According to his website, James Longley ’94 has been a film projectionist, an English teacher, a newspaper copy editor, and a web designer. However, anyone who attended the screening of his sobering, Oscar-nominated documentary “Iraq in Fragments” last week will probably tell you, it is his role as documentarian that has justifiably sparked the most discussion and earned him the most praise. During a recent phone interview, I spoke with James about the purpose of his film, what the United States should do next in Iraq, and why he never technically graduated from Wesleyan.
MC: You said, in the director’s statement that accompanies the film’s press kit, “It was never my intention to make a ‘war documentary.’ I wanted to make a film about Iraq as a country, about the people of Iraq.” In the same statement, you also say, “I set my mind to making a film about Iraq in early 2002 when it became clear that the United States would invade.” Would you have gone to Iraq and made this film had the U.S. not invaded Iraq?
JL: Probably not, for a couple of different reasons. It’s important for people to know about Iraq because we invaded and are directly involved. If we didn’t invade, we would have still had sanctions, but it’s not the same level of interest. Also, would I have been able to make a film in Iraq under Saddam? Probably not…We’ve grown up watching war films. We know how the war movie works, who the characters are. We understand films more than we understand anything else in this country. The thing I didn’t want to fall into was going into a war zone and making a “war movie.” I didn’t want to take that cinematic language and simply apply that to a real situation. The reality in a place like Iraq is so different than what we expect. Most of the people we see [in the film] are people who are mostly not in combat. The film is not so much about the Americans as it is about the Iraqis and the big issues they’re dealing with in their country. I want to film to be evergreen, not dependent on foreign policy, not to lose its significance if the United States pulls out of Iraq.
MC: Having been in Iraq for over two years, what do you think is the most important thing the United States should do to encourage stability and progress in the country?
MC: Further comment?
JL: The United States is having the opposite effect people think it is. It has served to divide the country against itself. The Iraqis have managed their affairs for thousands of years, and they can in our absence. They cannot have sovereignty with foreign troops; to say they have sovereignty is nonsense…I don’t think we’re going to get out of Iraq. If we didn’t want to stay, we would have left. Why are we staying? My guess is we want to keep bases in the country, maybe using Iraq as a base for a further conflict with Iran, which the United States is pushing toward very rapidly. If our goal was to save Iraqi lives, we would be removing the troops. The problem the United States has is we’ve forgotten what sovereignty means, what international law means. How many Americans know the government is carrying out air strikes in Somalia? It’s a complete violation of international law. It’s just turning us into hypocrites. We’re teetering on the edge. I sometimes feel we’re in the last gasp of empire.
MC: Talk about your stylistic choices in the film.
JL: I would describe the film in terms of magical realism, expressionism, with an underpainting of verite. I’m trying to create the cinematic experience of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. I use all the cinematic techniques I can to reinforce this in the eyes of the viewer. You want a Western audience to see the world through the vantage point of someone in Iraq. That’s also a political decision, because you’re saying that this is an important point of view… Yes, there are a lot of cuts in the film, but kids these days, they cannot watch long shots. Look, there are plenty of films I love that have the ten minute shots. But even then, my mind starts to wander to my tax returns, because you don’t have enough new information. The rule in “Iraq in Fragments” would be that every shot has new information. You build up an expectation that the viewer will see something new and every shot will bring a new perspective.
MC: After the film, Professor Basinger commented on the fact that you never actually graduated Wesleyan, owing the school one credit and $900. Can you elaborate?
JL: I transferred to Wesleyan in my sophomore year. I’d been in the University of Rochester because it’s right next to the Eastman House [museum known for its film collection]. Second semester freshman year, I was in Leningrad studying Russian. I bought a 16mm camera in the spring of the last year of the Soviet Union. Can you find a more fascinating subject for filming documentary footage? I applied to transfer to Wesleyan and was accepted. So there I was, enrolled in Wesleyan’s film and Russian programs. I was here for a year. In my junior year, I went back to Moscow and studied at the film school there [the All-Russian Institute of Cinematography]. In Moscow, I shot what would have been my thesis film, had I shot it in my senior year [Wesleyan only accepts films shot in the student’s senior year as their thesis film]. By the end of my senior year, that film won the Student Academy Award…Most of my film classes I took I had great grades in, so I felt that I completed my undergrad: not technically, but to my own satisfaction. I mean, you could always do more, but I didn’t feel this need to come back and take one credit and rent a room on High Street. The fact that Jeanine said she would work it out with the registrar’s office was kind of a load off my mind.
MC: You’ve had many jobs in your life. How do you think your multitude of divergent professional experiences have affected your film work? Has there been one job in particular that has affected your filmmaking?
JL: I was a projectionist, so that probably affected my filmmaking…The thing that drove me toward filmmaking was an attraction to everything visual. I never had, and still don’t have, a television. To replace that, I went to the movies. The art house movies, Charlie Chaplin, “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” These kinds of movies I saw by the time I was five. That’s what I loved growing up. I was old-fashioned in that way. My mind wasn’t corrupted by this cheap fucking television imagery. At the time, I was always pissed my parents would never let us get television, but over time I got where they were coming from. Having a different visual background and having a love for a different kind of cinematic experience. Also, I grew up on an island north of Seattle [San Juan Island, in Washington State]. That sense of isolation affected me as well.
MC: All of the fellow documentarians you’re nominated with for the Best Documentary Oscar either directly or indirectly touch upon current issues in American culture and politics. Do you feel this constitutes a trend in American documentary film; if so, what are your thoughts on it? If not, what do you feel are the major trends in modern American documentaries?
JL: I think documentaries have always focused on American, or not necessarily American, social and political issues. It’s been a big tendency in documentary films. A film like “Jesus Camp” [a fellow nominee for the Best Documentary Oscar] is political but it’s talking about that subject through an exploration of characters…There’s a lot of attention to what the industry does in a way that wasn’t there before. People accept documentaries as works of cinema on a much larger scale. Documentaries are shaking off this aura as these terrible things you didn’t want to watch in ninth grade science class and are being accepted as great works of cinema and films that work with the language of cinema. With technology, almost any one can make a documentary. My film was shot and edited with cheap equipment. When I graduated, or almost graduated, in 1994, if you didn’t have $100,000, how would you make a film? You’d spend $30,000 just renting the camera. Those barriers that stood in the way are collapsing, and I hope that people are going to both break out of preconceptions of the documentary genre and push the accepted boundaries of the documentary genre.
MC: What’s next?
JL: I hope I’ll make a film about Iran. I think it’s a fascinating country. I hope the United States will not invade Iran; if it does, it would be frustrating for me to not document it in some way. If not that, I’ll probably make something else.