The Best Films of 2006
To a degree that muffles my enthusiasm for the film, James Longley's aesthetic plan for Iraq in Fragments is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: that is, if you splinter your movie into discontinuous shards, you will certainly achieve an effective mimesis of splintering, although you pay a certain price in sequence-level rigor and coherence. Portions of Iraq in Fragments seem arbitrarily assembled in their montage; at other moments, the robust, aesthetically powerful cinematography poses an equal risk of distracting us away from Iraq's contemporary agon and onto the facility, skill, and conceptual conceits of the filmmaker. However, with those caveats supplied, I think Iraq in Fragments is a stirringly wrought documentary incorporating footage that I can hardly believe anyone, especially a Western man with a movie camera, was able even to record, much less to safeguard through the various trials of local unease, possible censor reviews, and what was almost certainly a bear of an editing job. Iraq in Fragments looks as immediate and pressing in its sensual life on-screen as in its political and historical convictionswitness its heightened rendering of colors, of textures, of skylines, of a city that is decimated without being the rubble-pile that American news sometimes suggests, of facial close-ups at every juncture of the affective spectrum. The movie's full-scale immersion in the catastrophe it documents is a world away from the articulate but critically distant finger-wagging that characterizes so much modern documentary, and modern reportage in general. Longley was able to "see" the artistic possibilities of Iraq in Fragments while serving as his own cinematographer, camera operator, sound technician, composer, and editor because he insinuated himself so intimately with the quotidian life of a fractured country and allowed people, not just images or ideas, to speak eloquently and emotionally on their own behalfespecially in the first and third segments. The politics of characterizing an imperiled Sunni population (largely through the sentimentalized figure of a chastised, laboring child), a martial and resurgent Shia army of true believers, and a tremulous Kurdish north will be debated for years to come by the informed audiences the film draws to itself, but the especially salient point here seems to be that Longley has crafted a documentary that is guaranteed an afterlife as both a global-political time capsule and a benchmark of cinematic expression, blending the styles of the objective, anthropological survey and the personal essay-film with uncommon and topically appropriate finesse. Iraq in Fragments arrives on screen replete with indelible images, and with its finger credibly on the pulses of a country that is simultaneously passing away and convulsing into some new, volatile iteration of life.
Honorable Mention to When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, Spike Lee's sprawling, humane record of the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, an emphatic result of political neglectif not, as many interviewees feel, a socially eugenic and tyrannical will. In the understandable interest of quickly accruing massive amounts of footage and reflecting those impressions back to a nation in denial, Lee hasn't imparted to this film the argumentative consistency or rhetorical polish that he might have, or the refined, artistic technique that is more typical of Iraq in Fragments. Still, the film is prodigious in scope and deeply moving. Both portraits of concurrent catastrophes, serving as mirrors in some fashions and as direct contrasts in others, will endure as indispensable artifacts of the places and moments they describe, and, in Lee's case, as a crucial node within an already broad and accomplished filmography.