audacity and aesthetic provocation. It isn't just that the 34-year-old Longley (Gaza Strip) worked unembedded in Iraq for two years after the start of the war, gaining access to the stories of Iraqi Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds in wartime and risking his life at almost every turn. It's that he used this harrowing occasion to make an art film—framing fact as if it were fiction, digitally flaring colors in defiance of vérité and every preconception of a ravaged country, shocking us first with the beauty of Iraq and then with the recognition of why we're never allowed to see it that way.
Iraq in Fragments, which won a trio of awards at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival and was recently nominated for an Academy Award, has kept the Seattle-based Longley living on airplanes and in hotels for much of the past year, as he prefers to accompany the movie to the cities in which it screens. Last fall, in between flights, Longley talked to me on the phone about his film, which could hardly be more dissimilar to the bulk of Western reportage from Iraq.
City Pages: 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. 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.
CP: Is there a risk to presenting viewers with a sensual Iraq?
Longley: I think there's a multiplicity of facets to any situation. With Iraq, there has been this terrible descent into civil war. It's the most dangerous, difficult, and scary place on the planet in a lot of ways. At the end of the first year I was there, I saw the country beginning to spiral down. I feel like Iraq in Fragments is a cinema of longing. People really want peace and stability—they want it so much. The beauty in the film reflects what I was feeling myself and what I was feeling in the people around me—this extremely strong desire to hold on to that...thing. I don't even know how to describe it.
CP: 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, to create this film that doesn't follow my own political opinions.
CP: To what end? To be more universal? More honest?
Longley: On the level of reportage, I don't feel my job is to convey my political opinion. I'm trying not to put my own ego at the center of the film. I'm trying to reflect the people that I'm filming—their opinions, their world. Because I think that's more valuable. In the case of, say, a Michael Moore film, the assumption is that the audience is coming to see the movie in order to get Michael Moore's opinion.
CP: The news networks sure don't play games with their opinions. When you were shooting the film unembedded, under extremely dangerous conditions, did you think a lot about embedded journalism, about its affect on public opinion and, in turn, on the war itself?
Longley: I can't blame any journalist or filmmaker who chooses to be embedded with the U.S. military. I don't think that side of the story is illegitimate; I just knew that it was already being covered. Also, I don't really think it's a good idea to give up your independence in any way as a journalist—to make an agreement about how you are going to cover something. But I can understand why someone would. If you're in Iraq, there's a certain comfort in being a part of this bigger organization—the U.S. military—which feels like fraternity, like family. There are people who are more comfortable working like that.
CP: It's certainly a more comfortable arrangement for the military and for the news outlet, which helps explain why there has been so little unembedded reporting from Iraq in film and video.
Longley: There isn't much, no. There are Andy Berends's films, and there's My Country, My Country by Laura Poitras, who was embedded part of the time, but most of the time not. I think it may have been possible to work the way that I worked in that first period after the war, but now it really is impossible. You can still do it in northern Iraq, maybe, but not in Baghdad, there's no way. Not even an Iraqi journalist would be able to do that now.
CP: Has it been possible for you to stay in touch with the people you filmed?
Longley: I'm still in touch with some of the translators. 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 Shiek 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.
CP: I wrote from Sundance last year that your film is without precedent in the entire history of documentary. Would any of your influences encourage you to disagree?
Longley: I have a lot of heroes in documentary filmmaking. I'm not rebelling against everything I've ever seen in a documentary before. 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.
CP: Certainly fiction hasn't failed to incorporate 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. Documentary became this very particular kind of informational vessel. But if you look at any of the early documentary films, like Joris Ivens's Rain, for example, you see that they're telling stories without facts or figures or pundits. 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, which is being pushed as far as it can go.