Documentary: Lives under Occupation

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Review of "Iraq in Fragments", Director: James Longley

"It's scary. There's no security", cries 11 year old Mohammed. Smoke rises from a building, others are flattened into rubble, helicopters buzz menacingly overhead while on the ground tanks and troops patrol the streets. Welcome to Iraq, post Saddam Hussein. Director James Longley filmed this documentary in the two years he lived in Iraq following the 2003 invasion. It provides us with a glimpse of daily life in Iraq and the complexities of political and religious dynamics that the mainstream media have failed to offer.

Mohammed's story represents the first of three parts that make up the film, giving us a picture of a country shattered by war and occupation. Mohammed's life is divided between an impoverished school system still trying to reconstruct itself after decades as a propaganda instrument of the state, and his work as an auto mechanic. Filmed in close up, with a hand-held camera and constructed like a collage, Iraq in Fragments conveys to the viewer something of that lack of security, assurance and continuity that makes up the life of most ordinary Iraqis.

In this context, dignity and love are in short supply even as they are craved for. Mohammed tries to idealise his relationship to his boss, who has replaced his missing, presumably dead, father. But while he insists that the boss loves him like a son, the boss is constantly berating him for being lazy and for not doing well enough at school. This functions as a metaphor for the gap between what is really desired by people and the poor substitutes they have to put in place when a stubborn reality frustrates those desires.

The political consequences of that process are explored in the second part of the film, which takes us to Nasiriyah and inside the Shia movement of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Here we focus less on the rebel cleric featured and more on the collective political dynamics of Sadr's Mehdi army. If the Sunnis featured in part one mix anti-imperialist sentiments ("It's all about the oil", they tell us) with nostalgia for Saddam, here the Shia movement mixes an anti-imperialist critique with religion.

It is the contradictory nature of this fusion and the different directions it could take which is fascinating. On the one hand we see evidence of the possibility of constructing a non-sectarian and democratic Shia politics. The Sadr movement sought to block US plans to appoint a puppet government by pushing for direct local elections in 2004 that could then serve as a model for national elections.

On the other hand, the occupation blocks that possibility and, the film suggests, seems to encourage an authoritarian moralising Islamism, as when Sadr's forces violently drive out the alcohol sellers from the markets. While such religiosity among the resistance is difficult for the left, there is little here to comfort the liberals who in the name of secular internationalism have aligned themselves with brutal smash and grab imperialism. The widespread and growing hatred of the US-led occupation by the Shias - so markedly missing from the daily television news - is strongly foregrounded in this section of the film.

In the final part, the film shifts to the Kurdish north. Here the black smoke billowing in the sky comes from the large brick ovens of a small village. Again the complex interweaving and tensions between the secular and the religious, between hope and everyday reality, are evident. Suleiman wants to be a doctor and continue his studies at school, but his father wants him to go to religious school. In the end, neither happens. Suleiman leaves school to tend the goats and rebuild the ovens as his ageing and ailing father needs help. The hopes of the Kurds are mixed with fears for the future, the sense that divisions cannot be healed, that the Kurdish leadership cares nothing for the poor and that, as one Kurdish voice tells us, the US controls everything.

Iraq in Fragments is tacit enough about its politics to have received rave reviews from the mainstream US press, but only a right wing ideologue could come away from the film still thinking the invasion was justified. It is also a very cinematic documentary, evoking a strange, chaotic nightmare world. Whether the fragments can be reassembled once the occupation ends remains to be seen.


Mike Wayne is the editor of Understanding Film: Marxist Perspectives published by Pluto Press and available from Bookmarks bookshop.