James Longley: SRF Interview

‘You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people,’ he told the president. ‘You will own all their hopes, aspirations, and problems. You’ll own it all.’ Privately, Powell and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage called this the Pottery Barn rule: You break it, you own it.

— from Plan of Attack by Bob Woodward

While the title of James Longley’s mesmerizing new documentary, Iraq in Fragments, literally conjures images of the now-infamous “Pottery Barn rule”, the connection runs much deeper than the title. Like Colin Powell’s admonition to the president, James Longley’s film actually considers the situation of the Iraqis. I say “actually” because, though it may seem like an obvious consideration, Iraq in Fragments is, to the best of my knowledge, the only American documentary about Iraq — and this year has seen several of those — that focuses solely on the citizens of that fractured nation

Divided into three discrete segments (hence the title’s double-meaning), Iraq in Fragments first follows a fatherless 11 year old working in a Baghdad garage. The second section chronicles the growth of the militant followers of Muqtada al-Sadr. The film closes with a portrait of a family of Kurdish farmers. It’s an illuminating approach, one that prevents it or us from making generalizations about how Iraq’s citizens, have, and haven’t, been transformed by the war. I imagine it will also help American audiences understand, at least a little, how American forces are viewed — as occupiers by some, as liberators by others. Certainly, the time Longley spent with his subjects (well over a year, and 300+ hours shot) helps provide a perspective that’s been absent from what we see on the nightly news.

While Iraq in Fragments would be noteworthy for its content, the film also happens to feature striking cinema verite cinematography and edgy editing, which gives the film a quality that is more poetry than prose. The style creates an impressionistic sketch of what it might feel like to be in Iraq, without (in my opinion) grossly aestheticizing the pain, rage, and hope he finds there.

The combination of style and substance has been met with critical praise. At Sundance, where it premiered, Longley took home honors for directing, editing, and cinematography — a first for a single film. Since then its laurels include Best Documentary awards at major film festivals (Full Frame, Thessaloniki, and Chicago, among others), as well as a Gotham Award.

That Longley did most of the work (e.g., cinematography, editing, music, etc) single-handedly will make the film’s achievement that much more impressive for some. Longley, though, suggests that working this way was precisely how he was able to achieve things.

We emailed back and forth last week, soon after Iraq in Fragments was short-listed for the Best Documentary Oscar.

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You have “film school” training, but you chose to study in Russia. Can you talk a little about your training at the VGIK?

VGIK is a good school — and it used to be even better back in the heyday of the Soviet Union. From my perspective in the early 1990s, it offered a chance to film inexpensively on 35mm. Also, there’s a huge selection of 35mm prints playing at all hours in the 5-6 cinema screens in the main building — so it’s like attending a continuous film festival. Many of the professors are quite experienced and gifted, and the student body is talented. It was nice to have a different angle on filmmaking for a while — something closer to Tarkovsky and Eisenstein than to Spielberg — and to be surrounded with people who felt the same way. But most of all, it was a good chance to try my hand at making a documentary film under the difficult circumstances of a Moscow winter (Portrait of a Boy with Dog — co-directed with Robin Hessman) and confirming that filmmaking was what I wanted to do with my life.

The director’s “voice” is so strong in Iraq in Fragments — through the poetic imagery and impressionistic editing — but any political opinions you might have can only be inferred by audiences. This really sets it apart from a lot of other documentaries — from the Michael Moore and Robert Greenwald (Outfoxed, etc) movies to less strident fare like An Inconvenient Truth. Still, I suspect that when you’ve screened the film for audiences at festivals people have asked you your opinions about Iraq. What do you tell them?

Personally, I thought the Iraq war was a bad idea. But that’s just my opinion, and everybody has opinions. With my film, I wanted to do something more than simply tell people what I think: I wanted to convey a broader sense of what was happening in Iraq during the two years I was there, and to put a human face on the country — to let people experience the place a bit. I’m not sure whether I was ultimately successful, but I tried.

One of the most conspicuous decisions you’ve made — one many critics have cited in their praise for the film, one of the things that distinguishes it from some other Iraq documentaries released this year — is your choice to focus on Iraqis, not Americans. US soldiers only make very brief appearances, and none (to the best of my memory) ever speak. Likewise, I don’t remember any contractors or Western journalists making appearances. Was that the plan from the beginning, or did you shoot footage documenting those perspectives, too?

My original goal was to make a film about Iraqis — I tried to start this project before the war, but was unable to begin until after — and when the war ended my goal hadn’t changed. I knew that the perspective of US soldiers and even US journalists was already being recorded by other filmmakers, and I had no desire to duplicate their efforts. And in any case, I prefer to focus on under represented perspectives, of which the Iraqis’ is certainly one. It’s the harder film to make in many ways, but I think also the most important. After all, the Americans will eventually leave Iraq; the Iraqis will stay.

What interactions did you have with other Americans while there? Were you on the radar? Under the radar?

Under the radar, I think. I didn’t have a lot of interaction with US troops, mostly because I wasn’t filming them and I almost never went onto US bases. I never went to the Green Zone, for example — don’t know what it looks like on the inside. A lot of my journalist/filmmaker friends spent at least part of their time in Iraq embedded with US troops, but I chose to stay outside the wire.

Like the military, you’re clearly a Westerner and, though you weren’t carrying a gun, you were carrying a video camera. Why or how do you think you were able to blend in like “furniture” as you say in your production notes? Was it just a matter of putting in the time, or were there other factors?

It’s mostly a matter of spending enough time and moving very patiently. I really didn’t stand out as a Westerner — with a beard and a suntan, many people thought I was from Iran when I was filming in Najaf. They would come up to me and start speaking in Farsi. But mostly I just took a lot of time to get to know people and know the location before doing a lot of filming work — in all the places I filmed, I did weeks/months of prep work, letting locals get used to me. And I was just extremely lucky, also — I came at the right time and left at the right time. And somehow I managed to walk between the raindrops.

Are you still in touch with your subjects, especially the kids in the first and last segments?

I haven’t been able to keep up with everyone; last time I heard from Mohammed Haithem he was working for his uncles in Baghdad. The Kurdish farming family is still in much the same situation as when I filmed them. The Sadr movement is famously contentious.

Has anyone that is in the movie seen it? If not, will there be any oppportunities for that?

So far nobody in the film has seen it. It’s very difficult to send packages to people in Iraq now, very difficult to move around even in a city like Baghdad, even for locals. Also, most people in Iraq don’t have DVD players that they could watch the film with. Video CD has been the format of choice in Iraq for the last 10 years or so, and DVD is only just starting to appear in places like the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq.

Did you have any reservations about screening the film publicly without screening it for your subjects first? Some documentarians consider this an essential part of their enterprise, while others argue that it can compromise the integrity of the piece.

I have never screened documentary work for the subjects before releasing it to the public — but that may be partly due to the specifics of what/where I’m filming. I’m not against the idea of showing the film to the subjects to get their reaction, certainly, but I also don’t consider it a mandatory step. I film with people for such a long time that I become very confident of my portrayal by the end of it. I often showed the people in the film sections of material as I was filming in Iraq, but I’ve never had a chance to show them the completed work, thus far. It’s not so easy to send a DVD to a house in Baghdad now, and even if I did — they don’t have DVD players.

HBO was involved with the project, as was the Sundance Institute. When and how did financing for the film come about?

HBO acquired the TV rights to Iraq in Fragments in summer of 2006, after it was completed. They have been very helpful in promoting the release of the film, and I expect they will screen the film on Cinemax in 2007. I applied for a Sundance production grant while still filming in Iraq, and after going through several rounds of review with them, they came forward with a grant in autumn 2005. They were instrumental in the completion of the film, and also selected Iraq in Fragments for the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, which was the perfect place to premiere it.

The credits of both Iraq in Fragments and your previous film, Gaza Strip, list you as the producer, director, cinematographer, sound, music and editor. You seem to have willed both movies into existence virtually single-handedly. Do you like working this way, or is it more of a necessity? And, either way, what do you find it affords you, and are there things you feel you can’t do on your own?

It’s partly necessity — because I was using my own money to pay for the entire pre-production and production period of the film, and partly because I know what I like and I know how to use a camera. I like to make things, and it’s not difficult for me. It’s what I enjoy most. If you’re working with other people, sometimes you’ll put their needs before the filmmaking process — I might not have filmed for two years in Iraq if I had been collaborating with another person full time from the start. Doing your own work lets you make fewer compromises in a difficult filming environment. That said, of course I did work with a lot of other people on the film — there are about twelve different translators / fixers, and two other editors (Billy McMillin and Fiona Otway), John Sinno came on board to co-produce after production, etc — so it is a collaborative process, but one in which I didn’t ask other people to participate in the full two and a half years of pre-production and production. For that period, I simply brought on Iraqi translators in various locations in Iraq and worked with them as long as I was in their area. I never asked anyone to go through the whole journey along with me, because most people wouldn’t have wanted to in the first place.

As you can probably guess from the name of this website, a lot of the people reading this are interested in self-sufficient filmmaking methods such as yours. Do you have any tips for them — philosophical or technical?

When filming with these small video cameras, always try to find a way to keep the iris wide open. Your material will look much better.

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For more details on the production history of Iraq in Fragments, check out Longley’s production notes. Also, Kimberly Reed’s fine interview with Longley in DV Magazine goes into detail about the production process and provides specifics about the equipment used. The quality of Reed’s article led me to avoid (for the most part) asking overlapping or similar questions in this interview, in fact.

One Response to “James Longley: SRF Interview”

  1. Self-Reliant Film » Blog Archive » An Open Letter to the Academy Says:

    […] Arts and Sciences is worth a read, so I’m posting it below. Sinno was one of the producers of James Longley‘s Iraq in Fragments, a documentary full of poetry and ambiguity — uncommon virtues for […]