This documentary will be released soon. Hannah Mintz worked as a researcher on the making of the film. Her report and discussion with Errol Morris is from Al-Ahram Weekly.
After being awarded the Silver Bear trophy at last month's Berlin International Film Festival, Errol Morris's Standard Operating Procedure is sure to make a giant splash when it hits cinemas in the US in April. Morris spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly about his film, which digs into the nightmare behind the infamous photographs of Iraqi prisoners taken at Abu Ghraib that shocked the world in 2004.
"The Abu Ghraib photographs serve as both an exposé and a cover up," Morris told the Weekly. "They peel back a curtain so that you get a glimpse of Abu Ghraib, but they fool you into thinking that that is all there is." The photographs depicting physical abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers taken at the Abu Ghraib prison in autumn 2003 are horrifically familiar the world over. In Standard Operating Procedure, Morris seeks to investigate the less-known reality behind the photographs that people only think they understand.
Morris described his film, like a cake, as having three ingredients: "the photos themselves, which are the evidence, the retrospective accounts in interviews with the soldiers involved, and reenacted elements, which attempt to take you into the world of the photos."
"At the centre of the film is the story of the photos. Who took them? And in what order were they taken? This was a way of burrowing into that story of what happened on cellblock One-Alpha," Morris said. Even though the film includes more than 200 photos from the prison, Morris chose not to quickly riffle through them as filmmakers sometimes do. "I wanted each to have some kind of resonance," he said of the photos, which would churn even the strongest of stomachs.
The film's consideration of the photos as evidence is guided by an interview with Brent Pack, the US Army investigator charged with scrutinising the photos during the prosecution of the seven soldiers. Pack addresses the topic of Abu Ghraib by analysing exactly what the pictures depict. The interview with Pack reveals one of the film's strongest and most shocking points, which is highlighted in its title: that many of the famous and gruesome photographs from Abu Ghraib, including the hooded man with wires on his hands, do not depict criminal acts, but rather standard operating procedure of the US Military.
Another unsettling reality revealed in the film is that many of the abused prisoners were normal citizens, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. The hooded man with wires, for example, was completely innocent and, ironically, well liked by the soldiers. He was even allowed out of his cell to assist with chores in exchange for cigarettes.
While the photographs act as a framework for the film, Morris's deeply personal and emotional interviews steer the investigation. The viewer is able to look into the eyes of the young American soldiers who perpetrated the abuses photographed at Abu Ghraib. Remarkably, Morris succeeded in securing interviews with all five of the seven "bad apples," as they were dubbed by the Bush Administration, who were not serving jail sentences while the film was in production.
Morris's patented interviewing contraption, called the "Interrotron," allows his subjects to look directly into a camera, which is hidden behind a projected live image of himself. "The Interrotron focuses the relationship. It creates a kind of intimacy, a kind of frame," he said. "It creates this private place where people can talk and I can listen. I'm not there to pass judgment," Morris added of his interviews, which sometimes go on for days.
In addition to the first-person retrospective interviews, the film includes handwritten letters from Sabrina Harman, one of the "bad apples," the letters offering a glimpse of the thoughts of one of the soldiers around the time the abuses took place. "They are remarkable," Morris said, "because they are contemporaneous; they come from Abu Ghraib itself."
Morris acknowledged that he is drawn to subjects who have been blamed for crimes, and who it seems no one else is listening to. "Part of being an artist is extending sympathy where it has never been extended before." In his previous film, The Fog of War, which won the 2004 Academy Award for Best Documentary, Morris interviewed the vilified Robert McNamara, who served as US Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War. "It's difficult not to come to like the people that I'm interviewing," Morris said.
But listening and extending sympathy does not mean absolution. "My being sympathetic with McNamara and my willingness to listen to him, doesn't mean I don't think he is a war criminal," Morris added. Similarly, "My liking these soldiers doesn't mean that I don't think that they did wrong. Quite the contrary, I know that they did wrong."
Morris hopes his film will raise introspective questions for the audience. "You are being introduced to a reality that people have not seen, and you have to ask yourself: what would you do? What kind of predicament were those soldiers put in?
Untrained, understaffed, ill-supplied. What does all of it mean about our military, our society? I would like everybody who watches the film to ask themselves the simple question: what would I do if I had been put in this position?"
Interestingly, like McNamara, the soldiers from Abu Ghraib do not apologise for their actions during their interviews. "The purpose of this movie was not to get these people to apologise, but to try to give an account of a reality that they were in, and that they helped to create," Morris said. "Maybe I don't exactly believe in redemption. Certain things can never be redeemed."
Morris was personally fascinated by the differences among the soldiers. "What they did, the reasons, and the excuses that they made to themselves: they're all different. But they all got trapped in this kind of evil nightmare," Morris said. "These soldiers were not innocent of bad behaviour, but they nonetheless were scapegoated. And many of the people responsible have never been held to account. In a Frank Capra film, it would be like Jimmy Stewart taking the fall, and Potter getting away with theft. It seems inherently wrong."
Reenactments of the infamous scenes comprise the final element of Morris's investigation. While some critics have said that the reenactments make the film less valid, Morris said they are "a way of putting yourself into the past and trying to think about the interviews." Morris has also received criticism for infusing his film with a hauntingly beautiful score by composer Danny Elfman. "Pursuing the truth isn't a matter of stylistic choices," he said. "I like to think that I am grappling with the idea of truth."
The stylized reenactments, which include vicious attack dogs and shadows of brutal interrogations, help Morris recreate the nightmare that was Abu Ghraib. "Everything in that place was a violation of the Geneva Conventions," he said. "Reenactments dramatize the horror of what was done there and show the terror and insanity of the place."
The reenactments attempt to capture the horrors from the prisoners' standpoint. "I think you feel the Iraqi sensibility all through the movie," he responded. "It doesn't exist in the form of interviews, but I think it exists even more powerfully in how the film is put together." Nevertheless, Morris has faced criticism for not including interviews with Iraqi prisoners. To this he has responded that this is primarily a film about America and Americans, although he has said that he attempted to find some of the prisoners in the best-known photographs.
One of the most haunting elements of the story Morris tells is that of Al-Jamadi, the Iraqi prisoner who was killed during an interrogation, likely by the US Central Intelligence Agency, and whose corpse was later photographed by one of the seven "bad apples". None of the soldiers who were punished were involved with Al-Jamadi's death, and to date, none of the CIA officers or others suspected to be involved in the murder have been prosecuted. This story serves to remind the audience that the infamous photos, while they depict abuse, do not necessarily depict torture. "I do not think that the whole issue of torture is at the centre of this story," Morris said. "The smoking gun is Abu Ghraib itself. The seven "bad apples" are a sideshow. It is all part of a much bigger picture. The worst stuff was not in the photographs," he added.
Morris's longstanding interest in the medium of photography, which predates the Abu Ghraib pictures, lies at the heart of this film. "In 100 years, I think the iconic photos of the war in Iraq will be those Abu Ghraib photos," Morris said. "Why does an iconic photo become iconic? Why do certain photos become famous?" Morris thinks there is more to the Abu Ghraib photographs than just their shock value: "They deeply capture something truly unpleasant about the war in Iraq," he said.
For Morris, it's all about humiliation. "You hear people say this is a war for oil, or this is an imperialist war to reassert America's hegemony. I see it in much simpler terms. To me it's a war of humiliation. Whoever started it, it started as a war of retaliation, revenge, spite, and humiliation. George W Bush wanted to show that he was more of a man, more important, a stronger leader," Morris said.
"This is a horrendous story of humiliation and re-humiliation. The US was humiliated during 9/11, then the US was trying to humiliate Saddam Hussein, regardless of whether he had anything to do with 9/11," he added. "These are pictures of sexual humiliation, that's what's so striking about them. Then the photos get out and humiliate the president. He then in turn humiliates the soldiers, deflecting blame from his own administration."
Morris said he would like to see the insanity of the war in Iraq come to an end, expressing dismay that the US has created a new face of evil to fill the vacuum left by the dissolution of the Soviet Union. "The idea of American foreign policy -- if you can dignify it by calling it foreign policy -- is that the solution of the problems of the world should be through violence," he said. "I would like the Arab world to be our friends, and I hope that the film might play some small role in that regard."
Although this film does not directly try to pin the crimes of Abu Ghraib on officials higher up the chain of command, such as former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Morris says Standard Operating Procedure "is the tip of an iceberg." He added, "Frankly I would like to see the people who were responsible for this punished."
Morris's self-described "non-fiction horror film," Standard Operating Procedure, will be released along with a book of the same title written by Morris and Philip Gourevitch, who is the editor of The Paris Review, which deals with the topic in more detail. "I'd like all of this to trigger a new investigation into what happened there," Morris said.
"Making this movie is in some way my attempt to deal with my feelings about this war, which includes a mixture of anger, shame, powerlessness, embarrassment. I'm very glad that I've done it."
As I recall, events at Abu Ghraib were dismissed by a lot of people when the story broke as either the activities of "a few bad apples" or "no worse than fraternity pranks."
Salon has a comprehensive file about the prison, including more thumbnail photos than you really want to see.
This story and these images are playing a big part in how the world looks at America. Those of us in denial about their importance are contributing to the problem. In the same way that indignant Americans want Muslims everywhere to denounce extremists in their midst, so, too do others look to America for denunciations of what happened at Abu Ghraib.
A deafening silence sends a message in both cases. There is a saying in business that "What you permit, you promote."
Had it not been for last week's release of yet another trove of images I would not have blogged about this. But the release of this film and these new images will have the international awareness effect of tearing the scab from a deep wound. This is NOT the way to fight extremism by winning hearts and minds.
I'm done. Go on to the next post. Silently.