In Conversation

Iraq in Fragments: James Longley with Williams Cole

Kurdish boy, Koretan. Still from Iraq in Fragments.

James Longley’s film Iraq in Fragments (which opens November 8th at Film Forum) has won numerous awards, including best documentary director, editor and cinematographer at Sundance and the Grand Jury Prize at the Full Frame Film Festival. The film’s power lies primarily in its intimate portraits of Sunni Baghdad, the Shia South, and the Kurdish north. Each segment is visually poetic and gives the viewer a poignant sliver of insight way beyond the smoking wreckage that is now a daily shot on CNN. As the occupation of Iraq is finally becoming a huge liability for the Bush administration, it’s also now becoming clearer that, while the country is splitting apart and roiling into increasing chaos, it’s not the U.S. military that is bearing the brunt of the violence but ordinary Iraqis. All Americans need to understand the chaos of everyday life in Iraq under the occupation, and Longley’s film greatly contributes to our understanding of this horrific situation.—W. Cole

Rail (Williams Cole): Talk a bit about the day-to-day lives of Iraqis when you were filming.

Longley: There has obviously been a drastic change in Iraq since the start of U.S. occupation. In the beginning, after the war, there was even a guarded optimism on the part of many Iraqis. I think the majority of people hoped that Americans had come to Iraq to do what we said: Democracy, Reconstruction and Development. Most Iraqis wanted exactly those things. They suffered through decades of dictatorship, war, and crippling sanctions that had destroyed Iraq’s economy and civil infrastructure. Iraqis were ready for a positive change, and I think most took a very pragmatic view: If the Americans invest in Iraq, help to rebuild what was destroyed, and allow Iraqi politics and civil society to rejuvenate—and leave as soon as possible—then this will be something positive for the country. It was never going to work, though. It was clear even before the war that it was never going to work, simply because what was promised was never really part of the plan. We were more interested in lining the pockets of U.S. companies than in rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure, and more interested in control than in Democracy.

Rail: How do you think it has changed over the last couple of years?

Longley: From my perspective as a foreign filmmaker living and interacting with Iraqis on a daily basis, it was painful to watch the decline and fall of the occupation during the two years I was there. It was as much the things we failed to do as it was the things we did wrong. Month after month following the war things failed to happen. The electricity, the water, the sewage, the hospitals, the schools, the universities—everything was in disrepair, burned, destroyed, unfunded. Eventually Iraqis began creating their own shadow infrastructures to make up for the lack of reconstruction in the official infrastructure. Neighborhoods chipped in and bought large diesel generators to make up for the lack of electricity on the national grid.

Security guards with assault rifles were hired to protect residential streets from looters and criminal gangs. Suddenly, in the absence of a functioning government, the focal points of organization and social support were the mosques. It was this period of political vacuum that spawned the militias and allowed them to become a force more powerful than the government. By the time the first Iraqi national elections took place in January, 2005, the country had already splintered into spheres of control based on provinces, towns, neighborhoods, clans, sects, ethnicity. Normal political development is impossible when everyone knows that the government has no real authority, neither over the population nor the occupier. The civil war now being fought in Iraq is a legacy of the political vacuum and ill will that we created by in the first years after the 2003 invasion. Because of our failures the U.S. is no longer trusted by Iraqis. Because of the overwhelming unpopularity of the U.S. occupation, no Iraqi government that comes to power on our watch can ever gain legitimacy with enough ordinary Iraqis to create stability within Iraq.

Rail: What’s your take on the recently released controversial Johns Hopkins study that estimates Iraqi deaths at more than 600,000?

Longley: I think this study is poorly understood by many people, apparently including people like George Bush. What the study is really tracking is the overall rise in the Iraqi death rate since 2003. What it tells us is that the death rate in Iraq is now about four times higher than it was before the war. This can be because of many factors, including the drastic rise in violence, the decline in healthcare services and civil infrastructure, the rise of poverty, the uprooting and displacement of over a million people, etc. Iraq has simply become a far less healthy place to live, and I should think this would be an indisputable idea even without a scientific study saying so. It’s kind of amusing to hear the Bush people disputing the study’s findings when they themselves haven’t even done a study of how Iraqis are faring under their occupation.

Rail: In your experience is there “Iraq hangover” in the American public? That is to say, do you think it’s difficult to get the average American to understand what life is like for the average Iraqi?

Longley: I think that there are very few windows available to the American public through which they can view life in Iraq. Even when it was still possible to work as a foreign journalist in Iraq, “human interest” stories about ordinary Iraqis were virtually non-existent, particularly on TV. It’s much easier to do “stand-ups” on rooftops or cover the Green Zone press conferences or do embeded journalism about the lives of U.S. soldiers in Iraq—and so that’s mainly what happened. Longitudinal character studies of the lives of ordinary Iraqis are simply not what the mainstream media does. That sort of thing is left for the indie documentary filmmakers—and there were surprisingly few of us working in Iraq after the war. You can practically count the films made about the lives of Iraqis on the fingers of one hand. And most Americans haven’t seen even one of those films. Still, there’s a weird perception of media saturation. I’m constantly reading articles that talk about the huge number of Iraq films. But there have only been two Iraq films released on more than 20 screens, and both of those were about U.S. soldiers. Now, of course, it’s no longer possible for foreign filmmakers to make documentaries about ordinary Iraqis in most parts of Iraq. The window has closed.

Rail: From your experience is there a shared perception about the way the U.S. handled the invasion and occupation between the three main groups (Sunni, Shia and Kurd)?

Longley: I think that most Iraqis perceive the U.S. occupation as handled with foolishness, incompetence and arrogance. I think most of the Kurds even feel that way, though they continue to support the occupation because they believe it is to their long-term political advantage. It was sad that the U.S. diplomat who made a statement to that effect on Arabic TV was forced to retract his words; he was just stating what he knew to be a clear perception of fact on the part of his audience, in order to gain credibility. That he had to make a retraction of the statement will be seen in the Middle East as further proof that the U.S. has no clue about what it’s doing in the region or how local people feel about it. All they have seen from us so far is sanctions, war, oppression and dictatorship. That’s what we stand for now in the Middle East. It would take a massive policy shift and generations of work to undo what we have done.

Rail: There are some powerful sections in the film where we hear Shia leaders talking about how false the democracy that the U.S. is trying to bring to Iraqis. Do you think most Iraqis feel this way?

Longley: Yes. Iraqis know the difference between Military Occupation and Democracy. It’s not like you have to be a genius to see the distinction. If the United States military left Iraq tomorrow, the so-called Iraqi Government would fall within 24 hours. It will probably fall anyway in short order. What does that tell you about the strength of the democracy we have established? The Iraqi government answers first and foremost to the U.S. military, not the Iraqi people.

Everybody in Iraq knows this. Under these circumstances, it’s not possible to have stability or a true sense of political sovereignty. Before this can begin to happen, the U.S. will have to leave Iraq and allow Iraqis to negotiate their own solutions without external interference. A U.S. withdrawal is the only way to eventually stabilize Iraq short of the establishment of a new puppet military dictatorship that is in a position to destroy all domestic opposition. Given that we disbanded the Iraqi military, of course, such a regime would now be difficult to arrange.

More Articles by the Author

Williams Cole