Meet the DocuWeek Filmmakers: James Longley--'Iraq in Fragments'
Over the next couple of weeks, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work will be represented in the DocuWeekTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, August 18-24. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their
films so far.
So, to continue this series of conversations, here is James Longley, director/producer of Iraq in Fragments.
Synopsis: Iraq in Fragments illuminates post-war Iraq in three acts, building a vivid picture of a country pulled in different directions by religion and ethnicity. Filmed in vérité style, with no scripted narrative, the film powerfully explores the lives of ordinary Iraqis: people whose thoughts, beliefs, aspirations and concerns are at once personal and illustrative of larger issues in Iraq today.
IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?
James Longley: As a young kid I did a lot of photography with an old Nikon--that was my start at recording the world in a visual way. When I was 19 and studying in the Soviet Union, I bought a 16mm camera and started making my first documentary material, and later, on 35mm, I made my first documentary short film while studying at the Russian Institute of Cinematography. This short went on to win a Student Academy Award in 1994, and by that time I was hooked. Now I can't imagine ever doing anything else.
IDA: What inspired you to make Iraq in Fragments?
JL: In 2002 I had just finished making my first feature documentary, Gaza Strip, so by then I was already developing an interest in the Middle East. This happened to be the same time the US was ramping up for an invasion of Iraq, so it seemed like a very natural subject to try to document. It was inconceivable to me that we could go around invading countries that we know so little about, collectively, and I wanted to buck that trend by living in Iraq and experiencing the country from a ground level.
IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?
JL: The biggest challenge to working in Iraq was the security situation. Most journalists and filmmakers are willing to accept living with the same level of risk that everyone else has--that you might get hurt in a bombing by chance, or caught in crossfire. But it's an entirely different thing when you are being targeted, when you are receiving death threats. This creates a situation where good documentary filmmaking is all but impossible, so when the security situation deteriorated too far, I had to relocate to safer places in Iraq before eventually leaving the country in 2005. If journalists'
neutrality were respected, we would be seeing a much better picture of what is happening in that country now, but because journalists are targeted for killing and kidnapping, our understanding of Iraq has been seriously curtailed. It has become almost impossible to work there now.
IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?
JL: Originally I imagined that I would try to document the situation in Iraq before the war, during the war and after the war. But because I wasn't allowed to stay in Iraq during the invasion, I wound up spending much more time than I expected documenting the situation in Iraq post-war. There was so much to cover, it was impossible to do everything I wanted. In the end, I wound up filming several complete stories that didn't make the final cut of Iraq in Fragments. One of
them, Sari's Mother, is now completed as a short film and will premiere in the Toronto International Film Festival.
IDA: As you've screened Iraq in Fragments --whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?
JL: The audience reaction to the film has been uniformly positive. I've really been very pleased. That said, it's not the simplest film in the world, and usually it takes an audience a little while to digest it and form an opinion. By that time, we've already gone home. My favorite screenings
of the film have been for high school audiences; it's a much tougher crowd and the questions tend to be more original.
IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?
JL: Harry Watt, Joris Ivens, Frederick Wiseman, Albert and David Maysles, Barbara Kopple, DA Pennebaker, Werner Herzog, Dziga Vertov and Walter Ruttmann. And the nice thing about going to film festivals is you get to keep being inspired by new directors and new work.
To view the entire Docuweek program, visit http://documentary.org/programs/index_06.php.
To download and view the Docuweek schedule, visit http://documentary.org/src/DW/DocuWeek_Schedule.pdf.
To purchase tickets to Docuweek, visit www.ArcLightcinemas.com.