Lynndie England and prisoner in a photo discussed in Standard Operating Procedure
Last Thursday evening, I attended the North American premiere of Errol Morris‘ Abu Ghraib documentary Standard Operating Procedure (4/25, Sony Pictures Classics) at Brandeis University’s Edie and Lew Wasserman Cinematheque, thanks to an invitation from my friend/the event’s organizer, Prof. Alice Kelikian. As you may recall reading here, a little over a year ago I was part of a small group of film folk from the Boston area that was shown a bunch of rough footage from the film and then discussed it over dinner with Morris. I wrote afterward that “although I haven’t seen every minute of the film—nobody has, because it’s not yet complete—I can say that it appears to have the makeup of an Oscar nominee.” I’ve now seen it in its entirety, and I feel the same way.
Earlier this year, SOP became the first documentary ever accepted into competition at the Berlin Film Festival, where it was awarded a Silver Bear in February. Now, following the Brandeis screening, it will be phased into release stateside over the next month, beginning with a screening this Thursday, April 24 at the Tribeca Film Festival, followed by the first “Conversations in Cinema” of this year’s festival, in which Morris will discuss the questions: “Can a photograph change the world? Can an exposé also be a cover-up?”
These are the questions at the core of Morris’ deeply disturbing but very impressive film, its companion book (which shares the same title and is co-written by Morris and New Yorker writer Philip Gourevitch, who had a fascinating discussion at October’s New Yorker Festival), and “Zoom,” a blog that Morris has been writing for the New York Times sporadically since July that has generated more traffic and comments than any other on their popular site… questions that can never be fully answered, but that I find absolutely fascinating. What is truth? What is reality?
A year ago, Morris explained that he has had a lifelong interest in “iconic images,” from the photo of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima (which recently inspired Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima) to, most recently, the photos from the Abu Ghraib prison, which he believes have come to symbolize the entire ongoing war in Iraq in the public’s consciousness. What spurred him to make a film about these particular iconic images, he explained on Thursday, was his amazement that although everyone has seen these images, nobody really knows anything about them.
Who are the soldiers and prisoners in them? Who took them? For what reason were they taken? Why would any soldier agree to pose in photos of this nature? Did some refuse to? Who was the intended audience for them? Who was aware they were being taken? How many were taken? Why, of all of them, has the public repeatedly only been shown the same few? Were they cropped or altered in any way? If so, why and to what effect? What sorts of punishments did the soldiers depicted receive? Did soldiers who participated in similar acts but were not photographed receive equivalent punishments? Would the public be as enraged about the acts depicted if we had never seen visual evidence of them? Would we feel the same way if we knew more about the people whose behavior they exposed? What if we learned about those who, thanks to better luck or smarts, were never photographed—even if their responsibility for the captured acts was much greater than those who were—and were consequently never prosecuted? How would we feel then? And how, above all, would we feel if we were to learn that some of the most heinous and repulsive acts photographed at Abu Ghraib are, to this day, officially regarded by the United States not as prisoner abuse, but rather as Standard Operating Procedure?
These are among the weighty questions that Morris asks and nearly all of the principal players in the photographs answer in the film. Among those interviewed: former Brig. Gen. Janice Karpinski, who oversaw Iraq’s prisoner detention facilities until she was relieved of her duties following Abu Ghraib; Special Agent Brent Pack, who was charged with examining the photos to determine whether or not they contained evidence of crimes; and photographed soldiers Jeremy Sivits, Ivan Frederick, Javal Davis, Jeffrey Frost, Roman Krol, Megan Ambuhl, Sabrina Harman, and, most (in)famous of all, Lynndie England. The only individual who is seen in the photographs but is not in this film is Charles Graner, the orchestrator of many of the acts, who is and will remain behind bars, not permitted to be interviewed, until he completes a ten-year sentence.
As always, Morris’ interviews seem to reveal the souls of his subjects, in large part due to the use of his patented Interrotron camera (which employs a complex series of mirrors to enable subjects to look directly into the camera while still feeling as if they are looking him in the eye) and his patience in allowing awkward silences following some of their responses (which they often feel compelled to fill with addendums, many of which reveal more about themselves than their initial comments). The interviews in this film, especially with the soldiers, pack a particularly great punch because although we are familiar with the subjects’ faces, we realize that we have never before heard them speak, and that speaking humanizes them, and forces us to confront the reality that, however animalistic we believe their behavior to be, they are humans.
A side note: I was a bit surprised by the answer Morris gave to a question about the interviews after the film. The questioner, a noted journalist, asked him how he convinced these individuals to agree to be interviewed, and specifically if he paid them at all, “which is not okay in my profession.” Morris eventually acknowledged that he did, in fact, pay his interview subjects, jokingly explaining that he did so because “I have a lot of money and want to share it.” (He did not disclose an amount of money or if this is his standard practice.) I, frankly, don’t really have a problem with this—it got these people to sit down and talk about their behavior, and I don’t see how it would in any way encourage them to speak anything other than the truth—except for the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, this compensation was not openly acknowledged, as it should have been since this is a documentary that purports not to have any agenda other than seeking the truth, and in my estimation does not. I worry that because Morris did not do so, those who wish to disparage SOP, for whatever reason,may latch onto this as evidence of some secret agenda, just as they do in response to the use of re-enactments in his films, including this one. But back on point…
This film does not defend the misconduct at Abu Ghraib, but does leave us with the rather startling realization that many of our preconceptions about what happened there are a blurry version of what truly did, and with the sense that if we want to understand the full truth we need to focus our personal “lenses” not only on these images but also outside of their borders and on other people, as well.
SOP is in the same league as Morris’ best films from the past, Gates of Heaven (1980), The Thin Blue Line (1988), and the Oscar-winning The Fog of War (2004). For this reason, it is my hope that the media will not label it “another movie about Iraq” because, although Iraq is its surface subject, it is far from its only or even primary subject. This is a rare film that treats its audience like adults and doesn’t dumb down big problems and offer simple explanations; instead, it asks challenging and sometimes painful questions not only of its interview subjects but also of its audience. That, sadly, is anything but standard operating procedure.