Seattle-produced Iraq in Fragments up for documentary Oscar

by Richard Nilsen, The Arizona Republic

Following the ancient dictum, "Show, don't tell," James Longley's devastating documentary Iraq in Fragments has neither narration nor obvious political ax to grind, but it manages to tell us something about Iraq that we aren't getting or can't get from standard news coverage.

The Oscar-nominated film is a compelling series of vignettes - almost more collage than narrative - demonstrating the essential differences between the three large demographic subsections of the country.

The first third of the film follows an 11-year-old Sunni named Mohammed, who's trying to squeeze out a meager life in the poverty of Baghdad. He's doing poorly in school, and his "boss," who gives him part-time work in an auto shop, badgers and whips him.

Mohammed remembers the beginning of the invasion: "During the war it was scary. Our house trembled and shook. The war was overhead. I was afraid in the night."

He sums up the essential truth of revolution and regime change: "Under Saddam, they made us sing a lot and we became tired. A new president will come. We must sing a different song if another president comes. We must sing differently."

He's being raised by his boss in the absence of a father. The boss doesn't seem unusually cruel and often shows concern for the boy, but he also beats the boy to get him to learn to read better in school. In the meantime, Mohammed does menial tasks for his boss.

"I used to dream about work. What is work? How do people work? How is it done? I didn't know anything back then. I used to dream about it. I worked and I dreamed. I kept working and stopped dreaming."

The second section of the film takes us to Najaf and Nasiriyah and Shiite Iraq under the influence of the religious leader Muqtada al-Sadr. James Joyce wrote of the Irish that they were a "priest-ridden race." Well, they could have nothing on southern Iraq. The mullahs seem almost to have hypnotized the populace: They chant slogans in unison and mob about in the streets like ants on an anthill.

In the Sunni west, the people seem to take the American presence almost as a natural disaster. It's awful, they say, but what can you do? In the Shiite south, there is much more anger and it's right on the surface.

"They kicked out Saddam and brought 100 Saddams to replace him," says one injured man who had been imprisoned.

We watch as Sadr's Mahdi militia attempts to prevent the sale of alcohol and as Spanish troops touch off chaos as they shoot at a mob of demonstrators. Life in Nasiriyah looks like a hell even Dante couldn't have imagined.

"There is one God!" shouts a demonstrator. "America is the enemy of God!"

The third part of the film is very different. In the Kurdish north, life seems peaceful and orderly. The people raise sheep and make bricks and seem to feel secure in their limited autonomy. Saddam persecuted them and the tyrant is gone. They largely ignore the rest of Iraq and chant "Kurdistan, Kurdistan, Kurdistan."

We watch them going through the election, and it is almost as normal as Election Day in America, very different from the chaotic Shiite south.

One Kurd explains it this way: "Two men are wrestling. Whose side is God on? God is always on the side of the winner."

The film will give you few facts, but it will show you more than you have seen before.

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