Filmmaker James Longley Wins Sundance's Top Cinematography Award For "Iraq In Fragments," Feature Documentary Shot With Panasonic AG-DVX100A Mini-DV Cameras


Last Updated: February 7, 2006 6:10 pm GMT
(SECAUCUS, NJ ,February 7, 2006) Documentary filmmaker James Longley picked up a trifecta of honors at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival for his feature documentary, "Iraq in Fragments", including the Excellence in Cinematography Award, the Documentary Directing Award, and the Excellence in Documentary Film Editing. To capture the award-winning documentary, Longley spent more than two years on-location shooting 300+ hours of footage with Panasonic AG-DVX100 series mini-DV 3-CCD 24p camcorders.

Iraq in Fragments is an electric collage of hypnotic sights, evocative sounds, and arresting voices emanating from three Iraqi enclaves. In old Baghdad, buildings burn, U.S. tanks patrol, and an 11-year-old mechanic scurries amid the rubble to please his intimidating boss. Then, guided by a young leader in Moqtada Sadr's Shiite revolutionary movement, the action moves south, where political arguments ricochet across cafés and meeting halls, and young Shiite men hit the streets to enforce religious laws and stage an anti-U.S. uprising. In the northern Kurdish countryside, a farmer, grateful to America for eradicating Saddam, ruminates on the future of his family and people. Meanwhile, his teenage son tirelessly tends sheep, intent on fulfilling his dream of becoming a doctor.

The documentary has been widely praised in the national media, Newsweek citing "its beautifully shot, almost poetic images (that) take us inside this fractured country, letting us feel what its like from the inside," the New York Times saying it's "one of the best in the crowded field of documentaries from the Iraq war, " and the Village Voice lauding "Longley’s astonishing feat of poetic agitation…framing fact as if it were fiction, digitally flaring colors in defiance of vérité and every preconception of a ravaged country, shocking us first with the beauty of Iraq and then with the recognition of why we're never allowed to see it that way."

Regarding his choice of DVX100 series cameras, Longley, Iraq in Fragments' director, cinematographer, editor (along with Billy McMillin and Fiona Otway) and executive producer, said, "Using the DVX100, I felt very uninhibited in the way I was shooting. I did things with the camera that I never would have tried with a more costly instrument. I put the camera inside the openings of brick ovens, ran full-speed with the camera down Baghdad alleys, shot during dust storms at 110 degrees. At one point the camera got so hot during the filming of a brick factory in northern Iraq that the Rycote wind cover on my microphone caught on fire. But the camera never stopped recording."

When Longley arrived in Iraq in February 2003, just before the war began, he was traveling with two DVX100s (one of which he subsequently gave away to an Iraqi translator). Midway through the shoot, a filmmaker friend brought him the DVX100A, the upgrade to the DVX100. "Having redundancy on a multi-year shoot like post-war Iraq was totally crucial, and using the DVX cameras made it possible. The small expense of these cameras lets you buy several and spread the wealth, and if you have a breakdown in the field you just pull out a back-up camera and continue shooting. All this gives you the sense of using the camera as a filming tool that you can push to the limit to get your shots, instead of a super-expensive gizmo that you’re afraid to get dirty. In Iraq, I used my cameras like crash-test dummies, and to their credit they held up fine for hundreds of hours of recording over two years in some of the most difficult conditions I can imagine."

On location in a war zone, the filmmaker also had to deal with weather extremes. "The two most difficult elements in Iraq for shooting are dust and heat," Longley recounted. "When I was shooting out in the sun in southern Iraq the camera would literally become too hot to touch on the outside. Meanwhile, it was all closed up with gaffer tape to keep the dust out, and this made it even hotter. I was sure this treatment was eventually going to kill the camera, but it just kept going.

"No matter how much gaffer tape you use, dust in Iraq has a way of getting into everything anyway, so the fact that the DVX100 cameras have self-cleaning heads turned out to be a life-saver. I didn’t lose any important material to dropouts in Iraq, which was surprising considering the conditions, and I never had any need to service the camera heads during the two years of filming."

Commenting on the native capabilities of the DVX100 series, Longley (who "grew up on film shunning video") said, "The fact that the Panasonic cameras can record at true 24p with Advanced pulldown makes them superior to interlaced video cameras that cost many times more. I think people don’t really appreciate what progressive scan actually means until they see it on the screen. Shooting progressive gives such a warm, fluid look to material. Being able to shoot at actual cinema speed again makes me love video in a way that I never thought I would be able to. For documentaries it’s perfect, like having a miniature 16mm sync-sound camera that never runs out of film, where you can have instant visual feedback of what you’re shooting. I could never have made Iraq in Fragments without these cameras -- there’s no other way to affordably and practically shoot 300 hours of material so far from home, without a crew, and still achieve a beautiful, cinematic look."

He continued, "I knew from the start that I wanted to record out to 35mm film for my exhibition and release prints, so I shot 16:9 in anticipation of recording out to film at 1.85:1. I decided against using an anamorphic adaptor on the camera to achieve the 16:9 aspect ratio. I really like to use close focus in a lot of my shots, and having the extra anamorphic glass on the front of the camera would have made this a lot trickier. The weight of an anamorphic front also throws the camera off balance, which is a problem if you’re planning to shoot everything hand-held. So instead I just shot in letterbox mode on the original DVX100 -- this was before the 'squeeze' mode was introduced -- and continued to shoot in the same format with the DVX100A. This is essentially the same concept as shooting in Super35mm -- you lose some of the imaging area but you gain in optical resolution, lower camera weight and close-focusing ability. Some people recommend using the full frame and then cropping down to 16:9 in post production, but I felt confident enough in my framing that I just went straight into letterbox and kept my original framing through to the 35mm blow-up."

Iraq in Fragments was edited using Final Cut Pro software running on Apple Macintosh computers. The film was upconverted to high definition and color corrected at Modern Digital in Seattle. Dolby Digital sound mixing took place at Bad Animals studios in Seattle, and File-to-Film recording was done at Alpha Cine Labs in Seattle.

Longley (whose student documentary film, Portrait of Boy with Dog, won a student Academy Award in 1994) said he plans to shoot his next project with Panasonic’s new AG-HVX200 hand-held, HD solid-state P2 camcorder. "I feel like I’ve pushed DV about as far as I can in Iraq in Fragments, and it’s been amazingly good considering the parameters of the format. Now it’s time for independent documentaries to step up to a new level of image quality to match their increasing popularity; I think small HD cameras are going to be exactly what the genre needs. After familiarizing myself with the problems with inter-frame compression in HDV, I think it’s really going to pay off to work in a HD format that has frame integrity and true 24p shooting modes. Right now the HVX200 is the only small camera to offer those capabilities, so it seems like a natural choice for the kinds of films I make."

For more about Iraq in Fragments, visit

Incorporating exclusive CineSwitch™ technology that supports 480i/60 (NTSC), cinema-style 480p/24fps and 480p/30fps image capture, Panasonic's DVX100 series of mini-DV camcorders has set the standard for affordable 24p acquisition and been proven performers with hundreds of independent movies, TV programs, commercials, and documentaries to their credit. Like its predecessor, the new 1/3" 3-CCD AG-DVX100B offers outstanding audio performance, extensive auto and manual controls, and a CineGamma curve that truly emulates the rich look of film.

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