December 30, 2005

Iraq in Fragments. 1.

The latest film from Gaza Strip director James Longley is Iraq in Fragments, which will premiere at Sundance. We'll be following the film there and beyond and begin here with Hannah Eaves's meeting with producer John Sinno.

Iraq in Fragments Seattle's 911 Media Arts Center seems deserted when I arrive. No one is manning the reception desk, and a quick look down the aisle of cubicle entrances reveals nothing but tastefully hung white linen roman blinds. No doubt, there are people in there working, if the recent successes of the center are any indication. Ward Serrill's documentary about a Seattle high school girls' basketball team, The Heart of the Game, was just picked up by Miramax in Toronto, after having spent several years in the editing rooms here. CEO of Arab Film Distribution and Typecast Pictures, John Sinno, has just found out that Iraq in Fragments, a film he recently co-produced along with its director, James Longley, will be screening in competition at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

Sinno soon pulls up outside and we decide to go out to lunch. We have a quick look in the editing suite, where we'll return later to watch some clips. It's a small room with a big G5 tower on the desk and a CRT reference monitor remains firmly off ("You can't watch it on that," John tells me, "it's terrible."). A whiteboard is covered in scratchings, including a large drawing of a steaming cup of coffee. Before we leave, John opens a drawer, full of miniDV tapes. Then another drawer. And another. He's excited about Sundance which, only months before, he had thought was a long shot. This morning he's received a call from the representative of a famous "independent" distributor. His main hope for Sundance is to sell Fragments to a company powerful enough to give it a wide theatrical release as quickly as possible. Most of the larger indie players such as Warner Independent, Sony Picture Classics and Miramax are notorious for picking up projects and leaving them on the shelf for anywhere from a few months to years, or even indefinitely. Down to the Bone, a 2003 Sundance alumni, is only now being seen in New York and LA. Why We Fight is slated for release in late January, a year after it was picked up at Sundance. Sinno readily admits that, in the case of Iraq in Fragments, with the region so unstable, waiting too long might date the material.

Iraq in Fragments

Iraq in Fragments is the latest documentary directed by Longley, whose previous film, Gaza Strip ("A documentary to make the stones weep," wrote J Hoberman in the Village Voice), fuelled some serious debate. The complex mess that we currently call contemporary Iraq would seem the perfect backdrop for another controversial film, but Longley's approach here is not nearly as aggressive. Again, he's chosen to tell his story entirely through the experiences of those living in the area - there's no omnipresent narrator. But there seems to be less political indignation and more of a real desire to bring the experiences and feelings of everyday Iraqis to Occidental audiences. As suggested by its title, Fragments is divided into three parts, each one chronicling, roughly, on-the-ground stories from Iraq's three largest religious-political factions: Sunni Iraqis in Baghdad, Shi'a in the southern provinces and Kurds in Kurdistan. The political message, if there is one, is more about the likelihood that these three segments will break off into autonomously ruled regions.

On the way back to 911 and the editing suite, Sinno is in communication with Longley at a local sound studio, Bad Animals. They are working on the Dolby mix, which seems to be another colossal cost in the small film world. There is no Dolby representative in Seattle, so not only are they paying thousands of dollars for the right to display the Dolby logo, they have to fly an expert in to ensure they have optimal quality. He's just had a look at the 35mm print they're sending to Sundance and is extremely happy with the results, especially considering the film was shot on a prosumer grade Panasonic camera (the popular "film look" DVX100A) at the film rate of 24 frames per second. Back in the suite, we take a look at a few clips from the final cut, which are clear and film-like. In the first one, an 11-year-old boy in the mixed Sheik Omar neighborhood of old Baghdad juggles his school life with working for a local mechanic. In the second, we are taken along on a raid conducted by a Moqtada Sadr's movement, who are pushing for regional elections, as they enforce their interpretation of Islamic law by kidnapping and beating up merchants who are selling alcohol in a local market. This segment is an intimate look at the inner workings of the messy Shi'a uprising and culminates in an armed revolt against the United States. The astonishment that Longley can gain such intimate access to the hooded militia (he's actually in the car with them on the raid) is only made greater by the fact that he is not fluent in Arabic.

There is one lone laurel on the widescreen Iraq in Fragments website: Sundance, Official Selection. Trusting that there will be many more to come, GreenCine is going to follow the film through its reception at Sundance and other festivals to (hopefully prompt) distribution. Next up, look for an interview with co-producer and director James Longley at the main site.

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Posted by dwhudson at December 30, 2005 1:07 AM