In the past year, there have been a number of fiction films released all of which attempt to dramatize various aspects of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of these films were well made, and share common themes. But they also have something else in common. They all flopped and failed to ignite the public moving them to action.
Now, the well-known documentarian Errol Morris (“Mr. Death”, “The Thin Blue Line”, “The Fog of War”) turns his eye to one small part of the current conflict, Abu Ghraib.
Morris, like Michael Moore, is an unconventional documentarian. Both almost overtly inject themselves, their thoughts and views into their exploration of the subject matter. And both are usually criticized for this practice. Every good documentary displays the filmmaker’s strong point of view. This is why the film is made in the first place, someone wants to share their view on a topic, the filmmaker was interested, disturbed, concerned about something. Moore has been criticized because he has taken on politically charged ideas. Morris is now turning his eye on politically themed ideas and is receiving similar criticism. In my mind, even when their films are flawed, they are interesting and meaningful because the directors are passionate about their point of view. Why would you want to see a documentary without a strong point of view? Such a film would be boring and pointless.
I would find it hard to believe that you haven’t seen at least one picture to come out of this prison in Iraq, a prison the American forces took over and converted into an interrogation facility for the prisoners they were also holding there. As soon as the story broke, some of the pictures were shown on every news show and cable network ad nausea until the next big story broke.
And, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.
In “Standard Operating Procedure”, Morris tries to give us a better view of the circumstances leading up to these events and to describe, in greater detail, what happened and why.
He does a remarkably good job creating a powerful, moving documentary.
The film begins with a brief explanation of what Abu Ghraib was – Saddam’s prison before he was overthrown, a place he used to kill many of his political prisoners – and quickly moves into interviews with the main people involved in the event. As he talks to many of the service people who were stationed there, working there, we begin to get a picture of their living conditions. Upon their arrival, they moved into cells once used to house people who were subsequently killed, cells much like the cells of the prisoners they were there to watch.
As you watch the interviews, with subjects who have since served some time in prison, the trademarks of an Errol Morris film quickly become apparent. Morris has a unique interview technique, and a unique interview device, the Interrotron, a camera he developed for his own use. In many documentaries, the subject is looking at the interviewer to the side of the camera. As their talk is filmed, we watch the subject look to the side of the camera. They are looking away from us. The Interrotron reflects Morris, who is actually in another room, into the camera directly where the lens is. As he interviews a subject, the subject looks at his image in the camera, causing them to look directly at the lens. As they speak, and address his questions, they are looking and speaking directly to us. This makes the stories the subjects tell much more immediate and interesting.
One thing you may not have asked yourself is why did these soldiers take digital pictures of these moments of interrogation, torture and humiliation? They had to have realized they might fall into the wrong hands and become ammunition against them. Morris explores this question, allowing the subjects to talk about life at Abu Ghraib, their roles as caretakers of these prisoners, the quality of life they experienced while they were there. And why would they pose for photos, holding a thumbs up, smiling, laughing, documenting these moments, recording them for history.
A picture is worth a thousand words, but it can’t say everything and Morris spends some time exploring both the photos and the quantity. Using unedited photos, he shows us what we missed as the soldiers attempted to cover up various things, before the government attempted to cover up the whole thing, and before the media created a firestorm around the whole affair. Morris also talks to an investigator hired by the government to make some sense of this mess and to determine what happened. As the investigator speaks, Morris shows us photos taken of the same event at precisely the same time, from two different cameras. Then, we see the other camera in each photo. Naturally, they have time stamps, so the investigator begins to build a timeline of specific events and goes through the photos to determine which of the offenses will the soldiers be tried for, what crimes have they committed, and which would be considered standard operating procedure?
As the subjects begin to tell the story, it becomes clear pretty quickly that one man, a sergeant, is at the center of the whole thing. He seems to be the instigator, encouraging his fellow soldiers to take pictures, to pose, to completely denigrate themselves and their prisoners. And they only seem to be too happy to do so, to follow the instructions and whims of this ‘leader’. He is also the only subject directly involved in this scandal Morris was unable to interview. The reason is explained at the end of the film, during the coda. But he certainly seems to have been the driving force behind the whole thing, manipulating his girlfriend, Lyndie England, the poster child for the scandal, to do things she says she wouldn’t have other wise done. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but the sheer number of people pointing their fingers at this man is compelling.
Using recreations and the sheer volume of photos, Morris helps to give us a more detailed look at what happened before and during the moments some of the more shocking photos were taken. He is trying to come to terms with what would lead these Americans to take pictures of themselves with prisoners who are piled naked on top of each other, naked and masturbating, dead and in body bags, and much more.
As I watched the film, an eerie similarity struck me. As more and more photos of the tortured and humiliated prisoners at Abu Ghraib were shown, I was reminded of the photos of the victims at Auschwitz, Bergen Belson and Dauchau made public to the world after these prison camps were liberated. Now, I understand some, many, of the detainees at Abu Ghraib were guilty of a crime, but the people who are charged with the livelihood of these criminals should rise above the behavior of their captors. If they don’t, how are they any different from their prisoners?