Interview with James Longely

  • How did you come to make the film?

  • In 2002 I had just come back from making a film in the Gaza Strip, and somebody asked me at the premiere screening of that film what I was going to do next. And it was already obvious to me the direction the Bush administration was moving at that time that I decided the place I needed to be was Iraq because Iraq was about to be invaded by the US and I wanted to be able to record that, and be a witness to whatever took place. I went to Iraq a couple times in 2002 before the war, and was unsuccessful in obtaining the kind of permissions that would allow me to do the kind of film I wanted to make, which would just be about ordinary people.

  • What was it like to cross the border after the 2003 invasion?

  • Well, it was actually more difficult to leave Jordan than it was to enter Iraq at that time. On the Iraqi side the government had already fallen so the Iraqi border was no longer really a border in the way that it had been. During Saddam's regime they would search everything you had and ask you all kinds of questions and it'd be a whole long process of filling out forms. Whereas after the war, there was just a US soldier, like some eighteen year old kid with an M-16 rifle sitting in the shade waving people through with his little finger; there really wasn't any kind of passport control or anything. They weren't set up to do it. These things require a bureaucracy and there wasn't one.

  • How did you gain the level of access and intimacy you had with your subjects?

  • The most important thing is the element of having enough time to spend with the people you're filming, and knowing from the beginning that you're going to spend a lot of time with them, and that you don't have to rush to get your material. You can relax, sit back, and have lunch with people, have tea with them, get to know them at a very leisurely pace and explain to them what you're doing and clear up any questions and concerns that they might have with your project as you go along.

    And not only give yourself enough time to do the groundwork with the people that you're filming, but also to get to know all of the people around those people. So for example in the shop in Baghdad where I filmed the eleven year old Muhammad and his boss, I knew not only them, but a lot of other people in their community. And they feel comfortable then.

    And when you're filming a person over a year and a half or two years, it gives you enough time to really become invisible, so to speak, because it's not possible for people to concentrate on the fact that you're filming them twenty-four/seven. And once you give them enough time and enough space to get used to your camera, then you can start getting that kind of material where the camera is six inches away from the kid's face and he's not paying any attention to you. And he's not pretending not to pay attention, he's really not paying attention.

  • At one point, it seemed like you were right in the middle of the action with bullets firing and people dropping around you. Can you talk a little bit about what that was like?

  • At the time that I filmed that scene, I had already been filming for six months, and so everybody who was on that raid knew who I was, and knew that I was making a film and while I had never filmed anything like that with them before, they knew that the authority figures had signed off on it, so they weren't going to stand in my way. And having that kind of familiarity just meant that not only could I show up at the office and ask permission to go on that excursion with them and they would say yes, but also that nothing was going to happen to me from their side during the raid unless they accidentally shot me or something.

    So from my point of view as a filmmaker it actually wasn't as dangerous to do as it appears. Now it was dangerous and there were a lot of things that could have happened. It could have gone sour. These things are unpredictable, and you don't know what's going to happen when a group of masked men storms a market and starts firing their guns in the air and kidnapping people. Because there had been cases in the past when firefights have broken out and people get killed. And if you wind up in the middle of that kind of situation then things can go badly for you. I was very lucky that nothing like that happened.

    I think in general, in Iraq, I was luckier than I wanted to be. And no matter what I did or where I went, the bomb always went off somewhere else. I mean it just always did. I would go down to Najaf in the summer of 2003 to film the Sadr movement, and they would bomb the United Nations compound in Baghdad, and then I'd drive back to Baghdad and there would be a large multi-vehicle car bomb assassination in Najaf where I'd just been the day before. And on and on like that. I was able to walk between the rain drops but I don't want to imagine for a second that it was because of some kind of special skill. I think it was just blind luck.

  • Did you have a form you were looking for from the outset for the film, or did the movie emerge from the material you captured?

  • More the latter. My own feeling was that the situation could go one of two ways. Because after the war, there was a power vacuum, and there was anarchy on a certain level which is very unstable. I felt it would either degenerate into a kind of civil war, anti-occupation insurgency-type situation, or it would come under the control of some new power that would probably be authoritarian.

    I didn't believe for a moment that some kind of blossoming democracy was going to take root in Iraq that was just going to be this bastion of liberal secularism because it was unlikely in the wake of a dictatorship that that was going to happen. I figured I had a kind of window where I could maneuver before things got either too dangerous to work in, or became too authoritarian as they had been under Saddam so that I no longer had the ability to move around and film as I wanted, and to have people speak openly to me.

    I was trying to do as much as possible. Unfortunately I'm just one guy and I was operating on a very small budget. And it was very difficult to find someone who would commit to supporting a project in that kind of unstable space of not knowing exactly what was going to happen. So as always I think with these things, I just wound up doing it on my own. I mean that's what you have to do in the end if you think you have a good idea and it's tricky to find sponsorship for it. So I thought maybe I'd make a series, but it wound up being a feature.

  • What did you discover during that time that you didn't realize before you started shooting?

  • We, as Americans, do tend to be kind of clueless about the complexity of other countries. And it's really easy to jump into a country like Iraq and think that you know something about it, and try to kind of push things in the direction you think they ought to go. And that's what the United States did when it went in.

    And unfortunately I think the concept that the United States had in Iraq was a simplistic one: that there are the Kurds and they have their interests, and the Shiites and they have their interests, and the Sunni, and so on. And we have to cater to and organize Iraq politically around these different interests, and actually going in there this kind of very rudimentary understanding of Iraq only exacerbated those divisions. It didn't help unify the country at all.

    And in my film, I do show different perspectives in the country but they're limited to really the individuals or groups that I'm filming. Iraq is an extremely diverse country-- geographically, culturally, in every possible way, there's a lot going on there. And to try to encapsulate it into one film is really impossible. All I can do as a director is to give people a taste of what's going on in this period from different perspectives, in different places.

    I'm not trying to make an all-inclusive, definitive film, although it may be a more definitive film than anything else that got made during that period just because I took the time to be in different places and do these detailed stories. It's only fragments of the country; it's little pieces. I want people to see the small pieces of a much broader puzzle.

    And I think one of the things that I would like audiences to come away with when they watch the film is really how complicated Iraq is and how much humility you have to have in the face of that history and complexity if you want ever to be able to have some kind of positive impact. In terms of the United States' foreign policy, we simply can't afford to go into places and think that we know everything and think that we understand how it works. I think to a large extent, we did go into Iraq with that kind of hubris and we've paid the price for it and so have the Iraqis.