Of Love and War: Two Very Different Films Highlight the Human Cost of Armed Conflict
Gilbey, Ryan, New Statesman (1996)
Iraq in Fragments (12A)
dir: James Longley
Black Book (15)
dir: Paul Verhoeven
Any documentary about life in Iraq promises certain elements--it will surely be steeped in death, and hard on the eye as well as the heart. While there's no mistaking Iraq in Fragments for a high-kicking musical comedy, it goes pleasingly against the grain, and the graininess, of the genre. For a start, it looks like a million dinars. Its resourceful director, James Longley, knows that a scorched sunset can speak as loudly as most dialogue, and that you don't need statistics and rhetoric when you've got plumes of black smoke dancing across the sky like woolly cyclones.
The trio of stories that Longley harvested during a two-year shoot in Iraq is presented here with only the artless reflections of the protagonists as narration. The frequently subjective camera, as well as the vivid colours and twitchy jump-cuts, position us behind Iraqi eyes--the one place where no news crew has yet been embedded. "Sadr's South" examines the Shia movement of Moqtada al-Sadr, whose followers dream of "throwing out the American administration with a slap on its face". But it's something stronger than a slap that they use to punish anyone suspected of flogging alcohol, as we witness in one of those I-can't-believe-they-kept-the-camera-running moments that you usually see only in the most brutal nature documentaries. In "Kurdish Spring", which concerns the Iraqi Kurds' desire for independence, a child insists gently that "Iraq is not something that you can cut into pieces with a saw. Iraq is a country."
Each section complements the others, but it is the first part, "Mohammed of Baghdad", that is the most humbling. Mohammed is an 11-year-old mechanic; in the absence of a father figure, he gravitates towards his boss, who responds to the boy's affection with increasing taunts. It is ghastly to watch, but Longley is just as interested in the poignant paradoxes of Mohammed's life. At the garage, he is reprimanded for playing marbles. At school, where he has been held back after failing first grade repeatedly, he is a giant among children four years his junior. No wonder he dreams of being a pilot: he doesn't seem to fit in on earth. …