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Sundance film puts real faces on Iraq conflict

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PARK CITY — For all the intense media coverage of Iraq, Americans seem to have learned little about everyday Iraqis. In the United States, perception of Iraqis hovers somewhere between angry, militant, crazy, perplexing and nothing like us.

They're not from another planet, but they could be.

This is the beauty of James Longley's "Iraq in Fragments," which made its premiere Monday at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City. If nothing else, as one observer noted, it gives voice to the people, and this is what we learn from that voice: They are not so unlike Americans. Well, except their perception of America and its involvement in Iraq (they're getting a different story altogether than we are).

Longley spent two years in post-war Iraq, shooting 300 hours of film. That alone ought to qualify him for some award, given the tenuous situation in the most dangerous place on Earth. As Longley noted, more journalists have died in Iraq already than died during the entire Vietnam War. It's a lawless land, and Longley hints that he had death threats and a few close calls, but notes, "I came out of there without a scratch."

He also came out of there with 300 hours of film that he boiled down into an emotionally exhausting 94-minute documentary. If Longley had a political agenda — think Michael Moore — he hid it well. All Longley did was let the camera roll and get out of the way. The Iraqis tell their own story, with subtitles, first by an 11-year-old boy amid the rubble of old Baghdad, then a young leader in the Shiite political movement and finally a family of Kurdish sheepherders.

Longley spent a month with each of them, getting to know them, and that's the secret to the film's success. The Iraqis drop their guard around him and open up as the camera rolls and they go about the business of living. They speak poetically of their dreams and their lives, and we get to live with them for a time. With the exception of the Kurds, who gained the most from the American occupation, we learn of their cynicism toward Americans.

They believe Americans are there to steal their oil; that they replaced Saddam Hussein with something worse. They wonder where the promised democracy and independence are. From their point of view, America's motives are far different than they look from over here.

Afterward, I couldn't help but wonder if Iraqis would similarly benefit from a movie about everyday Americans.

As we filed out of the theater, I stopped a man who appeared to be from the Middle East. His name is Jay Poorak, and he grew up in Iran, Iraq's neighbor. I asked him for a quick review.

"It's very strong, the closest thing anyone has produced in this country about the people there that has been shown in this country," he said. "It is very accurate, although the situation is even worse than we saw in the movie. The conditions people live in there, without water, electricity, security. People can't go out there."

As the movie wore on, the complexities of the problems in Iraq and the plight of the people were mind-numbing and overwhelming. How is the United States ever going to solve these problems in the next 100 years, never mind anytime soon?

With his deft, artful camera work, Longley frequently focuses on the face of 11-year-old Mohammed early in the movie, particularly on his brown eyes, as we watch him watch the world and try to make sense of it.

"It was beautiful," he says of war-torn Baghdad as the movie opens. "Now there's nothing. . . . Everything is scary."

Later, he longs to see a "place that is beautiful and nice." Here's hoping he gets his wish.

Doug Robinson's column runs on Tuesdays. Please e-mail drob@desnews.com.