It Was So Beautiful
Iraq in Fragments
Mohammed Haithem, Sheik Aws al Kafaji
(HBO Documentary Films)
US theatrical: 8 Nov 2006 (Limited release)
The prime minister made clear that splitting his country into parts, as some have suggested, is not what the Iraqi people want, and that any partition of Iraq would only lead to an increase in sectarian violence.
—George W. Bush, 30 November 2006
And when the full history of this bloody circus is written, people will look back slack-jawed at the scale and brazenness of the occupation’s corruption and incompetence.
—Christian Parenti, The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq (New York: The New Press 2004)
There are Iraqi women who have not shed their black mourning robes since 2003 because each time the end of the proper mourning period comes around, some other relative dies and the countdown begins once again.
—Riverbend, 18 October 2006
Mohammed wants to be a pilot. “I want to fly the plane,” he says. “I imagine if I’m high in the sky, I can see the doves and the sky. I can see the birds. I am in the plane and seeing countries. I’ll go to that country, the beautiful one.”
At 11 years old, Mohammed has seen too much turmoil. His father, a policeman, disappeared during Saddam Hussein’s rule. Now the boy works for an auto mechanic who, he insists, “loves me like a son.” “He doesn’t hit me,” Mohammed says, even though Iraq in Fragments reveals that he does, casually and repeatedly. The boy lives in Baghdad, and serves as the primary subject for the first part of James Longley’s documentary. A meditation on chaos and coping, the film keeps its focus intently on Iraqis. From a close-up of Mohammed’s eye, looking out on city streets, to a long view of young Kurdish shepherd Suleiman, silhouetted by a setting sun, the documentary offers a range of views and reactions to the occupation. As interviewees struggle to imagine a future beyond the current, daily horrors, they are at once alike and disparate, furious and hopeful, resilient and outraged.
Using footage shot between 2002 and 2005, the documentary isn’t precisely verité (it makes use of time lapse, fast-motion, and jump cuts), and yet it creates a sense of fly-on-the-wall vantage. Reportedly, Longley spent two years in Iraq before shooting, coming to know his subjects and earn at least a semblance of their trust. They decry the occupation and the new “Saddams” angling for power, they appear at work, in protest, in frustration and despair. Structured as three, separately titled parts—“Mohammed of Baghdad,” “Sadr’s South,” and “Kurdish Spring”—the film sketches distinctions among the Shiia, Sunnis, and Kurds.
In Baghdad, Mohammed fetches tea and cleans up the garage, his efforts to stay in school daunted by the fact that he’s years behind his classmates in reading and writing, as well as his employer’s routine ridicule (“He’s been in school four years and he only knows how to write his name!”). Mohammed’s country has been beautiful; he thinks he remembers it that way. It is, now, disjointed and devastated. The camera follows him along the street to school, handheld and jostled. He passes smoke and debris, a U.S. military vehicle. A chopper sounds overhead. “I was afraid in the night,” he says of the 2003 invasion. “We found some people saying, ‘Baghdad has fallen, the Americans have taken it.’” In the classroom, Mohammed’s face is turned up at his teacher, expectant and confused. “There will be no cheating, no bribing,” announces one teacher. “You will be the pride of the new Iraq. This step will help us push out the imperialism that controls our country.”
Repeatedly, Iraqis condemn the occupation, even if some of them worry about what will happen when the U.S. forces pull out. “Sadr’s South” contemplates the rise of Shia Islam in Iraq. In an essay on the film’s background, Longley notes the coincidence of his time in Najaf, the Sadr uprising, the U.S. siege at Fallujah, and the revelation of abuses at Abu Ghraib prison. The film frames Moqtada al-Sadr’s charismatic appeals to increasingly receptive crowds through the eyes of 32-year-old Sheik Aws al Kafaji, a cleric in charge of the Sadr office in Naseriyah: “The Shia,” he says, “are the most revolutionary of all Muslims.” “Beware our people,” urges a boy at mosque. “We will rise up like a great earthquake.” At a rally, Aws al Kafaji observes of the occupiers, “They came to teach us of western democracy. Killing, displacement, and torture, arrests without charge: this is the democracy they have brought.”
Such frustration, the film suggests, leads to displays of power, efforts to recover a sense of order amid erratic anxieties. Rallies offer crowds a sense of allegiance and belonging, uniting against a common enemy: following 35 years of Baathist oppression, “We will not allow anyone imposed on us by the occupation forces.” One sign of this resistance comes in the form of attacks on suspected alcohol vendors, men beaten and dragged off the street, then held, blindfolded. A woman interviewed on the street outside the holding center worries. “Just let me talk with him a little,” she pleads with one of the captors. “By God, he was selling auto scrap.” The captor insists that he’ll be released, “if he’s innocent” Inside, the camera rocks as a blindfolded prisoner worries: “We were saved from one oppression. And you have brought another?”
The film’s third section looks immediately different: set in the rural north, it shows sheep, soccer games, two young friends who hold hands as they walk to school. And yet Sulieman and Bizhar’s futures are also shaped by lack. They want to stay in school—Sulieman wants to study medicine (“I want to go to college and be something”)—but he must work, as a shepherd and brick maker. The sky is filled with thick smoke from the brick-making facilities. Sulieman’s father smokes a cigarette, his face lined and weary as he leans back in shadows. “The future of Iraq will be in three pieces,” he sighs, knowing that what happens is ordained: “God brought America to the Kurds,” he says. “America” here is yet another trial for a people relentlessly tested, an idea and not a place, an imposition on a real place.
Respectful of its subjects, Iraq in Fragments doesn’t imply resolutions, or even delineate fixed “sides” among these many conflicts. Rather, the film provides specifics, details of hectic life among ruins, faces filled with dread, desire, and defiance. Whether looking out on empty streets (the “ghost town” of Najaf, patrolled by the Mehdi Army) or endless fields in Kurdistan, the film creates a sense of space. Whether cramped or expansive, the compositions are alive with movement, color, urgency. Marchers, worshippers, workers, men with guns: they all suggest that the film has only scratched a surface.