Abu Ghraib film director turns lens on war, ourselves

June 06, 2008|By MICHAEL SRAGOW

With Standard Operating Procedure (opening today at the Charles), Errol Morris, who helped start America's documentary revolution with such celebrated films as The Thin Blue Line (1988), investigates a subject that already has, in his words, "a lot of fingerprints on it." He explores the physical and psychological torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, brought to light four years ago by a stream of abhorrent photographs.

Morris persevered despite his knowledge that other print and movie journalists were laboring on the story, confident that his highly personal and idiosyncratic approach would produce unexpected results.

He was right. Even if (like me), you've never been a Morris fan, you'll find Standard Operating Procedure to be an ineluctably involving and even startling work. It offers a more complex view of Abu Ghraib than anything else I've read or seen - except, perhaps, the book version written by Philip Gourevitch and Morris.

It exposes the confusing underbelly of atrocity and forges troubling bonds of understanding between viewers and some infamous perpetrators, such as Pfc. Lynndie England. It makes audiences feel responsible for atrocities as part of the same America that somehow produced England.

I spoke with Morris a month ago during a promotional stop in Washington.

Should this be considered a political film?

Of course, I have politics, but aside from the politics what I'm curious about is what really went on there, and whether it was policy or the aberrant behavior of a few rogue soldiers. These are questions that could be answered only by investigation. When you watch the finished film and a government prosecution witness tells you that the iconic picture of the Iraqi War, a hooded man standing on a box with wires attached to him, represents "standard operating procedure," it's not me editorializing.

What isn't standard operating procedure?

That's the question that kept coming up. The MPs talk about their surprise at seeing Iraqi prisoners with panties on their heads, stripped naked, forced into pretzel positions, subjected to food and sleep deprivation.

These MPs didn't orchestrate this stuff. This stuff is part of the deal they got into. And part of the deal is a kind of sexual humiliation: That's why you get a female to strip an Iraqi prisoner. Something is really, really crazy about this war. Maybe all war is crazy, but this war has its own unique flavor of craziness.

What do you think makes this war unique?

I have my theory that the whole war is about crazy humiliation and re-humiliation. At the very beginning, Bush wants to humiliate Saddam with shock and awe. Pictures come out of Iraqi prisoners being humiliated, and instead they humiliate the president, they humiliate America, they humiliate the military, who in turn try to humiliate the people who've taken the pictures. And so it goes, on and on and on and on.

You'll like this story: I'm at the MPAA trying to argue an R rating for this movie, babbling on about my humiliation theory of the Iraq War. And the woman in charge of the MPAA interrupts and says that since the war began, horror movies have changed.

She says horror movies are now about humiliation. It's not enough just to kill somebody, even to kill them horribly or brutally, you have to humiliate them first. ... So it's part of the Zeitgeist in some lunatic way.

Isn't the movie in part about the use and misuse of photographs in an age when digital cameras and cell phones make them omnipresent?

You can see a whole range of documentary techniques in the photographs themselves. You can see the verite photographs taken very early on, when [MP] Sabrina Harman sees the taxi driver standing on his head ... .

Then there's the sort of "Look Ma, No Hands" or "Kilroy Was Here" kind of photo, which includes posing for the camera. It's saying something different - I'm showing you a piece of Abu Ghraib and here I am in the middle of this mess.

And then there's a third variety of photography, the photograph where the photographers start to compose images for the camera... . For example, [MP Corporal Charles] Graner knows perfectly well that he is staging a picture of his 90-pound, 20-year-old girlfriend Lynndie England, who is scarcely 5 feet tall, dominating and holding a leash attached to a thin nude Iraqi male prisoner. That man was on a hunger strike, he had to be force-fed intravenously.

Would that leash had ever come out without the presence of cameras? I don't think so. And here's the really crazy idea. In taking these [pictures], the soldiers were somehow capturing some deep truth about this war, about men, about women, about them, about us.



'Standard Operating Procedure' delves deep. PG 2C

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