In spite of having a team of critics watching and reviewing films at Sundance, Iraq in Fragments, which ended up sweeping the Sundance documentary competition, slipped through the Cinematical cracks. When I saw the film was screening last week in Seattle as part of the Seattle Arab and Iranian Film Festival, I immediately made plans to catch it. I knew very little about the film in advance, but given the popularity of political documentaries at film festivals, I suppose I was expecting Iraq in Fragments to be a film about how the United States is destroying Iraq. What I saw instead was a beautifully shot portrait of the human side of Iraq -- the differences that divide Iraq's Shia, Sunni and Kurdish population, and the similarities that, as is so often the case in cultures around the world, get overlooked in the need to identify with a group. For there to be an "us", it seems, there must be a "them", and in the Iraq of the moment, that need to define by differences seems to be prevalent.
Director James Longley first went to Iraq before the U.S. invasion, but found it impossible at that time to get permission to film. He returned in 2003 and spent the next two years living and filming in Iraq, gathering the stories that would ultimately become the pieces of Iraq in Fragments. Longley, in his director's notes for the film, insists that he wasn't looking to make a political film or a war documentary, but a film about the people living in Iraq. He filmed six stories, three of which became the framework for the the film, one each from the Sunni, Shia and Kurdish populations of Iraq -- groups that, with the fall of Sadaam Hussein and the demise of the Baathist regime, are struggling for power and autonomy within their country even as the United States struggles to maintain its own control.