Monday, June 11, 2007

Film Reviews: "Iraq In Fragments" (2006) and "The Lives of Others" (2007)

Last night, I did something I hadn't done in quite a while, and that's head over to Old Ottawa South to take in a double bill at the venerable Mayfair Theatre.

First up was the Academy Award-nominated documentary, "Iraq In Fragments", which takes a look at post invasion Iraq through Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish eyes. The Sunni segment is rather pointless, as a young boy of 11 who is struggling in school while working part-time takes verbal abuse from his boss. As far as I could tell, the point of this was to demonstrate the flavour of Sunni culture against the backdrop of how the invasion paralyzed Baghdad's economy, with the boss hurling insults like "pimp" against the boy while bemoaning the American presence in the city.

Then, things move southward to Naseriyah where Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is leading a mass assertion of his people's strength after decades of second-class citizenship under Saddam. The major focus in this segment is how the principles of Islam are married up with democracy, and the inherent tensions between the two.

Finally, we move to the Kurdish north, where the toppling of Saddam has finally brought a modicum of security to the families there, who are nevertheless still struggling to eke out a living. The promotional poster for the material comes from these scenes, and although you could be forgiven for thinking that it depicts a boy left homeless after a bomb dropped on his home, it's actually a picture of the fully operational brick forgery where he works. (If this was an honest oversight, I'm dubious.)

Dull, this is hardly essential viewing, and even if you're interested in these types of depictions, it's worthwhile only in that it will help round out your perceptions of Iraq rather than underline or shift them in any meaningful sense.

The next film is quite a different story, both literally and figuratively, and is quite a propos given that this week marks the 20th anniversary of the infamous "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" speech delivered by the man who defeated Communism, according to, among others, The Economist magazine.

"The Lives of Others" takes place in 1984 East Berlin where a playwright comes under heavy surveillance by the Ministry of Culture for being deemed a potential "enemy of Socialism". Soon, his mentors, lovers and friends are all implicated, as is the secret agent spearheading the operation - but not in the way you might expect. Twists and turns abound as coercion and intrusion by those who will not tolerate dissent provide the backdrop for the main character's efforts to live, think and speak freely and honestly. Things come to a stupefying conclusion for the protagonist after the Wall comes down and he is able to piece together what his reality really was under the desposed regime, thankfully consigned to the ash heap of history.

This film is an excellent reminder of how Marxist-Leninist ideology, authoritarian out of necessity, relies on instituting a system of command and control over individual actions, and that behind the Iron Curtain, anyone who dared fight back risked their relationships, careers and indeed, their very existences if they didn't properly serve the state - even if one was part of its apparatus.

"The Lives of Others" is fully deserving of its Oscar win for Best Foreign Language film, and although it was quite different and more enjoyable than "Iraq In Fragments", when taken together, both provide many reasons to be thankful for the good fortune of having been born in the democratic, capitalist West.

Overall ratings:

Iraq in Fragments: 5/10
The Lives of Others: 9.25/10


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