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From Gaza to Iraq: James Longley

By Hannah Eaves Originally published: February 2, 2006 Having completed Gaza Strip, James Longley then spent two years making Iraq in Fragments, which has just picked up prizes for best Documentary Directing, Excellence in Cinematography and Documentary Film Editing at Sundance. Previously, Hannah Eaves spoke with co-producer John Sinno; here, days before the premiere of Fragments, Hannah spoke with the film's director. And now, Iraq in Fragments is available on DVD.

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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Wild Tigers I Have Known: Cam Archer's Study of Adolescent Angst

interviewed By Heather Johnson

Twentysomething director Cam Archer doesn.t have much interest in conveying the often self-involved dramas of his own generation. The inner lives of teenagers provides much more interesting filmmaking fodder. In our 20s, we discover more fully who we are; in our teens, we struggle to be like everyone else and for everyone to like us. If that doesn.t happen, the results can be brutal, and lead to years of therapy in our 30s.

His new film, Wild Tigers I Have Known, is now out on DVD.

Continue Reading Wild Tigers I Have Known: Cam Archer's Study of Adolescent Angst

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Going Fourth: New on DVD July 3, 2007

A quiet releasing week, of course, given the midweek holiday, so don't expect much today. But there are definitely some winners in the batch found here. Check out this week's releases, and the titles coming out through the summer (new titles added weekly!)

Happy 4th of July!

Continue Reading Going Fourth: New on DVD July 3, 2007

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The Return of the MIA DVD list (UPDATED! 11/08)

By Craig Phillips

Even with all the previously unreleased films coming out on DVD each week, you could nonetheless do a thousand of these lists, alas.

At any rate, as a follow-up to my previous column on MIA DVDs, here is another group of films (with two by John Huston, natch) we're crying out for, in no particular order.

(Click on to see the list!) [Updated as things arrive on DVD.]

Continue Reading The Return of the MIA DVD list (UPDATED! 11/08)

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Seeing the Humor in Sexual Identity

By Michael Guillen In 1995, writer-director Maria Maggenti turned conventional narrative on its ear by melding it with a lesbian teen romance, creating The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love. Over a decade later, Maggenti tweaks the romantic comedy once again in her InDiGent production of Puccini for Beginners, this time limning gender fluidity with laughs and posing fresh questions for an evolving queer community. Puccini for Beginners is now out on DVD.

By Michael Guillen

(Originally appeared February 3, 2007)

"...sex, certainly sexual identity, is so complicated."

In 1995, writer-director Maria Maggenti turned conventional narrative on its ear by melding it with a lesbian teen romance, creating The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love. Over a decade later, Maggenti tweaks the romantic comedy once again in her InDiGent production of Puccini for Beginners, this time limning gender fluidity with laughs and posing fresh questions for an evolving queer community. Whether on the large screen or on the scale of microcinema, Maggenti's full-bodied humor feels enlightened and inventive, and nowhere is this more evident than in the interview she has conducted with herself for Landmark Theatres' FLM magazine. Whether reading her full-fledged attack on herself over her authorial choices or bantering with her during a recent telephone interview, I can't help chuckling along with Maria Maggenti.

So, Maria, down the line do you think Puccini for Beginners will be included in a Screwball Comedy Film Festival?

Wouldn't that be nice? I would be honored to be included.

Screwball comedies are obviously a genre with which you are clearly familiar and comfortable playing with. Why screwball comedies?

Well, I guess it's a certain amount of nostalgia. I grew up watching those movies. I was lucky enough to have my mother take my sister and me on Friday nights to see the American Film Institute in Washington, D.C. Long before kids stayed at home and watched videos, we went and saw black-and-white movies. I grew up with a great love of that form and later studied it quite extensively on my own, reading about how they made the movies and who the filmmakers were. I'm curious with how this film will do because it's a form that's hard to pull off, and I don't know if even I did it as well as I should have. It's a tough form in a time when we have so many problems, y'know? The fact that I decided to do a screwball comedy when we're faced with this horrible war in Iraq and the rise of the Christian Right and all that stuff, I hope is not a mistake on my part.

I hardly think so. We all need a good laugh during times like these, and besides, weren't the screwball comedies a direct response to the Depression? Perhaps it's an essential dyad: hard times and good laughs? Puccini For Beginners came to San Francisco last year as the opening night feature for Frameline 30. Unfortunately, I missed it at that time, but I'm curious to know how it did with the crowd.

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New on DVD: June 26, 2007

A surprisingly hearty list of new DVD titles out today, including a new set of Mystery Science Theater classics (well, the movies aren't classics, but their commentary makes these episodes classic), comedy from Louis C.K., a new volume of Noein, a harrowing environmental doc and a harrowing Mark Wahlberg actioner - wait, that one isn't harrowing, it's ludicrous, and fun. Plus the Chris Marker two-fer mentioned elsewhere. See all of 'em by clicking below.

Continue Reading New on DVD: June 26, 2007

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Black Snake Moan

Black Snake Moan: Craig Brewer's follow-up to Hustle & Flow finds him again in musical mode, but this time for a rather lurid melodrama, which is either exploitative and ludicrous, or "as humorous and raunchy as a good blues refrain" (Austin Chronicle), depending on your point of view - or all of the above.

"As a filmmaker, Brewer doesn't just yank your chain: He forges a bond with his characters and his audience that produces ecstasy and healing," writes critic Michael Sragow.

Continue Reading Black Snake Moan

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"The Structure of Human Life": Kim Ki-duk

When Kim Ki-duk's 3-Iron screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival, with the help of translator Ju Hui Judy Jan, Jonathan Marlow spoke with the Korean director about, among other things, how the "Kim Ki-duk style" plays in the US. It's finally becoming easier for Americans to check out the director's fascinating, and varied, filmography. His newest film, The Bow, is now out on DVD.

By Jonathan Marlow

Originally published May 2, 2005

"Instead of learning how to make films, I've learned to live life."

Besides the general buzz in the air, there are a few more concrete ways you can tell when a certain genre or national cinema has become, to put it curtly, hot. For one, the press begins to say so, but more formally, respected magazines and journals start devoting special issues or sections to a particular wave, none perhaps more decisively than Film Comment. Throughout the magazine's history, editors have canonized certain moments in film history with issues such as the one in the 70s examining the sudden surge of sexually explicit imagery on the screen, or more recently, issues devoted to Hong Kong (1998) and Bollywood (2002; and both of those projects were overseen by David Chute, by the way) and, most recently, Korean cinema (November / December 2004).

Which brings us to the second sign: Controversy. It can range from arguments over which films and which directors really represent the cream of the new crop all the way to outright backlash. Yes, Hong Kong action flicks are exciting and colorful, the naysayers argued a few years ago, but ultimately, they're all the same. Bollywood? Exciting and colorful, but... all the same. With Korean cinema, the naysaying is more scattered and varied because no one could argue that, say, Park Chan-wook and Lee Chang-dong or Bong Jun-ho and Hong Sang-soo are making the same sort of films.

Rather than a full-fledged backlash, an across-the-board sorting is going on: Which filmmakers truly represent the best of current Korean cinema? When Park won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes last year for Oldboy, many cheered; some did not. Most prominently, Manohla Dargis, who's raved enthusiastically about Hong's Power of the Kangwon Province, for example, aimed in the pages of the New York Times to pull Park down a few notches. But at least Dargis was civil and serious about her argument; Rex Reed, writing in the New York Observer, was not. His borderline racist remarks about Koreans' taste in films and food stirred a flurry of protest in blogs, online forums and the Village Voice and, just last week, offered a backhanded apology.

But that swirl of controversy was kicked up by a single film. The case of Kim Ki-duk is far more serious thanks to the widely regarded British critic and programmer Tony Rayns, who attacked Kim's entire oeuvre in the very issue of Film Comment that would cement reputations of various Korean filmmakers in the west for possibly years to come. Those who admire Kim's work reacted immediately and furiously, beginning with Singapore-based writer and artist Ben Slater and spilling over into one of the most lively debates to hits the boards at Koreanfilm.org in quite a while.

The debate didn't end there, though. Chuck Stephens, who edited that special section in Film Comment, rallied to Rayns's defense - and hence, to the offense against Kim as well - in Cinema Scope earlier this year, intensifying the clash between those who, like the programmers of the major festivals in Berlin, Venice, and this year, Cannes, find a fresh, vigorous and vital creativity in Kim's films and those who, well, don't.

Ultimately, of course, it's audiences, not critics, who forge canons and pecking orders. But in Kim's case, audiences haven't had much of a chance to decide, with only two very different films - The Isle and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring - immediately available to go by. [Update: That's about to change. Samaritan Girl, Bad Guy and 3-Iron -- and now The Bow -- are all now out on DVD in this country. --ed.]

3-Iron screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and it was there, with the help of translator Ju Hui Judy Jan, that Jonathan Marlow spoke with the director about, among other things, how the "Kim Ki-duk style" plays in the US. - David Hudson

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La Jetee/Sans Soleil: Chris Marker via Criterion

Chris Marker's short film La Jetee, the inspiration for Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys, is paired up with Marker's haunting Sans Soleil, and that is major cause for celebration. Both films are meditations on time and memory, with Soleil ostensibily about the correspondence between a cameraman and a woman who narrates. "No two people will come away from [it] with the same impression," writes Eric Henderson in Slant, "nor will a solitary viewer's multiple viewings yield the same experience." Adds the BBC: "Too rich, complex, and elusive to be digested on a single viewing."

More from Steve Erickson on Nerve: "After watching Sans Soliel, you realize that the paths Marker blazed for documentarians remain largely unfollowed."

Continue Reading La Jetee/Sans Soleil: Chris Marker via Criterion

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If...

If...: New from Criterion, this unforgettable drama about a revolution within a British public school, long unavailable on DVD. "So good and strong," wrote Vincent Canby in 1969, "that even those things in the movie that strike me as being first-class mistakes are of more interest than entire movies made by smoothly consistent, lesser directors... Lindsay Anderson, a fine documentary moviemaker, develops his fiction movie with all the care of someone recording the amazing habits of a newly discovered tribe of aborigines."

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