“Fragmentation along sectarian or ethnic lines appears inevitable….”
—New York Times, June 24, 2014
“The future of Iraq will be in three pieces.”
—Kurdish man, Iraq in Fragments, 2006
Is there a more prophetic documentary, or title, than James Longley’s visionary Iraq in Fragments? More than eight years since the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2006, Longley’s impressionistic and visceral glimpse of life in Iraq has never felt more resonant.
Split into three different sections—focusing on a Sunni boy in Baghdad, Shiites in the South and Kurds in the North—the movie’s very structure conveys the country’s sectarian divisions and competing ideologies that are now the stuff of daily news coverage. As the New York Times reported last Friday, “Over the past two weeks, the specter that has haunted Iraq since its founding 93 years ago appears to have become a reality: the de facto partition of the country into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish cantons.”
When Longley traveled to Iraq after the fall of Baghdad and began to film Iraq in Fragments in 2003, the country was in a very different place: American tanks rolled through the streets; anti-American sentiment was heating up; and the Iraqi people were struggling to redefine themselves in the absence of Saddam Hussein and under the occupation of U.S. forces. Though each segment of Iraq in Fragments is very different in its characters and tenor, the three parts express the prescient theme of self-determination—there’s a wonderment and frustration among the people about their future and who will have power in post-Saddam Iraq.
In Baghdad, an eleven-year-old boy named Mohammed struggles to live under the thumb of his boss. As this abusive father figure berates him with a stick and calls him “scum” and “son-of-a-bitch,” Mohammed dreams of being a pilot and finding a better life. In the towns of Nasiriya, Najaf and Sadr City, long-oppressed Shia take to the streets, reasserting their rights to wear black, practice the religious rite of flagellation, and take back the authority they had long been deprived of under Hussein. And in the North, a Kurdish boy helps out his elderly father by making bricks and herding sheep, while talking about improving his life though education.
Within the seeds of these stories, viewers can gain a somewhat better understanding of the varying factions that are currently taking hold in Iraq: from the Sunni militants digging into their positions across Northern and Western Iraq, the Kurds standing their ground in the north central cities of Erbil and Kirkuk, with growing talk of forming an independent state, and the Shiite-lead government attempting to salvage some control of the nation.
But as the Iraqi peoples’ sovereignty is up-for grabs more than ever, this simplistic division of the country along sectarian lines in Iraq in Fragments doesn’t entirely mirror the more complicated picture of current events. For instance, ISIS, the violent Islamic group that prescribes to fundamentalist Sharia Law that is shaking up the region, is Sunni. But in Iraq in Fragments, it’s the Shia in the movie’s second section that are shown as extremists—going into a bazaar and brutally beating alcohol sellers amid a flurry of gunshots and quick cuts.
Muqtada as-Sadr, the powerful Iraqi Shia religious leader,who appears in Iraq in Fragments as a vehement anti-American radical is back in the headlines—not as an enemy of the state, per se, but as a bulwark against ISIS. His infamous well-armed Mahdi Army recently rebranded itself as the “Peace Brigades.”
Still, if Iraq in Fragments reaffirms certain stereotypes—Sunnis as secular and cruel (like Saddam Hussein); Shia as dangerous fundamentalists (like Iran’s Islamic Judiciary); Kurds as oppressed agrarian innocents (see Bahman Ghomadi’s A Time for Drunken Horses)—the film paints an evocative portrait of the country and its people at a pivotal juncture, one that, obviously, remains unresolved. And unlike so much of the media that continues to come out of the region, the film presents a rare intimate view of the Iraqis themselves. Longley’s camera, for instance, specifically aligns the viewer with young Mohammed’s gaze, as he fearfully looks upon U.S. military helicopters hovering above, or sympathetically captures Kurdish children playfully engaging in a snowball fight. (If CNN or FOX News has shown similar images in recent weeks, please share.)
The film’s focus on the Iraqis may be one of the reasons the documentary still holds up so strongly today. Just as U.S. forces have come and gone, so, too, do they recede from Longley’s frames. Because, after all, it’s the Iraqis who still live there, trying to figure out how to redefine their country.
For this reason, it seems shrewd that Longley begins each segment of Iraq in Fragments with the children who will help define Iraq’s future. Mohammed would be a young adult now, as would the Shia boy who calls out in the second segment, “We will rise up like an earthquake!”, and the Kurdish youth, Suleiman, in the film’s final section who wants to go to college. One has to wonder where they are now?
And would Suleiman still share the same naïve sentiment as he does near the film’s end: “Iraq is not something you can cut out into three pieces,” he says. “It’s a country: How do you cut it… With a saw?”