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by Michael Rowin
November 6, 2006 6:34 AM
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REVIEW | A Million Little Pieces: James Longley's Iraq in Fragments

A scene from James Longley's "Iraq in Fragments," which is opening in theaters this week.

It seems nary a month goes by without a new documentary about the Iraq War arriving at the local art house, with results ranging from the political thesis on the current U.S. military industrial complex in "Why We Fight" to brutal firsthand accounts of combat in "Occupation: Dreamland" and "The War Tapes." But whatever the subgenre, these documentaries share a common perspective: they see the complicated state of Iraq through American eyes.

This is where James Longley's "Iraq in Fragments" diverges. Shot from 2002 to 2005, it functions in three parts focusing on various segments of the Iraqi populace, from secular Baghdadians to fervent Islamists to rural Kurds. The first "fragment" follows eleven-year-old Mohammed, who lives under the tutelage of an abusive auto mechanic boss since the disappearance of his father. Having repeatedly dropped out of school, Mohammed can't spell his father's name but knows that the occupation of his country isn't bringing him the paradise he longs for. Longley shoots street scenes and distant explosions from Mohammed's vantage point, and what we often get are disconnected images representing the uncomprehending closeness of a child's perspective.

The second fragment travels among Moqtada Sadr's significant Islamist following, and it's here that Longley's penchant for "poetics" over information yields wildly differing results. Unforgettable images of believers engaging in ritualistic flagellation and, separately, taking the law into their own hands by assaulting and then haphazardly arresting merchants they suspect of selling alcohol work best without extraneous commentary or talking head interviews. But for other scenes the dearth of information leaves the viewer in the dark. For example, when a council meeting arrives at an impasse, providing Sadr's faction with an opening to turn decisive action into power, it's difficult tell how or why the political cul de sac occurred.

The third fragment mimics the first in following another young boy, this one Kurdish, and his father, as their longings for national independence coincide with personal longings for a successful future. While it provides some illuminating contrasts, as in a very different reception of American forces, this section, like the first, proves structurally problematic as voices of the innocent and the experienced impart distinct viewpoints but generally muddle a general formulation of Kurdish identity.

Despite its flaws, "Iraq in Fragments" marks an important turning point in the still short history of the Iraq War documentary. No longer content to simply portray the American side of the conflict, filmmakers are finally showing what things look like from various Iraqi perspectives, at a time when our country still measures the unfolding disaster almost entirely by the number of U.S. soldiers killed and how much longer they must remain stationed overseas. Incomplete and often frustratingly vague, Longley's film may be a start, but it's representative of a growing awareness that the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq has changed lives other than just ours.

[Michael Joshua Rowin is a staff writer at Reverse Shot. He also writes for L magazine, Stop Smiling, and runs the blog Hopeless Abandon.]

[EDITORS NOTE: To more fully cover the large number of releases each week, indieWIRE launched a new approach to film reviews, effective November 1. Continuing our collaboration with critics from Reverse Shot, are publishing dozens of individual movie reviews each month (with additional pieces from other writers). We're pleased to bring to our readers greater critical coverage of a wider array of movies, and we look forward to our ongoing relationship with Reverse Shot.]

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