Saturday, March 25, 2006

Iraq In Fragments - James Longley Interview Pt. 1 - Introduction & Background

One of the highlights of Sundance this year was Iraq In Fragments, a documentary by local filmmaker James Longley. Described by Tim Appelo as "a gorgeous tone poem drawn from about 300 hours of incredibly privileged footage" the film documents post-war Iraq in three acts, building a vivid picture of a country pulled in different directions by religion and ethnicity. Filmed in verite style, with no scripted narration, the film explores the lives of ordinary Iraqis. Part One follows Mohammed Haithem, an 11-year-old auto mechanic in the mixed Sheik Omar neighborhood in the heart of old Baghdad. Part Two is filmed inside the Shiite political/religious movement of Moqtada Sadr, traveling between Naseriyah and the holy city of Najaf. Part Three follows Iraqi Kurds as they assert their bid for independence and focuses on two boys and their fathers, who live on neighboring farms.

The film, which will be showing at The Seattle Arab and Iranian Film Festival on March 31st at 7:00, at the Cinerama, won three awards at Sundance for editing, directing and cinematography. As well as the film is directed and edited it is the third award that should be of special note. The film was beautifully shot and is as visually compelling as it is narratively interesting.

I interviewed James Longley on February 6th. He was very gracious, dropping by my office a week or so before to lend me a copy of the film. He was also incredibly generous with his time, as the length of this interview will attest. I've decided to break up the interview into six parts. An introductory section that focuses on his background and the events leading up to his first days of shooting in Baghdad, a separate section for each chapter of the film, a technical section that focuses on aspects of production and a final section of random and concluding questions.

Q: I'd like to begin by quoting a LA Weekly piece by Ella Taylor. Have you been reading her Sundance coverage?
A: Some of it.
Q: In her wrap-up of this year's Sundance documentaries she has a comment on your film that I'd love to get your reaction to. "Though it ended up carrying off three festival awards (directing, cinematography and editing), Iraq in Fragments may well be umarketably complex." Is your film unmarketably complex?
A: Well, I think if you look at this movie in the framework of Hollywood product, it's definitely more information to absorb than National Lampoon's Vegas Vacation. This is not light family comedy. On the other hand, I think that viewers in this country, especially on issues of Middle East foreign policy, are really interested in understanding things in a more complex way and having more than this kind of two-dimensional media output that we're typically exposed to. In that way it makes it more marketable. Furthermore, I should add that the one or two mixed reviews of the film, their negative comment (like the initial review in Variety) was that it was too simplistic. So, it's the question of who are you going to please. I think the film is riding the edge of what people are able to absorb in a 94-minute movie in terms of the visual, political information that's in it. So, I didn't want to go overboard and give people an entire history of Iraqi politics or an exhaustive account of the Saddam Hussein genocide campaign against the Kurds in 1988, although I have that material. I filmed those interviews. But in the film, I'm limiting the amount of information to make it something people can actually watch and it's probably more than people would get the first time around. But it's a difficult balancing act. As a filmmaker, as an editor, how much do you give people? I have a lot more than what's in the film.
Q: If HBO or Frontline were to approach you and say, "We would love to run your piece, we understand that you initially had six stories and cut it down to three." Would you be willing to restore the other three stories and create a three-hour version for broadcast?
A: I don't think it would be of service to the film. The material that's cut out of the film, it varies. There's some of it that belongs within the structure of a film like this and was cut out because of time constraints and because the film is already very complicated and also because to include would have broken the three-part structure that falls along the lines that people understand of the Sunnis, the Shiites and the Kurds. But I don't think it would improve the movie as such. I think that it's possible to take the material that's not used in the film and make stand-alone pieces to augment the film as DVD special features or what-have-you, but I don't think it would improve the movie by including an extra 30-minute episode, which I have. We edited a 30-minute segment that's not in the film. Completely different than what's in the film.
Q: I'd like to step back a little and go a little into your background. Before doing Iraq in Fragments you did Gaza Strip and prior to that you studied film and Russian at the University of Rochester and Wesleyan and the All-Russian Institute of Cinematography in Moscow. Then you worked as a film projectionist, an English language teacher, a newspaper copy editor and a web designer. What was it, if anything, in those experiences that prepared you to go to the Gaza Strip and make a film?
A: There wasn't anything particular in those non-filmic experiences that, with exception perhaps of being a projectionist, that was a direct preparation for working in the Gaza Strip,AeP laughs. If you've never worked in a combat zone before and if you've never been in the Middle East before and you've never really had that much exposure to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before, there's nothing that can really prepare you,AeP laughs.
Q: Laughs,AeP What exactly was it that put into your mind that, 'Hm... going to the Gaza Strip, that's something I can do.'
A: Well, I only wanted to be a documentary filmmaker since university. I made this 25-minute b&w cinemascope documentary in Moscow, Portrait of Boy With Dog, which I co-directed with a friend of mine, Robin Hessman and she and I had gone to high school together in Massachusetts, prep school really, and we both got onto this exchange program at the Moscow State Cinematography Institute [VGIK], which was the big film school of the Soviet Union and while we were there we had a grant from Eastman Kodak, they gave us 5,000 meters of 5222 b&w 35mm stock and we shot that, plus a little Soviet film that we had, and made this 25-minute film, which won the Student Academy Award in 1994. We made it when we were juniors, actually, and it wasn't accepted as my thesis film, because it was made during my junior year, but the film was well received. It's still being used, I think, to this day at the Stanford University graduate documentary program as one of their examples of student documentary film and I ran into a few students from there who say every year they show it to the class. So, anyway, that's all I really wanted to do. I enjoy filmmaking in general, I like the process of shooting, I like the process of editing, but beyond that I really like documentary, because it's potentially more important than fiction filmmaking, although that's a broad generalization, but there's a much more direct relationship between the things that you may care about in the real world and what you can do as a filmmaker. I mean, if you are able to make fiction films, because you're very talented and very lucky and you can get the funding to do it and you can make a film like The Battle of Algiers or you can make a film like this film about pharmaceutical companies in Africa,AeP you know,AeP
Q: Oh yeah, the uh,AeP the one that was based on the,AeP laughs.
A: It has one of those weird names that you can't remember.
Q: Yeah, it's uh,AeP laughs. I know the one you're referring to with Ralph Fiennes.
A: The Constant Gardener. These are fiction films that deal with actual social issues of importance and they broaden people's horizons and get them interested in the issues and you can do this as a fiction filmmaker. There's no reason you can't, but the thing with documentary is you don't need $20-million or what-have-you to go out and shoot a film about a real issue that's happening right now. If you want to do a documentary that's based entirely on archival material or that's going to involve a lot of music, that you have to purchase the rights to, then suddenly you're talking about a million-dollar film. If you're willing to go out with a camera to Southern Sudan and film the migration of a Sudanese refugee woman as she leaves the country and goes to Cairo and faces the bureaucracy of Egypt and you're willing to put in four years of your life and make a movie like that, you can do it pretty cheaply, if you're willing to do the work yourself and you know how to do the actual filmmaking. So, it allows you to a) be a filmmaker b) approach issues that you feel are important and that you want people to know more about and issues that you personally would like to know more about and learn more about in the process of making the film. It allows you to do all of this and simultaneously explore the world around you and as a lifestyle you can't beat it with a stick. I mean, I can't think of anything I'd rather do and I've felt that way since I was an undergraduate. So, all of this stuff in-between, that's just me biding my time until they invented cheap digital cameras,AeP laughs.
Q: It's kind of an envious moment, because the technology has reached the point where you can get a camera like the Panasonic DVX-100A for $4,000-$5,000 that has the quality it has. It's momentous. In the past, filmmakers would have had to have paid way more money to get a camera of comparable quality.
A: Right. When I was going to college the only way to get that kind of quality was to shoot on 16mm, which is not so expensive, but it's definitely more than I can afford. Talk about 300-hours of material,AeP
Q: Yeah, and the physical aspect of all those rolls of film,AeP
A: Hauling cans of film around in the desert, you can't do it. You have to have a crew, you have to have a separate sound-guy, you have to have this expensive camera. 16mm sound cameras are upwards of $50,000. So, suddenly, you have that capability where you can get that kind of image that approaches the quality of a 16mm film print or a blowup to 35mm. Being able to shoot on the DVX-100 or 100A in 24p Advanced, it's like having a 16mm synch-sound camera where an hour of film or six rolls of film costs $4 and where you can immediately get this visual feedback of what you're shooting, you don't have go to the lab, you can watch it immediately afterwards and see if you got what you needed and that's a revolution. That means anybody who really wants to can go out and make a film and that's the democratization of the entire filmmaking process, especially for documentaries, because you don't need the crew, you don't need the actors, you don't need to buy the script. Of course, there are ways to make a fiction film just as cheaply as a documentary, but the limitations are greater.
Q: To get back to the outset of this project. You went initially with Congressman McDermott and then you had some difficulties staying in the country and they, more or less, tossed you out.
A: Well, they do it in this passive way. They give you a visa for ten days. If you're lucky and you sweet-talk people, you can get it extended for two-weeks. So, you're doing this day-by-day thing. Meanwhile, they're not really giving you permission to film anything, because it's not to their advantage that you film anything. They don't care and if you film something embarrassing to them and if they were the responsible government official then they'll get in trouble. So it's to their advantage that you not do any work and basically leave the country with essentially nothing. And this is what happened to me before the war. I had approached them before, in September of 2002,AeP and when I got into the country in February 2003, right before the war, it was the same story where, on the one hand, they would say we really want all of you foreign journalists to tell the story of the Iraqis and why aren't you showing the world what Iraq is really like and, at the same time, they were completely not interested in giving you any access. So, like most regimes, they were only interested in keeping themselves in power and when they could already foresee that the regime they were part of was going to fall, they were really only interested in collecting as much money as they could to live through the period following the war where no-one was going to have any work and everything was going to be scarce. So they were only interested in big media organizations that could pay them a lot of money as bribes to stay in the country and have permission to work.
Q: You did finally manage to get back in April 2003 after the fall of Baghdad. How soon after the fall did you return?
A: Pretty soon. I basically saw the statue of Saddam Hussein falling on television. I was in Cairo at the time. I waited out the war in Cairo, because Amman was just so deadly boring and I had a friend in Cairo, so as soon as I had seen the regime had fallen and that the border would probably be open I just bought a plane ticket from Cairo back to Amman and then got a car and drove to Iraq. The border was wide open. Anyone could go. You could go without a passport. You didn't need a visa, certainly.
Q: Did you capture any of the scenes of the postwar chaos, the looting, etc.?
A: Well, I got material of various ministries burning and you would see some of the looting going on, but those moments when people were running through the Baghdad Art Museum, those moments were actually occurring during the war as soon as the regime had fallen. It was when the troops first entered Baghdad, within a day you had this wild looting situation and after that things kind of settled down a little bit, so by the time I got there, a week or two later, you wouldn't see people scampering down the sidewalk with light fixtures or whatever.
Q: Did you have an interpreter the entire time you were there?
A: Yeah, if you look at the credits, there's twelve different interpreter/translator/fixer people I worked with over the space of those two years, some of them more than others.
Q: Did you develop any language skills yourself?
A: I could get around in Baghdad. If I needed to get in a taxi and go from one end of town to another I could do it. If I needed to get in a taxi and drive to Northern Iraq, I could do it. I developed more comprehension than actual speaking skills and my reading skills were basically zero in Arabic, because I never studied the language formally, much to my chagrin and shame,AeP and Kurdish is the same.
Q: Does that mean your interaction with all your subjects was mediated through an interpreter?
A: Well, yes and no. Sometimes I would spend time with people without an interpreter. In the North, for example, I'd spend the night over at people's houses with no interpreter present and I was able to communicate with them enough to do that kind of thing. But yes, most of the time, I was kind of this mute figure and it actually sort of helped me, because when you don't have this immediate interaction with people, where it's always mediated through a local person, they hear your questions or your comments through someone who's speaking the local language as a native, and they don't think of you so much as this foreigner. In fact, they don't think of you so much at all. So you're kind of like this guy who's there, who they like, who they know, but they don't really talk with and you have a camera and you're hanging out and if they could talk with you directly it would make it more difficult, because they'd turn to you and say 'Hey James what do you think about this? What do you think about that?' You'd become part of the conversation. But because they know that you can't understand what they're saying, most of the time, at least the details of what they're saying, and that you can't talk with them, they don't try to include you in the conversation and in the case of being able to film people's interactions with each other, this is actually very helpful, because you become like this piece of furniture hanging out there.
Q: Where you filming alone the whole time? The credits list a Margaret Longley as 2nd Unit. Is she your wife?
A: No, that's my little sister. She was 23. She went to Northern Iraq for the purpose of filming women's stories, because it was harder for me to have that access.
Q: The film is very male-centric. The subjects and voices are all men and boys. Was that because, as you say, it would have been personally difficult for you to have gotten those stories from women?
A: In part. However, the chapter we edited down from 40-hours of material and then cut from the film, which is the story of this Sunni farming family South of Baghdad, is very female-centric. It's about this mother of these children and one of them is dying of AIDS and it's her battle, you know, her husband is kind of uneducated, she's sort of educated and she's fighting to get medical care for her son and compensation from the ministry of health. This is actually a very interesting story that's cut from the film. If it had been included, then no one would have this reaction to the film, that this is very male-centric, because there would be this strong, intelligent woman's voice in the movie, but we had to weigh everything and basically decided it's a great chapter by itself, but it doesn't help the film. It's a great story, but it doesn't work in the movie, it works as its own piece. So, there are things like that. Then, I spent a long time filming interviews with women in a women's shelter in Arbil, who were escaping honor killings by their families and I filmed an episode of one woman who was having a court case, seeking divorce from her husband, who was ultimately unsuccessful. So, things like this, had they been included in the movie (as well the interviews I did with survivors of the 1988 Anfal campaign, which were at least 50% women) the perception of it being a very male-voiced film wouldn't be there. But it just happens that often in Iraq and a place like that you can either,AeP when you're with the guys you're with the guys and you won't get anything of the women. If you're with the women, you're with the women and you won't get anything from the guys. And it just happens that the kind of substantive stories that made up this three-part structure happen to be guy-centric stories and, by chance, it worked out that way, because I have the material to have women's voices in the film, but it didn't seem to fit within the context of this movie.
Q: Mostly when you see women in the film they're either just in the street or they're school teachers. The one part where I really felt they had a presence was in the Kurdish region where you saw them working as poll-workers during the election.
A: Although, If you had filmed the elections in Baghdad you would have probably have seen the same thing.
Q: And then there's that one scene in the middle section where you have that woman who's arguing with the militia member and she was very feisty and,AeP I quite liked her actually.


  1. I just saw this amazing work last night- renting it from NetFlix. I had no preconceptions other than their blurb. I found it to contain all the qualities I aspire to achieve in my approach- but am years away from getting there at this point.
    I have some 'video gear' questions for James. (I have been shooting with a SONY PD 150)I'm curious about the equipment that James used.
    Sound: He was on his own except for the translators. How did he capture sound- using the on board microphone on the Panasonic, or did he augment this at different times with a shotgun mic?
    I really admired the variety of angles/perspectives of his shots...getting low. It really helped tell the story to be so intimate. I don't think he used tracking. Did he have some device that allowed him to hand hold his camera- his shots are so smooth and steady for the most part. Or does he just have great hands? Seems he'd really be too noticeable with a fancy floating rig.
    With the wonderful quality that he achieved, has he felt a need to switched to HD?
    Thank you,