From Open City Documentary Festival’s 2016 edition, two films that engage with enormous subjects in ambitious fashion. A six hour home video account of Iraq in wartime, and a dramatic, cryptic essay on the nature of border control in modern Europe.
Abbas Fahdel left Iraq for France aged 18. Since then, a lot has changed in a country that has been ruptured by both internal and external forces for much of its recent history. Fahdel's return visit in March 2003 however, showed a country on the brink of a particularly great disruption. Filming constantly, Fahdel recorded hundreds of hours of material of his family and their day to day experiences pre and post US invasion - footage that, for reasons that become clear on viewing it - he'd only be able to return to some ten years later. The result? His near six hour masterpiece Iraq (Homeland Year Zero), an intimate, intensely moving and deeply personal record of the Iraqi wartime experience we never saw, that which was lived by the people themselves.
Early on, one of the many Iraqi's Fahdel films asks that he "show them our life." This is Fahdel's film's prevailing achievement, a scrappy, formally unobtrusive sprawl of a film that, above all else, is a resoundingly, refreshingly human depiction of the country. Splitting the film in two, Fahdel devotes just under three hours to recordings from those two weeks before the occupation, and then another three for material from after the fall of Baghdad and in the immediacy of Saddam Hussain's arrest. In both sections, the people are central, (most notably Iraq's children who jostle against each other constantly to dominate the frame) and the vibrancy of the culture and community is accentuated.
Using a home-grade video camera and favouring immediacy over formal control, Fahdel records the rituals and processes of regular life, the many moments spent eating as a family, and also fishing, farming, playing and working together. Essentially just a diary film, Fahdel's film has a home video aesthetic but a cinematic approach. His camera pans and tilts on a mounted frame, and moves with the subjects and maximises the possibility of the format, finding richness in the saturated colour and expressionism in the grain.
In the first part especially, much of the film takes place in the home. (Filming freely under Saddam's reign was near impossible, and only through tricking authorities is Fahdel able to capture street scenes during this period.) There is frequent references to preparations taken and peace being made, and of the use of the phrase "in anticipation of war." This is especially true of Fahdel's nephew Haidar, a boy who despite his age, is immensely wise and insatiably curious, but also frequently solemn. There is also, despite Fahdel's attempts to keep things commendably upbeat, the constant presence of the spectre of death, the looming presence of invasion, and the lingering sense of the inevitable, the awareness that this has all happened before and with the state of continuing western imperialism, will in all likelihood happen again.
Most traumatic, is the announcement - less than an hour in - that Haidar is to die. This tragedy is announced, rather severely, via a piece of onscreen text. This proves not to be a shock tactic like it may sound, but exactly the opposite. This revelation braces the viewer for a horror that - whilst still significant and indeed utterly central to the power and purpose of Homeland (Iraq Year Zero) - would make the film unwatchable were it not pre-faced in this fashion. The introduction of this context at this point informs the viewers experience in watching the remainder of the film, and carries a strong sense of the preciousness of individual moments, especially when factoring how easily they can be cut short.
Like many filmmakers who work at excessive length, Fahdel claims that the film dictated it own's length, and simply couldn't be any shorter. This isn't really true, any backseat editor can see where cuts could be made or trimmings taken, but it is true that the film needed to be long. Especially with the tragedy at the centre, it's important that the viewer spends a great deal of time with characters, that the impression of time is made, and no sense of hurry is imposed. Everyday life is precious, Fahdel is stressing, and the duration is the emphasis of this.
In the second half, as Fahdel's cameras ventures further outwards, the emotions of the Iraqi people in relation to the conflict are more clearly expressed. Under Saddam there was a collective silence, things that had occurred but could not ever be spoken of. In the post-invasion chaos, whilst its clear that Iraq is in many ways much worse off under America's disastrous rule, there is a freedom to talk about the reality of the situation they are experiencing that is at least cathartic. "We are liberated from Saddam but occupied by America," one citizen laments. Watching all this, its hard not be struck by the senselessness of it all. Families preparing for and then experiencing the obliteration of their society with a resignation and remove that comes from being repeat victims to the interests of leaders entirely at a distance from those they are devastating.
Yet despite this, whilst certainly taxing, Iraq (Homeland Year Zero) is far from bleak viewing. Fahdel's decision - when returning to his material after not being able to stand to look at it for so many years because of the tragedy it represented - to use what he had as way to celebrate his home country, is a beautiful thing. Focusing on what he calls "the nostalgia of the everyday details of life", he makes a rich tapestry of the country's people and culture that is imbued deeply with the humanity he experienced when living there. As well as a personal diary and tribute of the most touching variety, Iraq (Homeland Year Zero) is a statement about voicing the point of view of ordinary people that are not normally seen or heard. It's "an attempt to address the absence of the 25 million Iraqis in the media coverage," and one that in this context is tremendously successful. It's the strength of the family unit in the face of great adversity, people's resilience against national trauma, and cinema as a tool for representation as much as the evocation of positive and personal feelings as a defiant act. In the film, we see bombed houses, burned children, and ruined lives, but we also see the people behind these things.
Another film tackling a large and grave topic, Tadhg O'Sullivan's The Great Wall is one of many films nominally related to the refugee crisis that have appeared in recent years, but takes a different approach to the subject than most. Using Kafka's short story The Building of the Great Wall of China as its (conceptual frame), O'Sullivan paints an moody, enigmatic picture of the Europe of today. His Europe is one made of towering militaristic structures, one where power is reinforced by the architecture that looms over the citizens residing within these confines as much as those looking to get inside.
As his narrator reads extracts from Kafka's story, O'Sullivan transports the viewer between anonymous European locations. Some are more recognisable than others (Canary Wharf's imposing glass towers, or Melilla, the Morocco bordering Spanish enclave policed by a malicious border force, for instance), but all are terrifically dystopian, capturing the sort of landscapes of power he envisions as applicable to Kafka's text. As with Kafka's vision of China's (mid-construction) Great Wall, Europe's wall is divided and piecemeal. Spanning forms, purposes and geographies, this wall is a group of structures and bureaucratic facilities where architecture proves structurally oppressive by design.
Using a style of floating, rotating poetic photography that he worked out with cinematographer Feargal Ward, the camera skirts and glides around the structures that dominate these lands, objects and institutions of power such as barbed fences, concrete walls, spiked blockades, a militarised police force and the omniscient security cameras, seemingly searching for a meaning Kafka's text aims to tease out. For O'Sullivan (though his film is elusive, deliberately obscuring any specific reading in favour of atmosphere, mystery and intrigue) construction is an act of violence. Whether in the implicitly violent policing of borders and erection of defences, or in the seemingly innocuous but imposing structures that surround those who are supposedly free in movement, all he records is the visceral articulation of state power.
This mode, combined with the imposing sound design, a cacophony of natural elements and an electronic score, apparently made from destroyed versions of classical recordings, a subtle aural dismantling of Europe's legacy, makes for a heavy statement, and one that feels sometimes slightly overwrought. Sometimes clumsily edited, and a bit too reliant on the floating camera technique, The Great Wall nevertheless features a number of striking images, and certainly achieves a sense of atmosphere, if as much through the withholding of context as the provision of meaning. It's the more still images - those where O'Sullivan and Ward slow down to take a look at the people oppressed by the structures he's so obsessed with - that have the greater impact. The boy sitting defeated on the fence that has been used in all the press materials (and indeed above) carries more power than the umpteenth glide across a particularly threatening looking guard tower.
The Great Wall is an essayistic, ambiguous, quixotic puzzle of a film, one that very effectively conveys a feeling, about how power and control is intoned and imposed through architecture and space, without resorting to any direct assertion of this other than the accompanying allegorical Kafka textual inclusions. The Great Wall is cinema not journalism, very much about the poetry and mystery of the situation we've found ourselves in. If you're seeking reportage on this and other topics, you are not necessarily looking in the right place. O'Sullivan's intent was, by his admission, "to look at Europe from a distance" and make a film about the articulation of power. Many great films have been made specifically about migration. This, by design, is not one of them. It is however a challenging and interesting documentary that interrogates how we look and think about constructed landscapes, and how they are being used to reinforce the privilege of some and enable the oppression of others.