East Bay View (a blog about several things)

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Monday, May 08, 2006

SFIFF '06~!: Iraq in Fragments [festival note]

USA, 2006
Directed by James Longley

Yeah it's beautiful, but is it deep? I still don't know. If you've been keeping up with the decent newspapers, you already know the basic characterisation of the locations of the film's three sections: wearily ravaged Baghdad, the dangerously flammable south, anxiously expectant Kurdistan. Longley doesn't overturn these stereotypes, but his embellishment does squeeze original meanings out of parallels and juxtapositions. That he does all this in rapturously coloured montage is worth something. That he uses this technique to artfully integrate a variety of perspectives is a major achievement.

Which is not to say that all perspectives are represented adequately. There are four narrators, all male; women are near-absent. (A fourth story about a Sunni woman whose son has AIDS has been relegated to future DVD extra status.) Even a critic as alert as Bérénice Reynaud rationalises this as "a structuring feature of contemporary Iraqi society" -- it is insofar as the issue was that Longley found it hard to strike up working relationships with Iraqi women, a problem which a female filmmaker may not have had. (That Iraqi women can, when conditions are right, speak forcefully is proved by Riverbend.) This misunderstanding demonstrates a general failing of the work -- the absence of context. We're not sure how the status of women, for instance, has changed since the invasion. Longley, who relies almost completely on footage he shot, is concerned with now -- but as "now" slips a few more months into the past this becomes less valuable.

So you should see this as soon as possible, and yet there are timeless qualities to it. It's rare for any film, let alone a documentary, to be so rhythmic, from the choppy rage and violence of the second section to the serene, spacious sunsets of the third. By ending with the Kurds, Longley even manages to leave us with a note of hope. Is this unrealistic? Perhaps. But for some it's also necessary.

Also seen:
The Betrayal (Philippe Faucon, 2005): Americans got their Sixties movies over with decades ago, and by now are up to reviving the Eighties, with results so glib that it makes me long for times I wasn't around for. Fortunately, not only are the French willing to oblige, they're also aware that for many, the Sixties weren't as idyllic as boomer revisionism would have you believe. This is set in Algeria, 1960, and revolves around four draftees of Arab descent who translate and fight under their superior Roque (Vincent Martinez). The title tells us what to expect, but who'll betray whom? Adapted from Claude Sales's novel, it's fairly neat and literary, but it avoids easy answers. Small-scale on a wide screen, it punches above its weight.


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