From Gaza to Iraq: James Longley

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By Hannah Eaves

"After the war, it was complete anarchy."

In November, GreenCine's Hannah Eaves spoke with John Sinno, co-producer of Sundance Documentary competitor Iraq in Fragments. A measured and touching film, Iraq in Fragments shies away from sensationalism to tell the story of the widening fragmentation of Iraq through the eyes of its people. The three segments, dealing roughly with the three largest religious-political factions in Iraq, seem at times like a fictional film, the camera is so absent and the framing so thoughtful. Such touches were rewarded at Sundance where Iraq in Fragments has just picked up prizes for best Documentary Directing, Excellence in Cinematography and Documentary Film Editing. It's been a long road for director James Longley, who spent two years in Iraq. Hannah Eaves sat down with him at Sundance in the days before his first public screening.

You've made two films about the Middle East now, Gaza Strip and Iraq in Fragments. When did you first become interested in the Middle East? How did that interest come about?

I don't really have any reason to be interested in the Middle East except that it's the most important international story happening right now in the world for the United States. Some people would disagree, I'm sure. There are people who think that China is the most important [story], but the Middle East continues to be extremely significant for a lot of different reasons. For people in the United States, it's also extremely misunderstood. People in the United States don't know very much about the Middle East and there is a lot of very simplistic, two-dimensional media that comes out. As a consumer of media I found that a bit frustrating and I really wanted to go to the Middle East myself and to see it myself and develop my own ideas about what was happening and really know, so I wouldn't have to take anyone's word for it. I wouldn't have to rely on what was being printed on the front page of the New York Times about the Gaza Strip because I would have been there and I would have seen it myself and I would know. You can infer then what the situation really is.

And how was it when you arrived for the first time? You must have had a jumping off point.

I decided I would make my first feature documentary before I turned 30 and so on my 29th birthday I bought a ticket to Tel Aviv and got on a plane and took a taxi down to the Gaza Strip, and that was that. When I went in, it was the beginning of January 2001, and it was raining and cold and not at all like you'd imagine the Middle East to be in movies! The Middle East of our imaginations, right? As you go into the Gaza Strip through the Erez crossing point, which is at the north end of the strip, there are these long spaces of concrete barriers, these spaces the size of large parking lots where you are just kind of walking by yourself to get to the next checkpoint. There's just nobody and nothing around. It's the strangest thing. Nobody tells you which way to go.

I accidentally went off to the right thinking that was the way I should go into the Gaza Strip and wound up at the gates of an Israeli military base, where they nearly opened fire on me because I was walking along with these huge bags, you know, and they didn't speak a word of English. But luckily they spoke Russian, because of course, the soldiers are from Russia, and so I explained myself to them. But once inside the Gaza Strip, people were very nice and helpful and it was only a few days before I kind of had my feet on the ground and I found a translator, a fixer, to work with. I continued working with him through the entire film. In fact, at the start of Iraq in Fragments, I also worked with him. He went with me to Baghdad before the war.

There are many similarities between the two films - there's no omnipresent narrator, you're telling the story through the people who are there, through their own experiences. You also choose again to see the situation through the eyes of young boys.

If I were a woman director, for example, I would probably not choose to have male kids as subjects in the film, necessarily. There's a big division between the genders socially. I found that the easiest way and the fastest, most efficient way to get inside the culture was, (a) through the eyes of a child and (b) through the eyes of a man. In Iraq I tried a number of times to hire women translators to work with me so that I would be able to have female main characters in the film and I was unsuccessful. One woman I spoke with said, "Look, I'd be very happy to work with you, but my family would object and I could work with you in this city," where she was, "but I wouldn't be able to travel with you, and I certainly couldn't spend the night outside with some man."

So there are these considerations that are just there and in the culture. That was in the more liberal part of Iraq, which is the Kurdish region up north in Sulaymaniyah, which is the most liberal city in Iraq. Women go uncovered and you can buy alcohol in stores right on the street; there are bars, it's the most liberal place, and still, it was impossible for her to have this working relationship, even there. In Baghdad it was much worse, and in the south, while I was in Nasiriyah and Najaf, you know, I can't recall even ever having a conversation with a woman.

So these kinds of cultural considerations really play a heavy role in the decisions you make in terms of the practicality of putting together a documentary film. Adults in general usually have more of a problem being followed around by some guy with a camera, not for one day, and not for one week, but for maybe a year. Most adults in the United States or anywhere else would have a problem with that; it's not an easy thing to get that kind of access. With children, it's far easier. Far, far, easier.


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