Contrary to what I suspect assorted art school students, Evangelicals, and left-wing activists may believe, there is no moral high ground, no significant level of superior understanding to be claimed on the issue of the Iraqi disaster, not by any American. Despite its dark days of late, America remains a democracy nonetheless. Therefore we are all fundamentally responsible for the new reality we have created for Iraqis, ugly as this fact is. And never has this reality seemed quite so ugly, paradoxically, as in the beautifully rendered documentary “Iraq In Fragments”, masterfully presented by American director James Longley.
Longley takes turns focusing on stories of all three “fragments” of Iraq: Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd. The first act centers on an 11-year-old Sunni boy named Mohammed, who struggles to balance the importance of school with that of keeping his job working for a physically and verbally abusive café owner. For the second act we move on to Shiite Sheik Aws, a young religious leader and follower of Muqtada al-Sadr, who struggles to politically organize his fellow Shia in Nasiriyah. The film ends in the Kurdish north, following a father and son, each with their own hopes for the future of Iraq.
“Iraq In Fragments” documents a time, from the fall of Baghdad through the relatively successful elections, now viewed as one of the rosier periods of the occupation, charging the images on screen with the dire knowledge of how much worse the situation will become. In fact, the realities on the ground may be so troubling to American eyes that, by the end, you’ll regret watching the film at all.
And while the documentary ends in the Kurdish north with a measured degree of optimism, even strains of joy, the American viewer’s closer relationship with Iraq overwhelmingly brings on an emotional state in communion with that of the fragmented nation itself: devastation.
DIRECTED BY KELLY REICHARDT
From the passenger side of a Volvo station wagon, a dirty, hippie-looking Kurt, played by musician Will Oldham, explains the special quality of a secluded Cascade Mountain hot spring to his old friend Mark (Daniel London).
“It has this otherworldly peacefulness about it. You can really think,” Kurt says, just before taking a particularly ironic drag from his joint.
“Sounds awesome,” Mark replies from the driver’s seat.
Two thirty-something friends from Portland, who presumably met in college, are on their way to the hot spring. This spontaneous 36-hour camping trip, suggested the same day by Kurt, gives Mark a chance to escape the fast-approaching fatherhood staring him in the face at home, while the journey is just more of the same for free-spirited Kurt.
A sad, mostly unspoken tension grows between the two friends, who evidently haven’t spent significant amounts of time together since their glory days. Mark has absorbed a standard kind of Bourgeois-Bohemian mindset, while Kurt still revels in theories of a teardrop-shaped universe and his aging-hippie lifestyle. Most divisive for the friendship is Kurt’s getting them hopelessly lost in the mountain roads, and not seeming particularly concerned about it. On the way to the hot springs, the friends attempt to reclaim the old, easy nature of their relationship, but to little avail. For a few moments they seem kindred spirits once more, but these are sadly fleeting. The youthful lives they once shared now seem dead—something to be mourned.
But the striking, patient film does provide a way out of the despair, albeit a slight one. As Kurt recounts a dream to Mark at the hot springs, in what seems like just another one of his burnout non sequiturs, a kernel of wisdom emerges. Consoled by a dream character, he is told, “Sorrow is nothing but worn out joy.”