When James Longley isn't shooting obliquely beautiful digital video in Middle East war zones, he's often at Belltown's Uptown Espresso. An ordinary-looking man with an unusual way of speaking—not an accent, exactly, but a distinctive way of bending the occasional vowel—he blends into the coffeehouse crowd, absorbed in his laptop and the international news. At first glance, he doesn't look like the kind of person to whom interesting things happen.
But not very much in Longley's life appears to have happened by chance. First he puts himself in places where interesting things are happening. And then he waits.
Longley was raised by marine biologists on San Juan Island until the age of 16, when he sent himself off to Phillips Academy, Andover. (If you're thinking sent himself?: A clandestine application got him in and a scholarship bulldozed any parental objections.) After high school he spent a semester at college, became restless again, and spent the second semester in Leningrad, the year before Communism fell and the city's name reverted to Saint Petersburg. His impressions: "Leningrad in winter—it's really cold and dark and wild. It was like living in a film set, this almost fictional place."
With a Soviet-manufactured 16mm camera and film stock, and the look of a place unlike anywhere else in the world, Longley edged toward his calling. "For me," he says, "it's difficult to make a film about something that seems really familiar and ordinary." Shooting in an alien landscape, you don't have to work to see things with fresh eyes—or as so often in Longley's films, through the mild, unfocused gaze of a child protagonist.
Returning to the newly capitalist Russia upon graduation, Longley made a film with a school friend called Portrait of Boy with Dog. Though it's shot in Cinemascope on sumptuous black-and-white 35mm film (a grant from Kodak, and a luxury Longley doesn't expect to get his hands on again), the film stakes out one of his trademarks. The main character is a young boy who narrates his story in a wistful voiceover. His status as an orphan makes him a sort of outsider in his native society—giving the film a sense of bewildered detachment that foreign audiences immediately latch on to as their own. This strategy would become particularly helpful when Longley entered more-sensitive political territory. "If you have a child main character," Longley explains, "it's easier for an audience to identify with him immediately. Whatever prejudices or ideas you may have about the society being depicted, you 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."
Portrait of Boy with Dog won a Silver Medal at the 1994 Student Academy Awards—giving Longley reason to be optimistic about financing for his next project: a film about the Stalin-era steel-factory town of Magnitogorsk (literally, Magnetic Mountain), nestled in the Ural Mountains in Siberia. More than a decade later, Longley still sounds excited about the "phenomenal industrial landscape, with this grandiose Stalinist factory, incredible pollution, open-hearth furnaces from the '30s..." Magnitogorsk would have made a fantastic title. I mourn its nonexistence on that grounds alone. Despite hanging around the city for two years, teaching English and setting up an internet cafe, Longley never found the necessary funding. He spent another year in Moscow, copyediting an English-language newspaper and working for a TV station. But then the Russian government realized he'd overstayed his visa, and sent him shuttling through a "Byzantine bureaucracy" that gently suggested he get the hell out of there. He returned to the United States and started saving money for his next documentary.
Gaza Strip, which premiered at the Seattle Arab & Iranian Film Festival and was picked up for distribution by the Seattle-based Arab Film Distribution (now Typecast Films), provokes searing reactions in almost everyone who sees it. But it's no artless agitdoc. In a review for The Stranger, Sean Nelson wrote, "Two major factors distinguish this almost unbearably powerful documentary, which examines the social and psychological conditions of life in the 28-mile Palestinian territory whose borders are Israel and hell, where bombs, bullets, and gas are as common as Seattle's raindrops. The first is that, unlike most political video journalism, Gaza Strip employs no voiceover, so the subjects are left to speak for themselves while the images coalesce into desolate poetry. The second is that the filmmaker has made no attempt to 'balance' his story with opposing viewpoints; the documentary is adamantly subjective, depicting life only on one side of the wall."
The "adamant subjectivity" that distinguished Gaza Strip—deepening into the sort of psychological portraiture that is rare enough in narrative films, let alone documentaries about the Second Intifada—peels into something truly extraordinary in Iraq in Fragments. The movie, which won directing, cinematography, and editing awards at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, opens with a stunning lyrical sequence that evokes the pre-war memories of 11-year-old Mohammed: a sweet, illiterate Baghdad kid who works as a mechanic's assistant. Iraq in Fragments is often called cinema verité, but when you watch the film, you don't get the sense you're seeing reality unimpeded. Instead, you feel that you're seeing Iraq through the eyes of individual Iraqis. (Their visions of and for their country are, perhaps needless to say, wildly divergent.) Presciently organized in three separate chapters—Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish—Iraq in Fragments is the best movie yet about the Iraq war. And it was made by a Seattle filmmaker.