A conversation with director James Longley

Iraq's Cinema of Longing 

A conversation with director James Longley

James Longley's Iraq in Fragments is a one-man production of startling audacity and aesthetic provocation. It isn't just that Longley (Gaza Strip) worked unembedded in Iraq for two years after the start of the war, gaining access to Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in wartime and risking his life at almost every turn. It's that he used this occasion to make an art film.

Iraq in Fragments has kept the Seattle-based Longley on airplanes and in hotels for much of the past year, and is still making its way, accompanied by the filmmaker, around the United States and the world. (The movie will play in Columbia in February.) In between flights, Longley, 34, talked on the phone about his film.

Nelson: You've said that the film was made to spur discussion and debate, that it's a political film only "under the surface." But was your choice to make Iraq look immensely beautiful a political decision?

Longley: Well, the fact is that Iraq is not an ugly country [laughs]. But, of course, there are a million ways to film any subject. On some level, the beauty of the film is a reflection of the reality that I found. A lot of Iraq is stunning in that sensual kind of way, with very lovely, earthy colors. I wanted the film to be experiential, for people to really be in this place when they're watching it. I don't want the viewer to be pushed out. I want them to be almost seduced by the visual world, to feel beckoned inside.

Most docs aspire to pure reportage rather than poeticism. Do you find that audiences are taken aback by the film, that they don't expect to see so much longing?

If pure reportage conveys the essence of a place and a situation, then yes, that's what I'm trying to do. I'm not trying to make a film that has a lot of assumptions built into it. If you look at the reporting of Iraq on CNN or PBS or whatever, it comes with political assumptions. I don't blame them. In mainstream media, there's almost no way to escape that kind of issue-driven, news- and event-driven work. For me, the work is a way to play a game with myself as a filmmaker. I'm almost trying to escape my own politics.

When you were shooting the film unembedded, under harrowing conditions, did you think a lot about the politics of embedded journalism?

I can't blame any journalist or filmmaker who chooses to be embedded with the U.S. military. I don't think that side of the story is illegitimate. I just knew that it was already being covered.

Has it been possible for you to stay in touch with the people you filmed?

One translator I worked with has been seeing the family I filmed, the one with the brick farm, and he says they're all the same, doing well. But Sheik Aws al Kafaji, the Shiite cleric from the film, is apparently in prison. He was arrested by the Americans. I don't know exactly why. I'd love to find out more about that, but it's kind of tricky. He was arrested and tortured under Saddam, so it's kind of ironic now that he would be arrested by the Americans. I imagine him taking a very ironic, darkly humorous perspective on that. I hope he makes it through. Acar speeds down a forest road, only to be surrounded in an instant by armed crazies who materialize from the nearby woods. In the visual grammar of big-budget action films, the sequence that ensues should be a scattershot barrage of images accompanied by a Dolby clubbing: Wheels! Guns! Blood! Shriek! Fireball! Crash!

Something different happens, though, when that scene plays in Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón's film version of the P.D. James novel about a near future when infertility has tripped the doomsday clock on human extinction. (The movie opens in Kansas City on January 5.) The attack is seen entirely from within the besieged car, and its horrific aftermath is captured in a single brilliant take that shifts with fluid urgency among the terrified passengers. The sequence builds from quiet to chaos without even an eyeblink of a cut to break the flow — action cinema as on-the-spot reporting.

This is filmmaking of swaggering virtuosity, and the long-take bravado that Cuarón displays throughout Children of Men — easily the most physically persuasive vision of the future since the rain-soaked noirscape of Blade Runner — has already antagonized some of the visually impaired critics who dismiss Brian De Palma with depressing predictability. But Cuarón believes that audiences, so often mugged by montage, will respond to the seeming simplicity and realism of a moment captured in one unbroken shot.

"Subconsciously, I think something is telling them there is not the safety net of editing — that you're not hiding behind tricks," Cuarón says. The director previously used lengthy takes to anchor Y Tu Mamá También in the class strife and political turmoil of his native Mexico. "With editing, you manipulate time. Here, you have just the constant flow of a moment. I believe heartbeats get connected in that moment."

The movie year 2006 bears the director out. Many of the year's most indelible moments on film come from shots that allow motion and emotion to unfold together in real time. They can be as intimate as Will Oldham tending to faded friend Daniel London in Kelly Reichardt's elegiac Old Joy, as elaborate as the crane shot that catches a glimpse of Hollywood horror beyond a boilerplate shootout in De Palma's underrated The Black Dahlia, or as exuberant as badass Tony Jaa pulverizing an endless string of human obstacles up the ascending levels of a Guggenheim-like restaurant in the Thai import The Protector. They can be portraiture — the still lifes of Lisbon tenement dwellers in Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth — or deathbed studies such as the pitiless last shot of Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, which reduces the expiring title character to a heap of life's laundry. Each catches a moment in a butterfly net and manages to pin that moment without killing it.

The astonishing single takes in Children of Men — particularly one sustained shot that follows Clive Owen's cynic-turned-savior high and low through the rubble of an urban war zone — seem likely to tickle movie geeks' taste buds. But they never become, in the cautionary words of Cuarón's cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, "an Olympics of long takes." In blocks of real time, they convey, as movies rarely do, the sense of existing in a nightmare that can't be blinked away.

"I think audiences are getting tired of all those zillion-billion cuts," says Cuarón, a giddy cinephile who traces his fascination with elaborate camerawork from Hitchcock's Frenzy through the films of Andrei Tarkovsky and Hungarian director Miklós Jancsó. "It's the easiest thing you can do as a director — get a lot of cameras, shoot a lot of setups and then hand the whole thing to your editor. But I think that, slowly, more interesting ways of doing cinema are getting into the mainstream. Or that's my hope, at least."

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