Making a Film in a War Zone
An Interview with the Director of Iraq in Fragments
Seattle filmmaker James Longley won directing, editing, and cinematography awards at Sundance for his magnificent documentary Iraq in Fragments, which opens the Seattle Arab and Iranian Film Festival Friday at 7 pm at the Cinerama. (For a complete schedule of SAIFF films events, please see www.saiff.com.) Annie Wagner interviewed James Longley in Belltown last weekend.
ANNIE WAGNER: So you finished your film Gaza Strip, which was about Palestinian kids. How did you decide to make a documentary about Iraq?
JAMES LONGLEY: I was here in Seattle in 2002, from the end of March to the beginning of April. Gaza Strip premiered at the Seattle Arab and Iranian Film Festival that year. And by that time it was already clear, four years ago, that the United States was going to topple Saddam and occupy the country. So when the question came up, as it always does, "What are you going to do next?," I just said, obviously I have to go make a film about Iraq. When you're making a documentary film, you want it to be something that's going to be interesting to people, not only when you're making it, but also three years into the future. So if you're going to make something about current events, you can't take a subject that's going to be three-year-old news by the time you're finished.
When you started the film, did you have the basic structure in mind—did you want to do a Shiite section, and a Sunni section, and a Kurdish section?
You know, I wasn't thinking about the country in that way. I'd been living in Iraq after the war for a couple months already before it dawned on me that I should do sections on the separate ethnic groups. It wasn't initially clear what was going to happen in the country. I started with that section of Baghdad and I thought, "Well, this is right, this is an interesting little story. And it sums up something bigger about the country. But if I really want to have a picture of what's going on in the country as a whole, I can't just stick here in Baghdad with this story of this little kid, I have to branch out."
The big new development that was happening in the country was the rise of Shiite power, so I started working on that and sort of fell into documenting Muqtada al-Sadr's group, which sometime in 2003 was just getting off the ground. That fall I went up to the Kurdish areas for the first time and sort of toured around, looking for an angle. My initial ambition was to do stories in Basra, in the marshes on the border with Iran—I wanted to explore the entire country, the Sunni triangle, and Mosul, and Sulemaniyah, and Baghdad, and the south and everything.
I wanted to have this huge series of chapters about the country that would be this enormous unassailable piece of work about the country. There was this big country, the size of France, with all of this stuff going on and all these different groups and interests, and it'd been impossible to film there before. For 25 years it was completely closed to independent journalists and filmmakers, and suddenly all of the stars were in alignment. It was only a question of when, and for how long? I didn't know, so I just started doing all of this stuff, hoping that by the time this window of opportunity slams closed, I would have enough to put together something. I worked in Baghdad and the south until the subjects I was filming basically told me, "You can't come here anymore, you're going to get killed." I was receiving death threats and this kind of thing.
Then I just moved all of my stuff up to the north, up to the Kurdish areas, which were still safe enough to film in. They have their own government, they have their own security, they're pro-Western, pro-America, pro-occupation of the rest of the country. So that period from September or October of 2004 until April of 2005, I spent in the north, doing translations of the work I'd already filmed and finishing the Kurdish story that I'd started up there in 2003. And in the final chapter, the Kurdish chapter, events from both periods are mixed together. There's a couple of shots in the very end of that chapter where Suleman says "I'm gonna take off, God be with you." It's the last thing in the film. And actually those final shots were filmed like, two years apart almost.
You do get a sense of time passing.
Yeah, in the film you do see the seasons are changing. And even Suleman himself, that main character in the Kurdish section, in the beginning when I was filming him his voice was higher, he was kind of this little kid, and I don't have that much material of him at that age in the film but he actually goes through puberty in the course of filming. Shoots up six inches. That was one of the things I wanted in the film, the sense of time elapsing.
So in general, the three sections are pretty much in order.
There are a few things that aren't in the proper sequence. For example, there's a shot in the Shiite chapter, where you see this big crowd of people and there's a guy up on the balcony with sunglasses, looking down with a flag. That's Abdel Aziz Al Hakim, who's now in charge of SCIRI (the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq). It's one of the big Shiite parties, and it had a militia, called the Badr Brigade, whose former members are now being accused of being death squads in Iraq. So the guy up on the balcony is one of the more powerful figures in Iraq today, and sort of a catalyst of this ethnic tension that you see. The portrait on the flag is his brother, Ayatollah Al Hakim, who was this more moderate, very powerful leader of SCIRI. When I was filming, it was August of 2003, the day after Ayatollah Al Hakim was assassinated with a large car bomb. That scene happens out of sequence because you've already seen the capture of Saddam Hussein and things that that actually happen afterward. But otherwise things are in order.
When did you ultimately decide on three sections?
The decision to do a three-part film didn't really materialize until the last stages of editing. I'd done basically six different stories. Four of which were actual story-stories, with a beginning, middle and an end to them. That missing fourth chapter is actually one of my favorites. It's a tighter film with this three-part structure. But that fourth chapter has stuff in it that I would had loved to have got into the film, and it's the only chapter I have where there's a strong woman as the central character. And everybody complains that there's no woman's voice in the film, which is true. But initially I'd actually filmed it but we cut it for the good of the film.
What was the story?
There was this poor Sunni farming family, south of Baghad. There were 12 people: the father, two wives, and these nine children. And one of the kids, who was this 10-year-old boy, was dying of AIDS, that he'd contracted from a blood transfusion under the Saddam regime. Basically the story was his mother fighting the ministry of health, getting health care for him from the hospitals, trying to get compensation, this kind of thing. The farm was very pastoral—these canals and farmland. It's beautiful. Plus, she was a strong woman character. It's this gaping hole in the film, in a way. On the other hand, if you go to Iraq, especially as a guy, you actually feel the same thing.
I was going to ask whether you had trouble getting access to women subjects who were willing to be filmed or interviewed.
In that case, it was easier because the family was really... Even though they were quite poor, they were also very liberal. Very open-minded. And the mother also was more educated than her husband. He was more like, oh, it's up to God, that kind of fatalism. She was very practical and on the ball all the time. And she didn't really take seriously any of these social constraints about men and women. I mean, she knew how to play by the rules, but you could tell that to her it was nonsense. Also, because her son was dying of AIDS, it gave her this excuse to do interviews, to do all this stuff she needed to do to advocate on his behalf. But then I was up in the north, I was looking for a female fixer to work with, a translator. I worked with 12 different translators, and they're all guys, and if you do that that already kind of limits what you can do.
In what way?
As a foreigner you have a little bit of leeway, because you're not of that society, so people are willing to accept a little bit of nonconformity. But if you're working with a male fixer, then he's of that society. If you're working with a female fixer, then presumably you should be able to have more access to the female side of Iraqi society than you otherwise would. The problem was that I'd gone to the Iraqi women's union in Sulemaniyah and said this is my problem, can you please help me, and they tried. I talked to female fixers and they said, "Well, that's fine with me, but my family wouldn't accept this idea of me working with this American guy going around... If you just want to work in the daytime in Sulemaniyah, it's okay. But if you want to travel somewhere, spend the night out, I can't do it." So I couldn't do it.
You also get the sense—I'm not sure if this is true—from your film, that the women's storyline would be either domestic in some way or they're not so much in the public sphere.
That's the thing. Well, it's not true to say that there are no women in the public sphere. There are women doctors and women politicians, but they're definitely an extreme minority. And that kind of topic, how the life of women is changing in the country, which is a very interesting topic, it almost seems to me like it's a different film. And it should probably be made by a woman filmmaker.
So the danger factor, you didn't feel it very much at the beginning?
It changed. There are different kinds of danger. There are the people who want to rob you and take your camera, or jack your car. Which is the kind of danger there was especially right after the war, when there was complete chaos and no police and no law and order. And prior to the war, there was a different kind of danger, which is you couldn't say what you wanted to say about the regime or whatever, otherwise you might be in trouble, especially if you're an Iraqi. And then there's this element of danger that started to crop up later, car bombs and attacks on U.S. military. There was a risk you might get in the way, maybe you'll be driving down the road and you'll get too close to a U.S. convoy and they'll shoot up the car you're in. That kind of danger—you could live with it. Because that's the kind of danger that every single person in the country is living with. If you're a correspondent or a filmmaker in a war zone you accept that level of risk prior to going. Otherwise you're not in the right place.
But then, after a year of that, it began to change, and yet another form of danger reared its head, which was that journalists and civilians started being targeted. And that for most people starts to be an unacceptable level of risk. Because there aren't so many of us. And suddenly just walking outside your secure compound you can be kidnapped, because suddenly you're worth a lot of money; it's become kind of acceptable on some level to kidnap civilians, kidnap journalists.
This began to happen in the spring of 2004. And it happened for a very specific reason: The United States put Fallujah under siege, killing civilians in huge numbers on TV. And once they started doing that, Western civilians no longer had any protection. That's just how the society works. It's a society that is very rooted in this idea of, if someone kills my brother I have a right—no, an obligation, to take revenge. And it's been there for a long time. That same month, April 2004, you also had the publication of the photographs of Abu Ghraib, where everyone could see that their relatives who had been taken to Abu Ghraib were being abused, and it wasn't just stories they were hearing, it was official. There was a sea change in the society itself, where before as a civilian you would go into a shop and be welcomed by people because, hey, you're a civilian, you're like a guest of the country, as it were. There's a very strong tradition of hospitality which is still there, but especially at that time things started to really fall apart for civilians.
What was the atmosphere like in Nasiriyah?
It changed over time. I started to document the Sadr movement in the summer of 2003, which was nine months before the uprising. The uprising also happened in April of 2004, along with the siege of Fallujah, along with the Abu Ghraib revelations, so it really is this kind of sea change moment in the country. I would say that was the month the United States lost Iraq, if I had to put a historical spin on it.
So the violence against civilians that you see in that chapter...
That's the Medi army, which is the militia of the Sadr movement taking the law into its own hands. There was this law-and-order vacuum after the war and the militias rise up to fill that void. And simultaneously to seize their piece of power in whatever area, be it Sadr City in Baghdad, or whatever town, Nahra, Nasiriyah, Basra. But they are basically just enforcing the law as they interpret it, because it's sort of this religious political movement. They're following their interpretation of Islamic law.
How did you get permission to film that vigilante attack on the alcohol vendor?
I'd been filming them forever, and they kind of were used to me hanging around, so... It had been talked about earlier, "Oh, we might go do a raid on alcohol sellers." And I turned up one day, and sure enough they were getting ready to go on a raid of the alcohol sellers. It was a spur of the moment decision that I made. I asked them, "Is it okay if I go with you?" And they said, "Yes, it's okay." Because it's not something they're ashamed of. They really believe they're doing the right thing. To them it's no different than a United States SWAT team or whatever going to bust up a drug ring or something. It's the same kind of do-gooder mentality. So they were like, yeah, because they filmed it themselves. They had a guy with a video camera going around.
Do you know what he wanted to do with the footage?
No, they just filmed themselves all the time. They're very narcissistic, they like the idea of themselves being on TV. They like to have the souvenir. It's home movies. It's this cool thing, it's this toy. So anyway, they said yeah, sure, come with us and film.
It certainly looks dangerous.
Oh, it is dangerous, potentially, because there had been instances where they'd gone and arrested alcohol sellers and the alcohol sellers had had weapons, and there was a big gunfight and a lot of people had been killed. In this case I was lucky none of that happened. But the main concern I had in this case was that one of these guys is going to kill someone. I mean, a lot of them are just teenagers, they don't really have any military experience, and they're carrying around these Kalashnikovs, right, that they're only semi-competent with. A lot of them are kind of marginal with the firearms. And I just worried that some guy who wasn't experienced with this stuff, he's going to blow somebody's head off in front of me. And then what am I going to do?
That's this kind of moral dilemma that war-zone journalists occasionally have to deal with, because they're someplace and suddenly people start killing people, you know? Do you take a stand, if you could prevent it? Or do you try to document it? Or do you run away and save yourself? And it really depends. I guess most war correspondents that I know of just try to document things as they happen, and they don't try to interfere. On the other hand, I heard stories from people covering the Bosnian conflict and they're invited essentially to film executions of people. And I've seen footage of prisoners being taken by the Serbian militia out into the woods and being executed. Someone's holding that camera, and you don't know if it's a journalist or one of the people doing the execution. So far, I haven't yet been in that situation, and I still don't know how I'd react. And I don't think there's any way of knowing until you're actually in it.
So they got these guys and put them in a room and they were bound and so forth, but what did they want ultimately? Were they just going to keep them indefinitely or were they trying to exact fines, or...
In the case of these guys, I think they had this problem in that they arrest people, and then they don't know exactly what to do with them. They want to chastise them, they want to demonstrate their superiority and their power over them, they want to threaten them and so forth, but on the other hand they don't really want to execute them because that would probably make more problems for them than it would solve.
Not everybody in a place like Nasiriyah loves these guys. In a town like Nasiriyah, the truth is a lot of the population is not terribly religious. There is a big religious factor there, but a lot of the population likes to drink, likes to hang out and have a good time, and there's a market for that. If you go up into the more liberal places, like Sulemaniyah, you can buy alcohol in the street, there are stores, there's an Assyrian Christian neighborhood where every single store is a wine store. And it's frequented by the Kurdish Muslims from a neighboring area. There's a big culture of that, there's a big history of that, and especially under this secular Baathist government there wasn't any real prohibition against this in those places. Now it's only just beginning to turn, where it's now sort of become prohibitive, and prohibited.
For Gaza Strip you started focusing on children as well, and then you have two storylines that are child-focused in this one. Do you find that useful?
Well it's useful and it's practical, both, I think. In the case of the first chapter in the film, it's told through the eyes of this 11-year-old kid, Muhammed, and there's a reason for doing that, which is if you have a child main character it's easier for an audience to identify with them immediately. Whatever prejudices or ideas you may have about the society being depicted, if there's a child on the screen, you automatically assume that he's innocent of any wrongdoing. Whatever you may feel about a country, about a people, about a religion, and so on, children are above that. And so it's a very easy way to immediately get the audience into the film, into the culture, into the society. Another reason, of course, is it's just easier to film than it is to film adults. They're much more open to the idea of someone following them around with a camera, and it's kind of fun for them. And also children don't have as many filters, they say things pretty much as they see them, they're not politically wily, and in a way it's easier to get good narrative, narration material, with a child than it is with interviews with adults who are already maybe trying to manipulate that narrative.
Muhammed was not a terribly articulate kid, as kids go in Iraq. It's easy to find someone who can speak better than him. But on the other hand, he had things about him that I think are good for the film. He has a very kind of open character; you can read in his face what he's thinking. He doesn't know how to conceal his emotions. It's like someone took a Sharpie pen and wrote what he's thinking on his forehead.
He works for a man he's not related to. Is that sort of child labor arrangement common?
The economy of Iraq really disintegrated because of the sanctions. Since then, there've been a lot more children in the workforce supporting their families. Before, in the early '80s, Iraq had the best educational system in the Middle East, and a very high literacy rate. The war pretty much destroyed the economy of the country, and then the sanctions totally destroyed the economy and prevented it from rejuvenating itself. Now, in addition to the economic pressures that are keeping children out of school, you also have the security concerns of parents who don't want their children to go out of the house, and schools that are getting bombed, and teachers who are getting killed, and so forth and so on.
And the Kurdish schools seem better off?
Oh, the Kurdish schools are in a better situation. Out in the farms, you still have cases where there's this choice the family is making about, is it better for the future of this kid to stay in school if all he's going to do is farm vegetables? Or, you might have a family that says well, you know, son number 1 is really good at school so we keep him in, whereas son number 2 is kind of not doing well in school, so we'll take him out and he'll mind the sheep. So this happens a lot. In the cities you don't see that as much. In the cities you have more universal education.
Do you want to say a little bit about future film projects?
Well, I wouldn't really want to talk too much about future projects just because it's at such a basic stage. I would like to do something on Iran. I really don't know whether I'll have the access to do it, but talk about fascinating countries. So who knows? If I can do it, I'll do it.