Friday, March 31, 2006

Iraq In Fragments - James Longley Interview - Pt. 6 - Final Questions

Q: What did you do for cash while you were there? How did you get money? What was the currency people were using?

A: The Iraqi currency is the Iraqi Dinar. There was a period of massive inflation during the Gulf War period where a lot of people lost their life savings but, surprisingly, it stayed fairly steady between the pre-war and post-war period. I think it went from being 1500 Dinar to the dollar to being 2000, maximum 3000 Dinar. So I was expecting hundreds of percent decline of value of the Dinar following the war, but they basically stabilized it artificially enough and fixed it to the dollar and then the United States introduced a new currency that didn't have Saddam on it, where they basically chopped off three zeros and it became easier to deal with. So, you could use the local currency, but the dollar was still completely transferable, people would prefer dollars if you had them and just as anywhere with currencies which were selling dollars there's a difference in the market between the buying and selling rate so,AeP

Q: Were you generally walking around with a giant wad of cash?
A: No, I never walked around with a big wad of anything. Not, at least, because I didn't have a big wad of cash, but I generally didn't carry a lot of money on me in Iraq. I would sort of, I only ever had $2000 or $3000 at a time, maximum, and I would keep it stored away somewhere, hidden in my hotel room or something like that. But it was tough to get money into the country. Like I said, it was a fairly low budget production until the end of shooting, but that first two-and-a-half years, where it was pre-production/production, it was done entirely on money coming from the video sales of The Gaza Strip, which is available through Arab Film Distribution here and you can get it on Amazon or whatever. But basically every quarter a royalty check would come in, they would transfer it into my bank account here, then my mother,AeP because you can't, I thought, well okay, I'll go online, I'll do wire transfers from my US bank account to a Jordanian bank account and then,AeP but you can't actually, you can't go online, they don't let you make wire transfers internationally from outside the country through the internet. You know, they're trying to prevent people from moving money around, moving money outside the country, from abroad. So I'm sure there are ways of doing it, but not through the kind of bank account I have, which is your average, normal whitebread bank account. And so what I had to do was basically, money would come into, and it was literally only like $1500 a month, my bank account here [Seattle], then I would go online and transfer money from my account to my mother's account, which is also in the United States, then she would make a wire transfer outside the United States to a bank in Jordan or Turkey, which had agreements with banks or companies inside Iraq, then they would get a bank transfer with a particular name and passport number attached to it and I would hopefully be in their records somewhere and then I'd go to them and say, 'I've transferred x number of dollars'. They would take their percentage off the top, I'd get my money and that's how you got money into Iraq. There are no bank machines. And the banking structure didn't work that well. There are no international banks in Iraq and so it's only because they have agreements with banks and companies outside that you're able to move money into the country. So, it's a great mechanism by which the Iraqis are able to move money outside the country without actually physically moving the money.
Q: So how was the food? Did you gain or lose weight while you where there?
A: I was actually keeping in fairly good shape, better than I am here, because I would swim a lot. In Baghdad there was the Al Hamra Hotel next door to our primitive lowly apartment building where all the indie journalists lived. You could go there and pay $5 and swim in the pool all day, which on a 120-)()( day is great. And so I got into fairly good shape while I was there. While I've been here I've been in a windowless room editing constantly for six months, eating sushi and gaining weight, so,AeP and there you're working, you're moving around, it's completely different. But the food is,AeP it's not terrible if you don't mind chicken and rice. You can eat a lot of chicken and rice very cheaply in Iraq with different sauces. Tomato based sauces or, in the North sometimes you could get a really good,AeP what kind of fruit is that,AeP not a peach, but a,AeP
Q: An apricot?
A: Apricot sauce. Yeah, you could get a side of roast chicken with rice and apricot sauce and pine nuts.
Q: Sounds pretty good.
A: After a long day of filming, you could really dive into one of those. But the fact is there wasn't a lot of diversity and this is the restaurants that we're talking about. And it was essentially the same whether you were in Nasiriya or up in the North in Arbil. The food had zero variation with a few notable exceptions in Baghdad. There was a Chinese restaurant in Baghdad, there was also a Chinese restaurant in Suleimaniyah where I went once and that was the only escape from the drudgery of chicken and rice and salads made of sliced cucumbers and tomatoes. It's not bad, but it does get tiring after awhile and while I was living in the North I would use the hotel's kitchen and I would just go in there and have my own saucepans and frying pans and I would make different pastas and curries and all kinds of stuff just to keep myself alive without having to eat chicken with rice every single day and the people there thought I was totally crazy. They would smell this garlic and onions and curry powder frying in the kitchen and they would say, "You're gassing us like Saddam Hussein. It's the next gas attack!" They had no idea what it was, they had never smelled anything like it.
Q: Your project came about when, during the Q&A following the premiere of The Gaza Strip, someone asked: "What are you going to make next?" So, to bring it around full circle, what is your next project?
A: Actually, I'm not sure yet, that's the brutal truth. It's not that I don't have any ideas, it's just that I probably have too many at this stage. I'm in this weird situation where, having won awards for best director, best editor, best cinematographer on this movie at Sundance, I'm having really good critical feedback on the film so far. I feel like if I were to go with a serious pitch on any important subject to a good national broadcaster, be it PBS or The BBC or even Danish TV or whoever, then I would probably get more interest than I did in the past. Anyway, it would be taken more seriously than when I approached them with The Gaza Strip where no one really wanted to hear about it. So there's this weird feeling where I feel like I could pretty much immediately go out and get up front funding, development funding, for a new project and I have a lot of different ideas. I'm just not sure which one is the right one yet and it's a difficult decision, because once you jump in to a project, at least for an obsessive-compulsive person like me, I can't really stop then, you know what I mean? I can't go half-way and then say well, this wasn't a very good idea, so I feel very much impelled to,AeP. compelled? Is there a word impelled?
Q: There is a word 'impelled'.
A: Yeah, there is.
Q: But I think it has a more passive connotation.
A: Yes. I feel very compelled to,AeP laughs,AeP to pick a particular project before embarking on it and it's sometimes difficult to predict what the right project is going to be. I mean, in the case of Iraq, even, say ahead of time,AeP but the United States is definitely going to invade the country, they're definitely going to overthrow the government and they're definitely going to occupy the country and it's definitely going to be an important story for years and years into the future. Right now you can basically predict the United States is going to do something to Iran. You're not exactly sure what it's going to be and there's even less certainty about what would happen if that did take place. If the United States did start to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities you could pretty much bet it would result in a lot of trouble, but not predict necessarily that if you even got into Iran in the first place, you'd be able to film anything in that circumstance . I think it's highly unlikely that the United States would be able to overthrow the Iranian government without serious repercussions and it wouldn't go anything like the way it's gone in Iraq, which is badly, it would go probably far worse. So in that kind of circumstance, even though you can predict that something's going to happen, there's no way of predicting whether you'll be able to make a film about it and that's very difficult. And there are a lot of other subjects in the world that are worthy of documenting. North Korea is very interesting. You can't get into North Korea. There's nothing you can really film there as far as I can tell. It would take a miracle to get access in a place like that.
Q: I saw a Dutch documentary at SIFF this past year shot in North Korea [North Korea - A Day in the Life]. It was interesting, but you didn't get to see very much.
A: Right. I mean it's one of those things where if you get to see anything at all you're lucky. And you know, the problem with an independent documentary filmmaker who's interested in big political and social issues, but also wants to do everything from a kind of ground level point of view with ordinary people as the main characters is that oftentimes you run into a situation where the place where you want to film happens to be a police state or a dictatorship or otherwise very difficult. For example, while Egypt is full of interesting stories and interesting people, you simply can't make a film there as an American journalist and that's highly unfortunate. There may be ways of doing it that I haven't discovered yet but my impression of Egypt, while I was there during the war, was they would not be interested in having people make films about ordinary people. You know, they want you to film documentaries about pyramids and camels and then afterwards they complain Americans don't know anything about Egypt except pyramids and camels. So, it's this complete hypocrisy and self-defeating nonsense that most of these big authoritarian Arab governments are engaged in.
Q: Have you thought of the possibility of doing a documentary on Muslims living in Europe? I would think that would be a fascinating subject.
A: Or, indeed, the United States. I thought of doing something about France and the Algerian and Moroccan population in Paris. I was thinking about that before the riots broke out and then I thought to myself, well this story has already broken and now there's bound to be ten different documentary filmmakers working on it in France, who speak French and who probably also speak Arabic and the North African variety of Arabic and I can't really compete. Same thing with Iran. In Iraq there really wasn't anyone who was on the ground making films from the local population that I knew of. So, it seemed like there was a reason, there was room for someone to come in from outside and make a film and bring it back to the United States, because it's a subject which is important also for people in the United States, but with most things in the world you have to make a judgment call about whether if you go and make a film how worthwhile is it going to be. Is it going to be something which hasn't been shown before or are you going to be able to show us a situation in a new way that it hasn't been seen before? Is it something which is better done by a local filmmaker who better understands the situation and speaks the language? I speak Russian fluently. I could go to Russia and make a documentary without working with a translator. I'm not sure which subject I would tackle in Russia right now. Also, Russia is becoming increasingly difficult, because of its internal politics and crackdown on the free press and freedom of speech and Americans are still regarded with some suspicion in many places. So all these things are tough. I mean, I could make a film in the United States, but there are so many people making films in the United States and it's hard to know exactly which issue to approach. I would love to make a documentary film about the situation in Southern Sudan, because all the films that seem to be made here are about people who have fled Sudan and are in the United States, like God Grew Tired of Us: The Story of Lost Boys of Sudan. Whereas I don't think we've seen that many documentaries that are actually filmed in Sudan about the situation there and that's a bigger challenge and harder to do. That might be something that would be illuminating and worthwhile and not overly redundant. Africa, in general, is a continent which is very far off most people's radar and poorly understood and also extremely diverse and interesting. I have a lot of ideas and it hasn't yet crystallized in my mind which one is the one. Right now I have this time period where I'm going to film festivals and promoting Iraq In Fragments and waiting for it to get picked up by some distributor and while all this stuff is kind of hanging, maybe because all this stuff is sort of hanging and still in the works, my brain really hasn't focused on the next project, but I feel confident that at a certain point I'll start to get this nervous antsy feeling 'why am I not making a new film' and then something will happen in the world and it'll be this inspiration and I'll go and do it.
Q: Well, whatever it is, I look forward to seeing it! Thank you very much for the interview.
A: Thank you.

Iraq In Fragments - James Longley Interview - Pt. 6 - Final Questions

Q: What did you do for cash while you were there? How did you get money? What was the currency people were using?

A: The Iraqi currency is the Iraqi Dinar. There was a period of massive inflation during the Gulf War period where a lot of people lost their life savings but, surprisingly, it stayed fairly steady between the pre-war and post-war period. I think it went from being 1500 Dinar to the dollar to being 2000, maximum 3000 Dinar. So I was expecting hundreds of percent decline of value of the Dinar following the war, but they basically stabilized it artificially enough and fixed it to the dollar and then the United States introduced a new currency that didn't have Saddam on it, where they basically chopped off three zeros and it became easier to deal with. So, you could use the local currency, but the dollar was still completely transferable, people would prefer dollars if you had them and just as anywhere with currencies which were selling dollars there's a difference in the market between the buying and selling rate so,AeP

Q: Were you generally walking around with a giant wad of cash?
A: No, I never walked around with a big wad of anything. Not, at least, because I didn't have a big wad of cash, but I generally didn't carry a lot of money on me in Iraq. I would sort of, I only ever had $2000 or $3000 at a time, maximum, and I would keep it stored away somewhere, hidden in my hotel room or something like that. But it was tough to get money into the country. Like I said, it was a fairly low budget production until the end of shooting, but that first two-and-a-half years, where it was pre-production/production, it was done entirely on money coming from the video sales of The Gaza Strip, which is available through Arab Film Distribution here and you can get it on Amazon or whatever. But basically every quarter a royalty check would come in, they would transfer it into my bank account here, then my mother,AeP because you can't, I thought, well okay, I'll go online, I'll do wire transfers from my US bank account to a Jordanian bank account and then,AeP but you can't actually, you can't go online, they don't let you make wire transfers internationally from outside the country through the internet. You know, they're trying to prevent people from moving money around, moving money outside the country, from abroad. So I'm sure there are ways of doing it, but not through the kind of bank account I have, which is your average, normal whitebread bank account. And so what I had to do was basically, money would come into, and it was literally only like $1500 a month, my bank account here [Seattle], then I would go online and transfer money from my account to my mother's account, which is also in the United States, then she would make a wire transfer outside the United States to a bank in Jordan or Turkey, which had agreements with banks or companies inside Iraq, then they would get a bank transfer with a particular name and passport number attached to it and I would hopefully be in their records somewhere and then I'd go to them and say, 'I've transferred x number of dollars'. They would take their percentage off the top, I'd get my money and that's how you got money into Iraq. There are no bank machines. And the banking structure didn't work that well. There are no international banks in Iraq and so it's only because they have agreements with banks and companies outside that you're able to move money into the country. So, it's a great mechanism by which the Iraqis are able to move money outside the country without actually physically moving the money.
Q: So how was the food? Did you gain or lose weight while you where there?
A: I was actually keeping in fairly good shape, better than I am here, because I would swim a lot. In Baghdad there was the Al Hamra Hotel next door to our primitive lowly apartment building where all the indie journalists lived. You could go there and pay $5 and swim in the pool all day, which on a 120-)()( day is great. And so I got into fairly good shape while I was there. While I've been here I've been in a windowless room editing constantly for six months, eating sushi and gaining weight, so,AeP and there you're working, you're moving around, it's completely different. But the food is,AeP it's not terrible if you don't mind chicken and rice. You can eat a lot of chicken and rice very cheaply in Iraq with different sauces. Tomato based sauces or, in the North sometimes you could get a really good,AeP what kind of fruit is that,AeP not a peach, but a,AeP
Q: An apricot?
A: Apricot sauce. Yeah, you could get a side of roast chicken with rice and apricot sauce and pine nuts.
Q: Sounds pretty good.
A: After a long day of filming, you could really dive into one of those. But the fact is there wasn't a lot of diversity and this is the restaurants that we're talking about. And it was essentially the same whether you were in Nasiriya or up in the North in Arbil. The food had zero variation with a few notable exceptions in Baghdad. There was a Chinese restaurant in Baghdad, there was also a Chinese restaurant in Suleimaniyah where I went once and that was the only escape from the drudgery of chicken and rice and salads made of sliced cucumbers and tomatoes. It's not bad, but it does get tiring after awhile and while I was living in the North I would use the hotel's kitchen and I would just go in there and have my own saucepans and frying pans and I would make different pastas and curries and all kinds of stuff just to keep myself alive without having to eat chicken with rice every single day and the people there thought I was totally crazy. They would smell this garlic and onions and curry powder frying in the kitchen and they would say, "You're gassing us like Saddam Hussein. It's the next gas attack!" They had no idea what it was, they had never smelled anything like it.
Q: Your project came about when, during the Q&A following the premiere of The Gaza Strip, someone asked: "What are you going to make next?" So, to bring it around full circle, what is your next project?
A: Actually, I'm not sure yet, that's the brutal truth. It's not that I don't have any ideas, it's just that I probably have too many at this stage. I'm in this weird situation where, having won awards for best director, best editor, best cinematographer on this movie at Sundance, I'm having really good critical feedback on the film so far. I feel like if I were to go with a serious pitch on any important subject to a good national broadcaster, be it PBS or The BBC or even Danish TV or whoever, then I would probably get more interest than I did in the past. Anyway, it would be taken more seriously than when I approached them with The Gaza Strip where no one really wanted to hear about it. So there's this weird feeling where I feel like I could pretty much immediately go out and get up front funding, development funding, for a new project and I have a lot of different ideas. I'm just not sure which one is the right one yet and it's a difficult decision, because once you jump in to a project, at least for an obsessive-compulsive person like me, I can't really stop then, you know what I mean? I can't go half-way and then say well, this wasn't a very good idea, so I feel very much impelled to,AeP. compelled? Is there a word impelled?
Q: There is a word 'impelled'.
A: Yeah, there is.
Q: But I think it has a more passive connotation.
A: Yes. I feel very compelled to,AeP laughs,AeP to pick a particular project before embarking on it and it's sometimes difficult to predict what the right project is going to be. I mean, in the case of Iraq, even, say ahead of time,AeP but the United States is definitely going to invade the country, they're definitely going to overthrow the government and they're definitely going to occupy the country and it's definitely going to be an important story for years and years into the future. Right now you can basically predict the United States is going to do something to Iran. You're not exactly sure what it's going to be and there's even less certainty about what would happen if that did take place. If the United States did start to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities you could pretty much bet it would result in a lot of trouble, but not predict necessarily that if you even got into Iran in the first place, you'd be able to film anything in that circumstance . I think it's highly unlikely that the United States would be able to overthrow the Iranian government without serious repercussions and it wouldn't go anything like the way it's gone in Iraq, which is badly, it would go probably far worse. So in that kind of circumstance, even though you can predict that something's going to happen, there's no way of predicting whether you'll be able to make a film about it and that's very difficult. And there are a lot of other subjects in the world that are worthy of documenting. North Korea is very interesting. You can't get into North Korea. There's nothing you can really film there as far as I can tell. It would take a miracle to get access in a place like that.
Q: I saw a Dutch documentary at SIFF this past year shot in North Korea [North Korea - A Day in the Life]. It was interesting, but you didn't get to see very much.
A: Right. I mean it's one of those things where if you get to see anything at all you're lucky. And you know, the problem with an independent documentary filmmaker who's interested in big political and social issues, but also wants to do everything from a kind of ground level point of view with ordinary people as the main characters is that oftentimes you run into a situation where the place where you want to film happens to be a police state or a dictatorship or otherwise very difficult. For example, while Egypt is full of interesting stories and interesting people, you simply can't make a film there as an American journalist and that's highly unfortunate. There may be ways of doing it that I haven't discovered yet but my impression of Egypt, while I was there during the war, was they would not be interested in having people make films about ordinary people. You know, they want you to film documentaries about pyramids and camels and then afterwards they complain Americans don't know anything about Egypt except pyramids and camels. So, it's this complete hypocrisy and self-defeating nonsense that most of these big authoritarian Arab governments are engaged in.
Q: Have you thought of the possibility of doing a documentary on Muslims living in Europe? I would think that would be a fascinating subject.
A: Or, indeed, the United States. I thought of doing something about France and the Algerian and Moroccan population in Paris. I was thinking about that before the riots broke out and then I thought to myself, well this story has already broken and now there's bound to be ten different documentary filmmakers working on it in France, who speak French and who probably also speak Arabic and the North African variety of Arabic and I can't really compete. Same thing with Iran. In Iraq there really wasn't anyone who was on the ground making films from the local population that I knew of. So, it seemed like there was a reason, there was room for someone to come in from outside and make a film and bring it back to the United States, because it's a subject which is important also for people in the United States, but with most things in the world you have to make a judgment call about whether if you go and make a film how worthwhile is it going to be. Is it going to be something which hasn't been shown before or are you going to be able to show us a situation in a new way that it hasn't been seen before? Is it something which is better done by a local filmmaker who better understands the situation and speaks the language? I speak Russian fluently. I could go to Russia and make a documentary without working with a translator. I'm not sure which subject I would tackle in Russia right now. Also, Russia is becoming increasingly difficult, because of its internal politics and crackdown on the free press and freedom of speech and Americans are still regarded with some suspicion in many places. So all these things are tough. I mean, I could make a film in the United States, but there are so many people making films in the United States and it's hard to know exactly which issue to approach. I would love to make a documentary film about the situation in Southern Sudan, because all the films that seem to be made here are about people who have fled Sudan and are in the United States, like God Grew Tired of Us: The Story of Lost Boys of Sudan. Whereas I don't think we've seen that many documentaries that are actually filmed in Sudan about the situation there and that's a bigger challenge and harder to do. That might be something that would be illuminating and worthwhile and not overly redundant. Africa, in general, is a continent which is very far off most people's radar and poorly understood and also extremely diverse and interesting. I have a lot of ideas and it hasn't yet crystallized in my mind which one is the one. Right now I have this time period where I'm going to film festivals and promoting Iraq In Fragments and waiting for it to get picked up by some distributor and while all this stuff is kind of hanging, maybe because all this stuff is sort of hanging and still in the works, my brain really hasn't focused on the next project, but I feel confident that at a certain point I'll start to get this nervous antsy feeling 'why am I not making a new film' and then something will happen in the world and it'll be this inspiration and I'll go and do it.
Q: Well, whatever it is, I look forward to seeing it! Thank you very much for the interview.
A: Thank you.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Iraq In Fragments - James Longley Interview - Pt. 5 - Technical Questions

Q: If one thinks of a film camera as being like a paint brush and a roll of film as being like paint, then a video camera is, in a way, both paint and brush, the character of the video image being largely determined by the choice of the camera. How do you feel about the Panasonic DVX-100 and 100A's that you used? What particular characteristics of those cameras made them particularly amenable to your project?

A: There are three main reasons why using a camera like this is actually better than using a camera like the one I used in The Gaza Strip. In The Gaza Strip I used the Sony DSR-500, which is a $15,000, on-the-shoulder, DV camera with a big broadcast lens on it and it has its advantages, the main one being that people see you with this big camera and they give you access to things that you might not normally get. On the other hand, cameras like the Panasonic are cheaper. You can buy two or three and have redundancy. If the camera breaks down during two years of shooting in Iraq well, you can just pull out another camera and start working again. They're light, you can film all day and not get tired and a lot of times I was filming all day. You can run with the camera. They're not so expensive that you're afraid to get them dirty, that you're afraid to use them as a tool, that you're afraid to put them down on the ground and film from the ground, which I did quite a bit, like filming those big meetings of people in the second chapter where you would see these close ups of people's faces. Most of the time I'm lying on the ground with the camera resting on the ground and resting the front end of it on the edge of my hand. I never used any tripods. But the third and most important reason is these cameras will film at cinema speed, at 24 frames per second and they'll do it in progressive scan images, so there's no interlaced artifacts. When things move you don't have this comb pattern on the edges of objects and there's such a difference in that. You compare The Gaza Strip, which was filmed in interlaced NTSC video and blown up to 35mm. You compare that 35mm print with the 35mm print of Iraq In Fragments and Iraq In Fragments will look phenomenally better, even though it's a much less expensive camera. But the fact that one frame of video equals one frame of film and it's not an interlaced frame, where you have two fields a 60th of a second apart, but it's as if you've taken this photograph, albeit a low resolution photograph, makes it feel so much more cinematic and so much more fluid in its motion that the result is really orders of magnitude better. So, this is key. If I had to continue shooting movies in standard definition, as long as I was able to do it at cinema frame rate with progressive scan images I would be able to accept it, because if you can do that you're basically working within the same kind of visual parameters as your basic 16mm reversal stock or whatever. It gives you the ability shoot in a cinematic way. The way I grew up watching movies, I didn't have a television. My parents didn't let me have a television and then as I grew older I never developed the desire to buy one and I still don't have one. I have always just gone to the movie theater to watch movies and experience television at friends' houses, so I've always been really attracted to the cinema look. And when I'm filming, I'm thinking about how is this image, how are these frames going to appear on a forty foot screen in a movie theater? I'm not thinking how are they going to look on TV. I'm filming from the very beginning for projection on the big screen. And if I can get that right, well, the television will follow. But I think it's a completely different mindset you have to have if you're filming for the cinema than if you're filming for TV.

Q: Aside from the 24p Advanced capability, were there other aspects of the camera you liked, such as the tonal range or color rendition? The camera has a reputation for having these cine-like gamma settings.
A: Right. There are deficiencies of the DV format itself being 25-megabits per second, it's not that much information, they're really squeezing as much as they can into this thin pipe. The chroma, for example. If you have an object which is pure red, it has less resolution than a green object or something like that, because that's just the way the camera is recording color and it will appear a little bit blocky around the edges. Thankfully, in the 35mm blowup you actually don't see that. You can see it on the DVD, but if you watch this film on 35mm, you won't see that blockiness. It kind of fades out, it's dissipated and you don't notice these hard, blocky edges to red objects, like the fire in the third chapter. If you look at the people who are illuminated by this red light it's kind of like this blocky low resolution look, but in 35mm you don't see that.
Q: How did you correct for that in the blowup?
A: The transition from DV standard definition size to high definition size is just done through the proprietary blowup process at Modern Digital. They export the film as a sequence of tiff's, every frame is a frame, every frame is a tiff file and they're all numbered 000001 to a 132,000 or whatever, about a 130,000 tiff files and then they're all in a single folder and you bring them over on a hard drive to Modern Digital and they take the tiff files and import them into their own system and basically blow it up to a high definition size and correct a little bit for the aspect ratio, because it's not perfect. If you look at the tiff file it's a little bit wider than it needs to be, like a circular object would be a little bit oval, so they correct for that and do the framing up to a high definition 16:9 frame, because it was shot letterboxed instead of anamorphic.
Q: I was curious if you did the aspect ratio electronically or with an anamorphic lens.
A: It was done electronically. I shot letter boxed to get the 16:9 aspect ratio instead of an anamorphic lens, because the anamorphic lens, which I think is made by Century Optics,AeP I looked at one, my friend Andrew Berends who came to Iraq and also made some films had one. It's very heavy, it throws off the balance of the camera, it becomes very forward weighted, which is difficult if you're doing everything handheld and you want to have that kind of balance. The camera is very well balanced by itself, but once you put that big chunk of glass on the front it throws it off. But the main reason is you're losing a little bit of your optical clarity by having this anamorphic lens on the front of the camera and you lose your ability to focus on objects up close. With these cameras you can focus right up to the lens and a lot of the time when I'm filming, you see it especially a lot in the first chapter, I'm very close to people, I'm right behind the ear of the kid, I'm filming over his shoulder and I want him to be in focus in the foreground. This kind of shot would be impossible with an anamorphic front on the camera, because it pushes your minimum focus distance way out, maybe two or three feet and this is completely unacceptable for my style of shooting where I need to be in close quarters with people and right next to someone, filming them and still have the background. So, it's really for this reason. The principal at work if you're shooting in letterbox, instead of an anamorphic front on the camera, is the same principal at work if you're a cinematographer working in 35mm and you decide to shoot in Super 35 instead of with anamorphic optics. That is, you're using the normal spherical optics of the camera and you're simply cutting off the top and bottom of the frame to get this aspect ratio of cinemascope and so you lose some of the film resolution that you would otherwise have, the vertical resolution of the film, but you're gaining in having a sharper picture, sharper optics, more depth-of-field which is important in 35mm, less important in video, because usually you have too much depth-of-field in video and also your ability to focus on objects close up is much better. So, a lot of movies now are shooting in Super 35mm. There's many examples, everything from Speed and True Lies to Walk The Line and on an on, these are all Super 35mm films that are then blown up to anamorphic with an inter-positive. In my case, there's no inter-positive, there's this high definition version of the film, which we color correct then transfer onto 35mm, but prior to that it's never on film so,AeP I'm actually looking forward to working in high definition with the Panasonic HVX200, because it's going to allow me,AeP it already has a 16:9 chip-set, so if you letterbox that a little bit, then you're at anamorphic, you're at cinemascope, you're at a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, so what this camera is essentially going to let someone like me do is go back to where I was as a university student shooting in Cinemascope, but do it on inexpensive video where I can letterbox this high definition image a little bit and come out with Cinemascope.
Q: For sound did you go with the mic on the camera or did you strap a shotgun on?
A: I never used the actual microphone that's built into the camera. I always used a Sony short shotgun microphone, it's the same kind if microphone they use a lot on the DSR500 and the sound is good from that and on top of that it has the foam wind cover and on top of the wind cover I'd put a Rycote Softie, this kind of furry wind cover. The big issue with that was the fur, the strands of fur from this wind cover would get into the top of the frame and you wouldn't see it necessarily when you were filming, but when you looked at it later you'd see these little fluffy things, especially when the wind is blowing, coming down into the top right hand corner of the frame and so eventually I just took a pair of scissors and gave give this Rycote Softie a little haircut on the front and sort of changed the angle at which it could work. It probably cut down on its effectiveness a little, but it also got it out of the frame. In addition to that microphone I used a Tram lavalier, it's like a $400 clip-on that's wired, not wireless. It has an 8-10ft. cable that comes out of it and also an XLR plug and it has very good sound. The reason I picked up that microphone is that for something in the $300 range, B&H sold me on the quality of this microphone and that's how I recorded all the interviews with the kids and people that are voice-over in the film.
Q: The fast and slow motion effects. Were those all done in post?
A: Well, the things like the train, which is speeded up and I think that's the only speeded up thing in the film, is done in post. Slow motion, you can't do it in the camera, but there weren't that many slow motion shots in the film, but they are there and they are all done in post. They actually look nicer than normal video, because you're taking solid frames,AeP when I would do a slow motion shot I was always taking even divisions. I would say, okay, for making things faster, instead of it being 24 frames per second, I want it to be 12 or instead of 24 I want it to be 48. So I would say 200% instead of 100% in terms of the speed. I would never try to be like 78% or something, so it always wound up being a situation where the frames were simply being duplicated, which is something I had done before in my 35mm documentary, there are a couple of scenes where we didn't have enough light to film, so we filmed it 12 frames per second to increase the exposure by a factor of two and then we optically printed the material out back to 24, which is an interesting effect and I'd like to try it in the future as well.
Q: You shot 300 hours of footage. Did you go to Iraq with 300 tapes?
A: No, I went with maybe 100 tapes and then as I filmed and started to get near the end I would just buy more and more boxes of tape and people brought in tapes for me from outside. I would go on-line and transfer money from my bank account to somebody's else's bank account who was coming into the country and they would generously bring in tapes.
Q: Did you keep everything with you the entire time you were there or would you periodically send things home?
A: I kept things with me. You know, it was a big worry on my mind, what's going to happen. I didn't have any copies of these tapes. I still don't have duplicate copies of my original tapes. I was digitizing material onto hard-drives. These big LaCie 500 gigabyte hard-drives. I had four of them in the country, plus some smaller 250 gig drives. So that allowed me to digitize probably 200 hours of material that I was translating, because the translations were all done off the laptop from digitized material, because I had to go back and forth, back and forth, over and over and be able to stop, frame-accurately and that was much easier to do in the computer than it would have been using the camera, it would have destroyed the cameras to do translations off the tapes. It would have also destroyed the tapes. So, when I had important material, I would digitize it and then do the translations off of that. I had a backup on the hard-drive of most of the material, especially the translated material, but not of everything and in the end I left Iraq with these six boxes, each with 50 tapes in them, in a backpack and also a great deal of baggage. I had to pay extra baggage dues going from Diyarbakir in Turkey flying into Istanbul then, once in Istanbul, I went to DHL and packed up all of my hard-drives with bubble wrap and sent them to Seattle.
Q: How many camera batteries did you travel with?
A: I had probably five different batteries of the large Panasonic variety. Some of them actually were these Empire batteries, which I don't recommend. The life of them is actually very low by comparison. Anyone going out on this kind of trip, I would recommend you get the Panasonic batteries or the Sony batteries or whatever they're using for their camera and not go with these kind of secondary companies.
Q: Was the availability of electricity ever a problem?
A: Oh, all the time. You'd be in Baghdad and you're editing and the power would go out. You have all these hard-drives connected to your computer. The first thing that you have to do in this kind of situation is buy a bunch of UPS systems, so when the power goes off there's still power going to the hard-drives and it doesn't kill them, because it would kill them otherwise. You know they're spinning at 5200 rpm or 7200 rpm or whatever it is and suddenly the power goes off, you know the heads are reading and writing and there's no way to replace these hard-drives, I mean in the country you can't buy them, so you have to protect them and the only way to do that is to buy these UPS system, plug everything into the UPS and run everything through these battery powered backup power sources. They would also help to regulate the current. And so that's how I worked. Luckily, those kinds of things were readily available in the country, because everyone had their computers and they had to deal with these problems themselves. So it was very easy to buy a UPS system in the country. Also, the temperature would skyrocket inside the rooms because there's no air-conditioning, no fans, there's no electricity, so even if you're working on your laptop and say the national power goes out, then the hotel might kick in electricity to the power outlets and the lights, but they wouldn't kick electricity to the air-conditioners, because they were running off a generator and they can't generate enough power to cool the building. So suddenly you're working inside this room where the ambient temperature is going past a 100-)()( and the speed of your laptop starts to decrease, because the computer loses its ability to exchange heat. The ambient temperature of the room is just as hot as the temperature of the computer, so its not losing any heat. It just keeps on getting hotter and hotter,AeP laughs. And the effective speed of the processor decreases. It was a big problem and very uncomfortable, plus it's very hard to work like that. In Northern Iraq, because I was there for about nine months and I was doing all this translation work while I was there, we ran a cable from an adjoining city block, down the street and ran it into my hotel room so that when the power went out in the hotel I would flip a switch down on the wall and get power going to my computer system again. It was a three hours on, three hours off type of situation and if you have a guy driving to another part of the city to work on translations he can't really work for three hours and then break for three hours and then work for three hours and then break for three hours, you know, you have other things to do,AeP laughs,AeP besides wait for the power to come back. They were supplying 50% electricity. It wasn't as if the city was half-on, half the time and half-off, half the time. They were simply supplying 50% of the power instead of 100%, so they would do it by neighborhood and they would give X, Y, Z neighborhoods power in this three hour block and then they'd give A, B and C neighborhoods for the other three-hour block. So, if you had a cable running from one neighborhood to another neighborhood you could basically switch off and that's the way a lot of people did it.
Q: Of all the credits in the film the one that I found the most surprising and impressive was that you did the music, which was quite good. Do you have a musical background?
A: No.
Q: How did you go about doing the score?
A: Well, there are three kinds of music in the film. There's music which is just playing on location on a radio or something like that and I'm there with my microphone, I record it and it winds up on the background of the scene. Then there's music that I recorded in Iraq, that's performed by people who are actually in the film. Like, for example, the kid singing during the raid scene is the kid that you see saying 'Allah akbar' into the microphone. I said, 'look, you have a good voice, let's record one of these Shiite religious songs' and he said 'okay' and he came in and did it in one take and it's a great performance to which I then added percussion and other kinds of sounds and made the soundtrack for that scene and there are other things like it in the Kurdish chapter. I recorded hours of Kurdish folk music with people from that area and from other areas and then used it. Sometimes I would use it straight like, for example, there's a scene where Suleiman Mahmoud is walking with his sheep and you hear this song that he sings, this Kurdish folk song and again it's a case of me sitting down with him the first day that I met him and saying 'do you know any Kurdish songs' and he sang four, five songs and that was just the nicest one. So, there's that kind of music and the music during the snowball fight scene, this kind of singing and drumbeat, that's just the neighbors of Suleiman in their living room and I'm taping with two different microphones, the camera microphone and the Tram microphone simultaneously. There's that, which I then mixed together on the Macintosh and added my own different effects to, in some cases, and then there is music which is entirely constructed by me, all kinds of ambient tracks and drones and things that used to be ordinary sounds, maybe that I recorded that I then made into sounds that are completely unrecognizable. In the beginning of the first chapter of the film, for example, you actually hear a completely filtered version of Suleiman's voice from the third chapter in film, as one of the drones during one of the scenes. I think in the scene where the boss is beating Mohammed. It actually gives a kind of disturbing sort of feel. So there's a great deal of sound that's made like that. The orchestral sounding transitional music during the train sequence, that's made in Logic Pro. I don't have a midi keyboard or anything. I just used the qwerty, typewriter keyboard and from that program, if you have the caps lock on, you can use the keyboard as a piano and all of that music is made like that and that soundtrack is basically like chopsticks, I mean there's nothing to it.
Q: Well, it sounds a lot like Philip Glass.
A: But Philip Glass also sounds like chopsticks. So, that kind of stuff was easy to do. You know, I like Philip Glass and that kind of minimalist style for films. I think it's very effective and so there's that influence. And also, particularly in the train sequence, I was listening to music like, Different Trains by Steve Reich, which is based on the different train whistles from Europe and the United States. It's a great piece of music. I was definitely inspired by that when I was making the train transition music and that became the transition soundtrack for all of the chapters in the film.
Q: How about the ambient music. Some of it reminded me of British industrial ambient stuff like Nurse With Wound,AeP
A: Haven't heard that.
Q: ,AePor SPK
A: No.
Q: ,AePor Eno.
A: Oh, like Music For Airports.
Q: Not necessarily that, but maybe something like,AeP
A: Well, Music For Airports I've actually heard.
Q: But something more like the darker, dronier sort of things like,AeP I was wondering if there was some particular kind of thing,AeP
A: No, in terms of that stuff, I haven't,AeP I don't have a big collection of drony music.
Q: Laughs.
A: ,AePbut that kind of ambient music is easy to make synthetically and it happens often to be appropriate. It has a good use in this kind of film where it sets a kind of a mood that's fairly subliminal and doesn't attract attention to itself, but it's kind of there. So, during the political meeting in the second chapter, where everything starts to fall apart and unravel, you definitely hear this kind of droning sound or deep rumbles in the soundtrack. It's more noticeable in the movie theater where everything is separated out by channels and you get that kind of effect and it kind of lends to this sort of growing feeling of uncertainty and breakdown of the social fabric.
Q: Well, it was very good, you were very effective at it.

Iraq In Fragments - James Longley Interview - Pt. 5 - Technical Questions

Q: If one thinks of a film camera as being like a paint brush and a roll of film as being like paint, then a video camera is, in a way, both paint and brush, the character of the video image being largely determined by the choice of the camera. How do you feel about the Panasonic DVX-100 and 100A's that you used? What particular characteristics of those cameras made them particularly amenable to your project?

A: There are three main reasons why using a camera like this is actually better than using a camera like the one I used in The Gaza Strip. In The Gaza Strip I used the Sony DSR-500, which is a $15,000, on-the-shoulder, DV camera with a big broadcast lens on it and it has its advantages, the main one being that people see you with this big camera and they give you access to things that you might not normally get. On the other hand, cameras like the Panasonic are cheaper. You can buy two or three and have redundancy. If the camera breaks down during two years of shooting in Iraq well, you can just pull out another camera and start working again. They're light, you can film all day and not get tired and a lot of times I was filming all day. You can run with the camera. They're not so expensive that you're afraid to get them dirty, that you're afraid to use them as a tool, that you're afraid to put them down on the ground and film from the ground, which I did quite a bit, like filming those big meetings of people in the second chapter where you would see these close ups of people's faces. Most of the time I'm lying on the ground with the camera resting on the ground and resting the front end of it on the edge of my hand. I never used any tripods. But the third and most important reason is these cameras will film at cinema speed, at 24 frames per second and they'll do it in progressive scan images, so there's no interlaced artifacts. When things move you don't have this comb pattern on the edges of objects and there's such a difference in that. You compare The Gaza Strip, which was filmed in interlaced NTSC video and blown up to 35mm. You compare that 35mm print with the 35mm print of Iraq In Fragments and Iraq In Fragments will look phenomenally better, even though it's a much less expensive camera. But the fact that one frame of video equals one frame of film and it's not an interlaced frame, where you have two fields a 60th of a second apart, but it's as if you've taken this photograph, albeit a low resolution photograph, makes it feel so much more cinematic and so much more fluid in its motion that the result is really orders of magnitude better. So, this is key. If I had to continue shooting movies in standard definition, as long as I was able to do it at cinema frame rate with progressive scan images I would be able to accept it, because if you can do that you're basically working within the same kind of visual parameters as your basic 16mm reversal stock or whatever. It gives you the ability shoot in a cinematic way. The way I grew up watching movies, I didn't have a television. My parents didn't let me have a television and then as I grew older I never developed the desire to buy one and I still don't have one. I have always just gone to the movie theater to watch movies and experience television at friends' houses, so I've always been really attracted to the cinema look. And when I'm filming, I'm thinking about how is this image, how are these frames going to appear on a forty foot screen in a movie theater? I'm not thinking how are they going to look on TV. I'm filming from the very beginning for projection on the big screen. And if I can get that right, well, the television will follow. But I think it's a completely different mindset you have to have if you're filming for the cinema than if you're filming for TV.

Q: Aside from the 24p Advanced capability, were there other aspects of the camera you liked, such as the tonal range or color rendition? The camera has a reputation for having these cine-like gamma settings.
A: Right. There are deficiencies of the DV format itself being 25-megabits per second, it's not that much information, they're really squeezing as much as they can into this thin pipe. The chroma, for example. If you have an object which is pure red, it has less resolution than a green object or something like that, because that's just the way the camera is recording color and it will appear a little bit blocky around the edges. Thankfully, in the 35mm blowup you actually don't see that. You can see it on the DVD, but if you watch this film on 35mm, you won't see that blockiness. It kind of fades out, it's dissipated and you don't notice these hard, blocky edges to red objects, like the fire in the third chapter. If you look at the people who are illuminated by this red light it's kind of like this blocky low resolution look, but in 35mm you don't see that.
Q: How did you correct for that in the blowup?
A: The transition from DV standard definition size to high definition size is just done through the proprietary blowup process at Modern Digital. They export the film as a sequence of tiff's, every frame is a frame, every frame is a tiff file and they're all numbered 000001 to a 132,000 or whatever, about a 130,000 tiff files and then they're all in a single folder and you bring them over on a hard drive to Modern Digital and they take the tiff files and import them into their own system and basically blow it up to a high definition size and correct a little bit for the aspect ratio, because it's not perfect. If you look at the tiff file it's a little bit wider than it needs to be, like a circular object would be a little bit oval, so they correct for that and do the framing up to a high definition 16:9 frame, because it was shot letterboxed instead of anamorphic.
Q: I was curious if you did the aspect ratio electronically or with an anamorphic lens.
A: It was done electronically. I shot letter boxed to get the 16:9 aspect ratio instead of an anamorphic lens, because the anamorphic lens, which I think is made by Century Optics,AeP I looked at one, my friend Andrew Berends who came to Iraq and also made some films had one. It's very heavy, it throws off the balance of the camera, it becomes very forward weighted, which is difficult if you're doing everything handheld and you want to have that kind of balance. The camera is very well balanced by itself, but once you put that big chunk of glass on the front it throws it off. But the main reason is you're losing a little bit of your optical clarity by having this anamorphic lens on the front of the camera and you lose your ability to focus on objects up close. With these cameras you can focus right up to the lens and a lot of the time when I'm filming, you see it especially a lot in the first chapter, I'm very close to people, I'm right behind the ear of the kid, I'm filming over his shoulder and I want him to be in focus in the foreground. This kind of shot would be impossible with an anamorphic front on the camera, because it pushes your minimum focus distance way out, maybe two or three feet and this is completely unacceptable for my style of shooting where I need to be in close quarters with people and right next to someone, filming them and still have the background. So, it's really for this reason. The principal at work if you're shooting in letterbox, instead of an anamorphic front on the camera, is the same principal at work if you're a cinematographer working in 35mm and you decide to shoot in Super 35 instead of with anamorphic optics. That is, you're using the normal spherical optics of the camera and you're simply cutting off the top and bottom of the frame to get this aspect ratio of cinemascope and so you lose some of the film resolution that you would otherwise have, the vertical resolution of the film, but you're gaining in having a sharper picture, sharper optics, more depth-of-field which is important in 35mm, less important in video, because usually you have too much depth-of-field in video and also your ability to focus on objects close up is much better. So, a lot of movies now are shooting in Super 35mm. There's many examples, everything from Speed and True Lies to Walk The Line and on an on, these are all Super 35mm films that are then blown up to anamorphic with an inter-positive. In my case, there's no inter-positive, there's this high definition version of the film, which we color correct then transfer onto 35mm, but prior to that it's never on film so,AeP I'm actually looking forward to working in high definition with the Panasonic HVX200, because it's going to allow me,AeP it already has a 16:9 chip-set, so if you letterbox that a little bit, then you're at anamorphic, you're at cinemascope, you're at a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, so what this camera is essentially going to let someone like me do is go back to where I was as a university student shooting in Cinemascope, but do it on inexpensive video where I can letterbox this high definition image a little bit and come out with Cinemascope.
Q: For sound did you go with the mic on the camera or did you strap a shotgun on?
A: I never used the actual microphone that's built into the camera. I always used a Sony short shotgun microphone, it's the same kind if microphone they use a lot on the DSR500 and the sound is good from that and on top of that it has the foam wind cover and on top of the wind cover I'd put a Rycote Softie, this kind of furry wind cover. The big issue with that was the fur, the strands of fur from this wind cover would get into the top of the frame and you wouldn't see it necessarily when you were filming, but when you looked at it later you'd see these little fluffy things, especially when the wind is blowing, coming down into the top right hand corner of the frame and so eventually I just took a pair of scissors and gave give this Rycote Softie a little haircut on the front and sort of changed the angle at which it could work. It probably cut down on its effectiveness a little, but it also got it out of the frame. In addition to that microphone I used a Tram lavalier, it's like a $400 clip-on that's wired, not wireless. It has an 8-10ft. cable that comes out of it and also an XLR plug and it has very good sound. The reason I picked up that microphone is that for something in the $300 range, B&H sold me on the quality of this microphone and that's how I recorded all the interviews with the kids and people that are voice-over in the film.
Q: The fast and slow motion effects. Were those all done in post?
A: Well, the things like the train, which is speeded up and I think that's the only speeded up thing in the film, is done in post. Slow motion, you can't do it in the camera, but there weren't that many slow motion shots in the film, but they are there and they are all done in post. They actually look nicer than normal video, because you're taking solid frames,AeP when I would do a slow motion shot I was always taking even divisions. I would say, okay, for making things faster, instead of it being 24 frames per second, I want it to be 12 or instead of 24 I want it to be 48. So I would say 200% instead of 100% in terms of the speed. I would never try to be like 78% or something, so it always wound up being a situation where the frames were simply being duplicated, which is something I had done before in my 35mm documentary, there are a couple of scenes where we didn't have enough light to film, so we filmed it 12 frames per second to increase the exposure by a factor of two and then we optically printed the material out back to 24, which is an interesting effect and I'd like to try it in the future as well.
Q: You shot 300 hours of footage. Did you go to Iraq with 300 tapes?
A: No, I went with maybe 100 tapes and then as I filmed and started to get near the end I would just buy more and more boxes of tape and people brought in tapes for me from outside. I would go on-line and transfer money from my bank account to somebody's else's bank account who was coming into the country and they would generously bring in tapes.
Q: Did you keep everything with you the entire time you were there or would you periodically send things home?
A: I kept things with me. You know, it was a big worry on my mind, what's going to happen. I didn't have any copies of these tapes. I still don't have duplicate copies of my original tapes. I was digitizing material onto hard-drives. These big LaCie 500 gigabyte hard-drives. I had four of them in the country, plus some smaller 250 gig drives. So that allowed me to digitize probably 200 hours of material that I was translating, because the translations were all done off the laptop from digitized material, because I had to go back and forth, back and forth, over and over and be able to stop, frame-accurately and that was much easier to do in the computer than it would have been using the camera, it would have destroyed the cameras to do translations off the tapes. It would have also destroyed the tapes. So, when I had important material, I would digitize it and then do the translations off of that. I had a backup on the hard-drive of most of the material, especially the translated material, but not of everything and in the end I left Iraq with these six boxes, each with 50 tapes in them, in a backpack and also a great deal of baggage. I had to pay extra baggage dues going from Diyarbakir in Turkey flying into Istanbul then, once in Istanbul, I went to DHL and packed up all of my hard-drives with bubble wrap and sent them to Seattle.
Q: How many camera batteries did you travel with?
A: I had probably five different batteries of the large Panasonic variety. Some of them actually were these Empire batteries, which I don't recommend. The life of them is actually very low by comparison. Anyone going out on this kind of trip, I would recommend you get the Panasonic batteries or the Sony batteries or whatever they're using for their camera and not go with these kind of secondary companies.
Q: Was the availability of electricity ever a problem?
A: Oh, all the time. You'd be in Baghdad and you're editing and the power would go out. You have all these hard-drives connected to your computer. The first thing that you have to do in this kind of situation is buy a bunch of UPS systems, so when the power goes off there's still power going to the hard-drives and it doesn't kill them, because it would kill them otherwise. You know they're spinning at 5200 rpm or 7200 rpm or whatever it is and suddenly the power goes off, you know the heads are reading and writing and there's no way to replace these hard-drives, I mean in the country you can't buy them, so you have to protect them and the only way to do that is to buy these UPS system, plug everything into the UPS and run everything through these battery powered backup power sources. They would also help to regulate the current. And so that's how I worked. Luckily, those kinds of things were readily available in the country, because everyone had their computers and they had to deal with these problems themselves. So it was very easy to buy a UPS system in the country. Also, the temperature would skyrocket inside the rooms because there's no air-conditioning, no fans, there's no electricity, so even if you're working on your laptop and say the national power goes out, then the hotel might kick in electricity to the power outlets and the lights, but they wouldn't kick electricity to the air-conditioners, because they were running off a generator and they can't generate enough power to cool the building. So suddenly you're working inside this room where the ambient temperature is going past a 100-)()( and the speed of your laptop starts to decrease, because the computer loses its ability to exchange heat. The ambient temperature of the room is just as hot as the temperature of the computer, so its not losing any heat. It just keeps on getting hotter and hotter,AeP laughs. And the effective speed of the processor decreases. It was a big problem and very uncomfortable, plus it's very hard to work like that. In Northern Iraq, because I was there for about nine months and I was doing all this translation work while I was there, we ran a cable from an adjoining city block, down the street and ran it into my hotel room so that when the power went out in the hotel I would flip a switch down on the wall and get power going to my computer system again. It was a three hours on, three hours off type of situation and if you have a guy driving to another part of the city to work on translations he can't really work for three hours and then break for three hours and then work for three hours and then break for three hours, you know, you have other things to do,AeP laughs,AeP besides wait for the power to come back. They were supplying 50% electricity. It wasn't as if the city was half-on, half the time and half-off, half the time. They were simply supplying 50% of the power instead of 100%, so they would do it by neighborhood and they would give X, Y, Z neighborhoods power in this three hour block and then they'd give A, B and C neighborhoods for the other three-hour block. So, if you had a cable running from one neighborhood to another neighborhood you could basically switch off and that's the way a lot of people did it.
Q: Of all the credits in the film the one that I found the most surprising and impressive was that you did the music, which was quite good. Do you have a musical background?
A: No.
Q: How did you go about doing the score?
A: Well, there are three kinds of music in the film. There's music which is just playing on location on a radio or something like that and I'm there with my microphone, I record it and it winds up on the background of the scene. Then there's music that I recorded in Iraq, that's performed by people who are actually in the film. Like, for example, the kid singing during the raid scene is the kid that you see saying 'Allah akbar' into the microphone. I said, 'look, you have a good voice, let's record one of these Shiite religious songs' and he said 'okay' and he came in and did it in one take and it's a great performance to which I then added percussion and other kinds of sounds and made the soundtrack for that scene and there are other things like it in the Kurdish chapter. I recorded hours of Kurdish folk music with people from that area and from other areas and then used it. Sometimes I would use it straight like, for example, there's a scene where Suleiman Mahmoud is walking with his sheep and you hear this song that he sings, this Kurdish folk song and again it's a case of me sitting down with him the first day that I met him and saying 'do you know any Kurdish songs' and he sang four, five songs and that was just the nicest one. So, there's that kind of music and the music during the snowball fight scene, this kind of singing and drumbeat, that's just the neighbors of Suleiman in their living room and I'm taping with two different microphones, the camera microphone and the Tram microphone simultaneously. There's that, which I then mixed together on the Macintosh and added my own different effects to, in some cases, and then there is music which is entirely constructed by me, all kinds of ambient tracks and drones and things that used to be ordinary sounds, maybe that I recorded that I then made into sounds that are completely unrecognizable. In the beginning of the first chapter of the film, for example, you actually hear a completely filtered version of Suleiman's voice from the third chapter in film, as one of the drones during one of the scenes. I think in the scene where the boss is beating Mohammed. It actually gives a kind of disturbing sort of feel. So there's a great deal of sound that's made like that. The orchestral sounding transitional music during the train sequence, that's made in Logic Pro. I don't have a midi keyboard or anything. I just used the qwerty, typewriter keyboard and from that program, if you have the caps lock on, you can use the keyboard as a piano and all of that music is made like that and that soundtrack is basically like chopsticks, I mean there's nothing to it.
Q: Well, it sounds a lot like Philip Glass.
A: But Philip Glass also sounds like chopsticks. So, that kind of stuff was easy to do. You know, I like Philip Glass and that kind of minimalist style for films. I think it's very effective and so there's that influence. And also, particularly in the train sequence, I was listening to music like, Different Trains by Steve Reich, which is based on the different train whistles from Europe and the United States. It's a great piece of music. I was definitely inspired by that when I was making the train transition music and that became the transition soundtrack for all of the chapters in the film.
Q: How about the ambient music. Some of it reminded me of British industrial ambient stuff like Nurse With Wound,AeP
A: Haven't heard that.
Q: ,AePor SPK
A: No.
Q: ,AePor Eno.
A: Oh, like Music For Airports.
Q: Not necessarily that, but maybe something like,AeP
A: Well, Music For Airports I've actually heard.
Q: But something more like the darker, dronier sort of things like,AeP I was wondering if there was some particular kind of thing,AeP
A: No, in terms of that stuff, I haven't,AeP I don't have a big collection of drony music.
Q: Laughs.
A: ,AePbut that kind of ambient music is easy to make synthetically and it happens often to be appropriate. It has a good use in this kind of film where it sets a kind of a mood that's fairly subliminal and doesn't attract attention to itself, but it's kind of there. So, during the political meeting in the second chapter, where everything starts to fall apart and unravel, you definitely hear this kind of droning sound or deep rumbles in the soundtrack. It's more noticeable in the movie theater where everything is separated out by channels and you get that kind of effect and it kind of lends to this sort of growing feeling of uncertainty and breakdown of the social fabric.
Q: Well, it was very good, you were very effective at it.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Iraq In Fragments - James Longley Interview - Pt. 4 - Kurdish Spring

Q: The third part of the film begins with a succession of railway shots, some in fast motion, which ultimately takes you to this spectacular Kurdish countryside and, in watching the film, there's this sense of relief, escaping the city to this beautiful place. Was this something you personally felt?

A: Yes! And not only me. If you're in Baghdad and you want to go on vacation, the only place to do it inside Iraq is to drive up to the North and hang out in the mountains, which a lot of people do on the weekends. The security situation is totally different, the local Kurdish security is controlling everything and there are very, very few bombings. You don't have the United States military present in this kind of overt way that you have in the Central and Southern parts of the country. So the whole atmosphere is different. I lived in this really inexpensive hotel with no security for nine months in the North from September 2004 to April 2005 and never had a single worry that,AeP the keys to the room would open practically every door in the place... laughs. You know it was very low security and I had my computer, two terabytes of disc-space and all of the cameras and everything lying around and nothing was ever taken out of my room. I never had any problems even with this kind of basic personal possession type of security. It was very, very easy and a totally different atmosphere than what there was in Baghdad at that time.

Q: The Kurds themselves come across as the nicest, most open people in the film.
A: Well, you know, the Kurds are very nice and the rest of Iraqis are also very nice and it's probably my fault that you don't see as much of that sort of ordinary people, family life type situation in my film. If I have something that I regret more than anything about this movie, it's that the material which I wound up including in the film doesn't give the full picture of Iraqi, Arab hospitality in the same way it does with the Kurds. The fact is that, of course, there was a completely different atmosphere in the Central and Southern parts of the country toward foreigners, toward Americans, but that didn't prevent people, even those who opposed the US military occupation, from being very hospitable and very kind. If the section that was cut from the film, which features a Sunni farming family, South of Baghdad in Mahmudiya, had been included, you'd probably come away with a different perception of what the ordinary Arab civilian population in Central Iraq is like, because it's this very loving, beautiful family and this doesn't come across in the film. That's perhaps,AeP it's one of those compromises with practicality that you make as a filmmaker that you don't have time to include all of that material, but the fact that there is this perception of a different atmosphere in the Kurdish North than there is in the rest of the film is actually accurate, because there is a very different atmosphere. It's not that the people are any nicer or any worse, it's just that the Kurds are not under occupation, effectively. They are under occupation, but it's an invisible occupation. There are Americans there, but they're not in the streets in their Humvees, they're not patrolling the skies with their helicopters, you don't see them. They're there, but they have this security agreement with the local governments, so they're perceived in a completely different way and people don't have this interaction with them the way they do in the rest of the country. So, there's a different,AeP you could say that life continued pretty much uninterrupted through the war period of 2003, but there were these governments, based on the parties the PUK and the PDK, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Kurdistan Democratic Party, which are the two ruling Kurdish parties in the North. They had a civil war in the beginning of the 1990's, which no one really remembers. They had a civil war and most of the buildings between Arbil and Diana and these other places, Rawanduz and so forth, bear the scars of that civil war. The hotel where I lived had bullet holes and rocket impact markings on the walls. Anyway, those two parties reconciled and between them they split the parliament 50-50 and now they're ruling the North and they have these security agreements with the United States that prevents the United States from acting unilaterally in the North. So you don't have the US going on raids and arresting people in the same way that they do in the rest of the country. And because these governments have been running things since the mid-90's, though it was very difficult under the sanctions period for the Kurds as well as the rest of the country, they've had this uninterrupted rulership that's indigenous. So there's this feeling of stability, which there isn't in the rest of the country, combined with the absence of overt occupation and their acceptance of the occupying power, because it works to their own political advantage to have the Americans there.
Q: One thing that was kind of interesting was a classroom scene of kids getting an English lesson. As a matter of fact, I think it's the only time you hear English in the film. Was that unusual in Iraq? Was that something particular to the North?
A: No. A lot of Iraqis take English in school, it's completely normal, just as normal in Basra as it is in the North, but the Kurdish schools are taught in Kurdish and people mostly study Arabic because of religion class and they have to be able to read the Koran in the original Arabic. So, that's the main reason people study Arabic at all these days and there's a rebellion against speaking and studying Arabic on the part of many university students and people of that age, whereas the older generation of Kurds and Assyrians and people living in that area all understand Arabic, because of their history with Baghdad and because everyone was in the military or whatever. My translator in the North was an Assyrian guy, which is a Christian group in Iraq, who speaks English, that he taught himself, spoke Arabic, because he was in the Military for twelve years and fought in the Iran/Iraq war and the Gulf War and everything else and spoke his native Assyrian and also spoke Kurdish and a smattering of Turkish, because of the Turkmen population. So, people are largely multilingual in Iraq and especially in the Northern part, but the younger generation now is rebelling against the study of Arabic for political reasons. They want to be independent, they don't want to have anything to do with Baghdad rule, so if given the choice between studying Arabic and studying English, they're more likely to go for English, because it's this kind of pro-Western, pro-American political feeling which is very much present.
Q: At the end of the film the father of one of the boys says, "You cannot escape America's reach," then he tells a story about two wrestlers. Someone is observing two wrestlers and asks them whose side is God on and they respond, "God is on the always on the side of the winner. Whoever wins god is on his side." That's an interesting and somewhat open sentiment to close the film with and you could interpret it in many ways, depending on who you see as the wrestling parties, it could either be the Americans vs. the Iraqis or the Kurds vs. the Iraqis,AeP
A: But the basic idea is that whoever wins, God is on his side and I included that at the end of the film as a closing sentiment, because I think it reflects the state of international politics today, which is not ruled by international law, it's ruled by winner take all and the-ends-justify-the-means kinds of politics. So, I think if you were to go back and Mahmoud, the old guy, and ask the same question, he would probably say, "Oh well, God is always on the side of the person who is in the right, who is doing the right thing." You know, he's very pious, but for whatever reason it sort of slipped out at that time in this far more realistic way which is, if you can take it, if you can get it, if you can win, then you're in the right and when he was talking about America controlling everything in Iraq he's talking specifically about America's ability to decide the fate of Kurdistan. That is to say America will decide whether the Kurds will have their own independent state or be under Baghdad rule. It's in America's power to decide this issue and he's not wrong about that, but at the same time it's an interesting sentiment in a broader sense, 'One cannot escape America's reach.' I think that's the way the entire world feels right now, that if the United States wants to do something, if they want to change the government of Venezuela well, by god, they're going to step in and do it and no one can really stop that. And certainly in this period of 2003, before the souring of the occupation, there was definitely this sentiment of Pax Americana, of America being the undisputed ruler of the world that can simply go and do whatever they like. So the ending of the film is reflective of that reality.
Q: Then the last image is of his son,AeP
A: ,AePand he's walking into the night,AeP
Q: ,AePwith his bicycle and he says to his friends "I'm going. God be with you." It's a very moving ending and it's almost as if you yourself were saying, "I am leaving you now. Good luck."
A: Right. Yeah, I mean in a way that's true. You know, what can you do? It's this feeling of well, whatever happens, happens and that is the way I felt when I left the country. That my work there was done, there was nothing more I could do, there was nothing I could do to affect the situation. The country is in this very tenuous position, no matter which way you look at it. If the Americans stay, if the Americans go, either way there's a huge potential in Iraq for civil war, for the breakup of the society. It has been for years now always on the brink of disaster and that disaster has crept into the lives of many people, hundreds of thousands of people, and so it's a country which has been destroyed by the political and power aspirations of its own leadership and that of other countries. So the overriding sentiment of my film, if it has one, is to look at the country from the point of view of ordinary people to remind you that these are the people you should be caring about, you should be thinking about. Who cares about these governments, Saddam Hussein or what have you, these people who are always seeking power, seeking control, whether it's the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein or whether it's the aspirations of the Bush administration in the region. These aren't the people that you should really be worried about. You should be worried about how policies are going to play out on the ground and effect the lives of ordinary people, because they they're no different from you in most respects.

Iraq In Fragments - James Longley Interview - Pt. 4 - Kurdish Spring

Q: The third part of the film begins with a succession of railway shots, some in fast motion, which ultimately takes you to this spectacular Kurdish countryside and, in watching the film, there's this sense of relief, escaping the city to this beautiful place. Was this something you personally felt?

A: Yes! And not only me. If you're in Baghdad and you want to go on vacation, the only place to do it inside Iraq is to drive up to the North and hang out in the mountains, which a lot of people do on the weekends. The security situation is totally different, the local Kurdish security is controlling everything and there are very, very few bombings. You don't have the United States military present in this kind of overt way that you have in the Central and Southern parts of the country. So the whole atmosphere is different. I lived in this really inexpensive hotel with no security for nine months in the North from September 2004 to April 2005 and never had a single worry that,AeP the keys to the room would open practically every door in the place... laughs. You know it was very low security and I had my computer, two terabytes of disc-space and all of the cameras and everything lying around and nothing was ever taken out of my room. I never had any problems even with this kind of basic personal possession type of security. It was very, very easy and a totally different atmosphere than what there was in Baghdad at that time.

Q: The Kurds themselves come across as the nicest, most open people in the film.
A: Well, you know, the Kurds are very nice and the rest of Iraqis are also very nice and it's probably my fault that you don't see as much of that sort of ordinary people, family life type situation in my film. If I have something that I regret more than anything about this movie, it's that the material which I wound up including in the film doesn't give the full picture of Iraqi, Arab hospitality in the same way it does with the Kurds. The fact is that, of course, there was a completely different atmosphere in the Central and Southern parts of the country toward foreigners, toward Americans, but that didn't prevent people, even those who opposed the US military occupation, from being very hospitable and very kind. If the section that was cut from the film, which features a Sunni farming family, South of Baghdad in Mahmudiya, had been included, you'd probably come away with a different perception of what the ordinary Arab civilian population in Central Iraq is like, because it's this very loving, beautiful family and this doesn't come across in the film. That's perhaps,AeP it's one of those compromises with practicality that you make as a filmmaker that you don't have time to include all of that material, but the fact that there is this perception of a different atmosphere in the Kurdish North than there is in the rest of the film is actually accurate, because there is a very different atmosphere. It's not that the people are any nicer or any worse, it's just that the Kurds are not under occupation, effectively. They are under occupation, but it's an invisible occupation. There are Americans there, but they're not in the streets in their Humvees, they're not patrolling the skies with their helicopters, you don't see them. They're there, but they have this security agreement with the local governments, so they're perceived in a completely different way and people don't have this interaction with them the way they do in the rest of the country. So, there's a different,AeP you could say that life continued pretty much uninterrupted through the war period of 2003, but there were these governments, based on the parties the PUK and the PDK, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Kurdistan Democratic Party, which are the two ruling Kurdish parties in the North. They had a civil war in the beginning of the 1990's, which no one really remembers. They had a civil war and most of the buildings between Arbil and Diana and these other places, Rawanduz and so forth, bear the scars of that civil war. The hotel where I lived had bullet holes and rocket impact markings on the walls. Anyway, those two parties reconciled and between them they split the parliament 50-50 and now they're ruling the North and they have these security agreements with the United States that prevents the United States from acting unilaterally in the North. So you don't have the US going on raids and arresting people in the same way that they do in the rest of the country. And because these governments have been running things since the mid-90's, though it was very difficult under the sanctions period for the Kurds as well as the rest of the country, they've had this uninterrupted rulership that's indigenous. So there's this feeling of stability, which there isn't in the rest of the country, combined with the absence of overt occupation and their acceptance of the occupying power, because it works to their own political advantage to have the Americans there.
Q: One thing that was kind of interesting was a classroom scene of kids getting an English lesson. As a matter of fact, I think it's the only time you hear English in the film. Was that unusual in Iraq? Was that something particular to the North?
A: No. A lot of Iraqis take English in school, it's completely normal, just as normal in Basra as it is in the North, but the Kurdish schools are taught in Kurdish and people mostly study Arabic because of religion class and they have to be able to read the Koran in the original Arabic. So, that's the main reason people study Arabic at all these days and there's a rebellion against speaking and studying Arabic on the part of many university students and people of that age, whereas the older generation of Kurds and Assyrians and people living in that area all understand Arabic, because of their history with Baghdad and because everyone was in the military or whatever. My translator in the North was an Assyrian guy, which is a Christian group in Iraq, who speaks English, that he taught himself, spoke Arabic, because he was in the Military for twelve years and fought in the Iran/Iraq war and the Gulf War and everything else and spoke his native Assyrian and also spoke Kurdish and a smattering of Turkish, because of the Turkmen population. So, people are largely multilingual in Iraq and especially in the Northern part, but the younger generation now is rebelling against the study of Arabic for political reasons. They want to be independent, they don't want to have anything to do with Baghdad rule, so if given the choice between studying Arabic and studying English, they're more likely to go for English, because it's this kind of pro-Western, pro-American political feeling which is very much present.
Q: At the end of the film the father of one of the boys says, "You cannot escape America's reach," then he tells a story about two wrestlers. Someone is observing two wrestlers and asks them whose side is God on and they respond, "God is on the always on the side of the winner. Whoever wins god is on his side." That's an interesting and somewhat open sentiment to close the film with and you could interpret it in many ways, depending on who you see as the wrestling parties, it could either be the Americans vs. the Iraqis or the Kurds vs. the Iraqis,AeP
A: But the basic idea is that whoever wins, God is on his side and I included that at the end of the film as a closing sentiment, because I think it reflects the state of international politics today, which is not ruled by international law, it's ruled by winner take all and the-ends-justify-the-means kinds of politics. So, I think if you were to go back and Mahmoud, the old guy, and ask the same question, he would probably say, "Oh well, God is always on the side of the person who is in the right, who is doing the right thing." You know, he's very pious, but for whatever reason it sort of slipped out at that time in this far more realistic way which is, if you can take it, if you can get it, if you can win, then you're in the right and when he was talking about America controlling everything in Iraq he's talking specifically about America's ability to decide the fate of Kurdistan. That is to say America will decide whether the Kurds will have their own independent state or be under Baghdad rule. It's in America's power to decide this issue and he's not wrong about that, but at the same time it's an interesting sentiment in a broader sense, 'One cannot escape America's reach.' I think that's the way the entire world feels right now, that if the United States wants to do something, if they want to change the government of Venezuela well, by god, they're going to step in and do it and no one can really stop that. And certainly in this period of 2003, before the souring of the occupation, there was definitely this sentiment of Pax Americana, of America being the undisputed ruler of the world that can simply go and do whatever they like. So the ending of the film is reflective of that reality.
Q: Then the last image is of his son,AeP
A: ,AePand he's walking into the night,AeP
Q: ,AePwith his bicycle and he says to his friends "I'm going. God be with you." It's a very moving ending and it's almost as if you yourself were saying, "I am leaving you now. Good luck."
A: Right. Yeah, I mean in a way that's true. You know, what can you do? It's this feeling of well, whatever happens, happens and that is the way I felt when I left the country. That my work there was done, there was nothing more I could do, there was nothing I could do to affect the situation. The country is in this very tenuous position, no matter which way you look at it. If the Americans stay, if the Americans go, either way there's a huge potential in Iraq for civil war, for the breakup of the society. It has been for years now always on the brink of disaster and that disaster has crept into the lives of many people, hundreds of thousands of people, and so it's a country which has been destroyed by the political and power aspirations of its own leadership and that of other countries. So the overriding sentiment of my film, if it has one, is to look at the country from the point of view of ordinary people to remind you that these are the people you should be caring about, you should be thinking about. Who cares about these governments, Saddam Hussein or what have you, these people who are always seeking power, seeking control, whether it's the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein or whether it's the aspirations of the Bush administration in the region. These aren't the people that you should really be worried about. You should be worried about how policies are going to play out on the ground and effect the lives of ordinary people, because they they're no different from you in most respects.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Iraq In Fragments - James Longley Interview - Pt. 3 - Sadr's South

Q: In the second section of the film there's an interesting tension where you have the Sadrists and the militias and they're doing the alcohol raids and so-forth and you have this shot, after one of the raids, where this detained man who's blindfolded says, "We were saved from one oppression and you have brought another?" So you have this sense of these men, particularly the cleric you are following, as full of passion. They're pushing for having a real political process and having actual elections and you see they're very idealistic and they have a sense of integrity, but you also get the feeling that if they really ran the country the way they wanted it would very much be like Iran, a very repressive society.

A: Right, and this is the reality which is now taking shape in Iraq. It's not merely the Sadr movement, which has this kind of conservative religious foundation, it's also the Dawa party, the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq [SCIRI] and the Sistani people, who also have exactly the same religious foundation in conservative Shiite Islam. So, right now, Iraq has a constitution which states that nothing in Iraqi law should run counter to Sharia law, Islamic law, so the United States has wittingly or unwittingly put into power people in Iraq who are very sympathetic with the kind of Iranian style conservative Islam that we rail against in this country. So, right now, the United States is arming, training and funding a government which is very much allied with Iran and you know it's ironic. The prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari was previously in exile in Iran and he has very strong ties there.

Q: But still there is this kind of double-edged quality that... for instance you just had the elections in the Occupied Territories where Hamas had this big victory.
A: Right.
Q: And one of the things you typically hear is that one of the reasons these guys win is,AeP there was this piece by Ari Shavit in the February 6, New Yorker where he interviewed Shalom Harari, a former Israeli Military Intelligence officer who has been following Hamas for almost a quarter century and he said, "In Jordan, too, wherever there are free elections--trade unions, student unions, professional guilds--the Islamists have the upper hand. If the Hashemite kings had not played all kinds of tricks, the Islamists would have had a large representation in parliament as well. And when Egypt held its American"nspired parliamentary elections recently, the number of seats won by the Muslim Brotherhood rose fivefold. Throughout the Middle East, the Muslim Brotherhood is the main power with grassroots support. The Islamists are less corrupt. They are the ones with integrity and compassion. They are of the people and they speak for the people. Today in the Arab world, the choice is clear between democratically elected Islamists and Western-leaning dictators." So, you seem to have this double-edged sword in that they might ultimately be the more repressive guys, but they're also perceived as being more ethical.
A: Right, well, I think that the more secular,AeP this trend in the Middle East has a long and complicated history. And I think it would pay to go back to the Cold War and, in the case of Palestinian"sraeli situation, it would pay probably to go back to the early 1980's and remember that the United States, for example, in Afghanistan was supporting the Islamists over the Communists for its own political purposes and did, I think, exactly the same thing in Iran when the Shah was overthrown. The Ayatollah Khomeini was flown in from Paris with the acquiescence of the United States, because there was a left-leaning movement in Iran at that time that was about to take over. And in the case of Iraq you have this Islamist government, which is now being supported by United States, coming to power. There were other forces in the society, but they were also supported by the United States,AeP A secular movement like the Baath party, but they were also very anti-Communist and the Communist party was crushed by them. And the Israelis, of course, supported Hamas in its inception as a counterweight to the secular Fatah movement of Yassir Arafat. And these things have a tendency to backfire. You know, there's been a lot of interference by the West and by various forces within the Middle East to play different groups off of each other and sometimes this simply results in the rise to power of groups which had originally been used as pawns. I think, also, groups like Fatah have a tendency to shoot themselves in the foot by being corrupt and ineffectual. And the United States is partly to blame in that, because you have a leader like Mahmoud Abbas, but you don't allow him to actually do anything or get anything done and Sharon, I think, met with him only one time and nothing was accomplished at that meeting. So if you have these more secular leaning Westernized leaders and you don't allow them to do anything, of course they're going to lose at the polls next time there's an election. So, I think that the victory of Hamas is definitely also a victory for the Israeli right-wing, because it means that they'll be able to continue their policy of unilateral action toward the Palestinians, which means the unilateral expansion of settlements, the unilateral construction of the wall, which is effectively annexing large sections of West Bank and dividing the West Bank into sections. And this is all being done unilaterally without negotiations with the Palestinians and having Hamas in power just means they'll be able to continue moving in this direction. I don't think that it will necessarily have a good end result, but this is the effect.
Q: You said in your notes that you never really understood why the Sadr organization trusted you as much as they did.
A: Well, yeah, I mean it was strange. It was strange that they let me hang out and film them for so long. I could see that some of them thought I must be a spy and I kept on thinking to myself how long is this going to last where I have this access and they don't kick me out and I think in the end it was just the result of the fact that they had taken me in originally and they didn't want to go back on their word. They didn't want to rescind the hospitality they had been showing me without any kind of good reason. As long as I followed the rules and I was polite and they had no reason to think that, no concrete reason to think that I was spying for some other government or power, then they couldn't just come to me in this rude way and say 'You have to get out, you're no longer welcome here.' They didn't want to do that,AeP laughs.
Q: Do you think there was an angle where they might have been thinking, "Well, you know, we're honest men and he might be helpful to get our message across and get it out."
A: You know, I think, more than that,AeP the way I would explain it to them wasn't that my film was going to help them right now in this movement that they have. My pitch to them about filming them was basically, 'Look, there's history to think about. You have this movement. You think it's important. How is it going to be remembered? How is it going to be recorded? This is my job. I'm a documentary filmmaker and I'm writing the first draft of history right here, because this film, if it is successful, if it comes out, is going to be available fifty years from now. People will be able to refer back to it and say, 'Well, there was this movement and they wanted these things.'" So, in a way, that appealed to the more educated and prescient of the group and also there's a strong tendency towards narcissism in a lot of these movements. They like to be filmed, they film themselves all the time.
Q: The shots of the battle in Kufa appear to be from a different camera.
A: Right. There's a 1-minute scene in the film where you see this little bit grainier, little bit rougher footage, which is actually shot by one of the people in the demonstration, because I was at that time driving from Baghdad to Kufa and I didn't arrive until 40-minutes after that firefight had started. So what you have in that scene is a situation where you're seeing visuals shot by one of the people who was in the demonstration and filmed it and filmed people coming back with weapons and starting to fight the Spanish troops, but you're hearing the audio that I recorded of the same skirmish, because at that time you couldn't get close to the base from the main road where I had come in on the taxi. So, it's my audio with someone else's video, but it's completely anonymous. They released it on a video CD and started selling it in the marketplace. It's 320x240, whatever,AeP extremely compressed video CD material and the fact that it blew up to 35mm as well as it did is kind of astounding.
Q: Did you ever take any physical precautions while there? Did you ever wear body armor?
A: No. I never wore anything like that because whenever you do that people think you're a soldier and if you embed with the United States military it's probably a good idea, because if you're with them they already think you're a soldier, but if you're out on the street you don't want people to think you're military, you don't want people to think you're a part of some organization larger than yourself and the minute you have anything that looks like it might be a uniform of some kind, whether it's a bullet proof vest or press vest or insignia of some kind, then immediately people are going to be asking, "Where are you from, what are you doing, what are you part of?" Whereas if you're just a guy with a camera you can always say, 'I'm here making a documentary' and that's it. It's a psychological thing as much as anything. If you're wearing a bullet-proof vest you're sort of inviting people to shoot at you.
Q: Laughs.
A: You know what I mean? You're saying to them, "I'm a person who is afraid of getting shot. I'm afraid of getting shot, because maybe I'm here doing something not quite right." If you approach everything in this kind of totally open way people are less suspicious of you.
Q: Well, despite your good relations with the Sadr organization, you were actually dragged into a court at one point.
A: Yeah, they were kind of disorganized and very nervous all the time, especially after large numbers of them started to get killed by the Americans. This is in the run-up to the siege of Najaf, the siege of the shrine, where they had hundreds of fighters inside the Imam Ali shrine and most of the downtown of the city was destroyed, entire hotel buildings were bombed to the ground by F-16's. And these huge planes, that they had first used in Vietnam, I forget what they're called, the Ghosts or something [Spectre or Spooky], but there were these B-52 sized planes with these large barreled guns coming off the side and whatnot and they started flying these things around Falluja, I think it was the first place they used them, and then they used them again around in Najaf. Just this complete devastating firepower, Apache helicopters and tanks on the periphery of the city, artillery and F-16 bombing going on. I mean, it was a,AeP if you look at photographs of Najaf after the siege, which took place in November, the main street leading up to the shrine where you see the gold dome at the end, that whole street was just knee-high in rubble after the fighting. It was completely filled with the remains of destroyed buildings and it's unfortunate, for the purposes of the film, that I wasn't able to film during that siege and afterwards, because it would have been a very interesting way of concluding the chapter, but I was in the North. In September I had moved up to the North, and I just decided that it was too difficult, in terms of security, although friends of mine were inside the shrine during the siege. I didn't take that risk.
Q: To get back to your 'court appointment'. How did you talk them into letting you go?
A: Well, they basically realized that I was who I said I was and I was doing what I said I was doing. It wasn't a big deal, but it could have been. You never know. These situations, if they get out of hand, they can become very dangerous and especially when people are getting killed and tempers are very high and if you overreact and start arguing, it can become a dangerous situation. Luckily, they just sort of sent me away and said 'you're not welcome' and at that time I basically just tried to keep my cool and say 'Look, we have permission, stamped and signed by your people. There's nothing in these permissions that says we can't go to the cemetery and film and, besides, we weren't really filming, we were just going to see what happened, because we want to know and eventually they just sort of sent us away, but it was just one of those things. Definitely things got worse and worse, in terms of people's tempers and moods and that's what really makes the situation dangerous.