Iraq in Fragments | documentary 3 of 100

What’s incredible about this Oscar-nominated film is that it appears to have been made almost singlehandedly by a lone white guy, James Longly. He was born in Eugene, Oregon, but apparently hasn’t spent much time there over the past several years. Instead, he’s been living in places like Iraq (where he spent 2 years making this film); Iran (where he was arrested during the election last year), and he’s currently doing more of the same in Pakistan.

The first thing that struck me, as a filmmaker, about this extraordinary film is the way the opening sequence was shot – in fragments – by simply pointing the camera out of a vehicle traveling down the street with a fast shutter speed of maybe 250/second, which gives you a stuttering sequence of still frames strung together. It’s a technique popularized by Hollywood films like Saving Private Ryan and Traffic, and it works extremely well here to show that we’re entering a chaotic world.

There’s a shot early on in the film that I won’t forget for a long time: a sketchy street seen through a fish tank in which a pair of breathtakingly orange goldfish are floating. The contrast is unbelievable. It’s just an incredible shot that, if you got it, it has to go in the film. Reminded me that no matter where you are, keep your eyes open for things that don’t to fit within the paradigm of  everything else you’re keying on.

The most significant filmmaker take-away from this film is that it’s possible to include interviews in your film without including interviews. I’ll explain. In the first two-thirds of the film, at no point does the voice of the person being interviewed match with an interview happening on screen. Yet, we’re often seeing the person who is talking – only in different (but frequently related) situations. For example, the first person we get to know in the film is a young boy, who works for an abusive boss at a small car and motorbike repair shop. We hear the boy’s voice for a long time before we actually meet the boy, and when we meet him, it’s not in an interview context. He’s essentially giving us a voice-driven commentary about how awful his boss is, while at the same time we’re actually seeing how awful his boss is.

This is an extremely effective way to include interviews without forcing the audience to sit through predictable visuals. They are actually seeing what happens next at the same time as hearing what they need to hear to flesh out the story details. It’s brilliant. It’s a seamless combination of cinema verite with traditional documentary storytelling, and in this film at least, it’s effect is spellbinding. It doesn’t hurt that the kid is mostly silent through these ordeals, so there’s room for us to hear him explaining things. But the technique also works pretty well in part 2 of the film, when Longly manages to get himself embedded with Muqtada al Sadr’s militia during a tense period when most US journalists were getting embedded with US troops.

Random filmmaker observations:

I really liked the time-speeded sequence of the train leaving southern Iraq and then we lurch into fast motion, the perspective switches from looking backward to looking forward, and we zip across the country in a few seconds into northern Iraq, where Longly hooks up with a Kurdish family. I just found a speed manipulation tutorial on Ken Stone’s Final Cut site that explains in detail, complete with project files, how to do this effect in Final Cut Pro 7.

Longly used a Panasonic DVX 100 while making this film, the standard-definition precursor to the Panasonic HVX 200 (which we used to shoot virtually all of Shine). The highlights are frequently blown out, and it lacks HD clarity, and there’s a lot of mic handling noise during some of the militia scenes. But none of that matters a bit, because the story is so damn compelling. The film is a solid reminder that the story and the person behind the camera is always more important than the equipment.

I found myself wondering if Longly used a Glidecam or something like a Steadicam Merlin for some of his traveling shots. They weren’t rock steady, but they were smoother than I could have hand held.

There are a lot of very briefly held, beautiful, almost still shots edited in liberally throughout the film. It reminded me that you don’t have to always be thinking in terms of sequence – just shoot something pretty even if it’s a couple seconds – you can find a place for it in editing. Also, he uses whip pans really effectively  as a transition at once point, panning quickly away from a child’s face and holding the blurry transition until dropping in the next clip. Whip-panning off someone’s face is a dramatic and powerful way to initiate a transition, and you don’t have to come to a sudden and precise stop on something else within the camera for it to be extremely useable in editing.

I really liked the brief time-disolve of the school teacher herding students down the hall. It’s a great way to convey time passing slowly for the child throughout the school day. And you don’t have to do a lot of these to call attention to them – I thought this was truly judicious use of these techniques which can otherwise call a lot of attention to their use.

Longly doesn’t hide the fact that the huge pillar of black, boiling smoke rising in the background of many of the scenes in the final third of the film is actually coming from a foundry, rather than from the result of war violence. But it works as a great metaphor. So does the snowball fight that he films, again with fast shutter speed.

Even the credit roll of this film is worth mentioning. Credits rolled out from right to left – rather than the traditional bottom to top – which is the same way people in the Arab world read. James Longly’s name entered the screen like an arrow, dragging all of the key roles behind him, carving a solitary path through the black screen and pulling the rest of the crew, which contain a raft of translators behind him. How the hell do you make a film like this with everything filtered through translaters?

I about fell over when I saw Basil Shadid’s name come up in the credits as the post-production supervisor on this film. I know Basil from having hired him to film the second BizJam conference we did a few years ago. More recently, he earned an additional camera credit on Shine for filming interviews at the May 6 event. Nice work Basil! I’m proud to know someone who played a role in making this incredible film.

2 thoughts on “Iraq in Fragments | documentary 3 of 100

  1. Pingback: The War Tapes | documentary 5 of 100 | Dan McComb

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