July 1, 2008

The Fog of Torture

From Errol Morris' <em>Standard Operating Procedure</em>

Standard Operating Procedure (S.O.P.) is a political film that denies any obvious agenda.  It is a tough-minded investigation into crime that honors both victims and victimizers, as well as a philosophical inquiry into the meaning of photography. It is a passionate cry from the heart of an American artist who, after the revelations of Abu Ghraib and the Iraq war, feels ashamed of his country. And while it is without question one of the most stylishly constructed documentaries ever made, just as significantly S.O.P. is a film that never accepts easy answers about one of the most shocking events in recent history.

Errol Morris’ new documentary immediately takes its place in the forefront of the growing number of features about the war in Iraq. Like the vast majority of those films, there is a sense of moral outrage and sadness in S.O.P., but it is infused with a clear-minded urgency, a need to know why events happened, that mirrors few works apart from Charles Ferguson’s far less aesthetic No End in Sight. By focusing on Abu Ghraib, and on the photographs taken by American soldiers of Iraqi prisoners who had been sexually humiliated, tortured and, in one case, murdered under their watch, Morris has returned to his finest persona, the private eye.

Once, as a combination of sleuth and filmmaker, Morris was instrumental in proving that a convicted killer, Randall Adams, was innocent of murdering a Texas policeman. By freeing an innocent man, Morris was able to provide justice while creating a film––The Thin Blue Line––that made him a national presence. Now, with S.O.P., he returns to those investigative roots in a case that is far more complex than that of Adams.

Morris doesn’t recall when he first heard about Abu Ghraib, but he does remember that journalist Mark Danner told him that “in all likelihood [the photos] were taken as a part of military policy to blackmail some of the prisoners. That never really clicked with me,” says Morris. “And I kept thinking, ‘Well, it would be interesting to find out why they were taken.’ We can theorize about what’s in the picture and the motivation for taking the picture. But without actually investigating, without actually talking to the people who were there, it becomes complete conjecture. We really don’t know.”

With the same dogged determination that made his investigation of the Adams case so remarkable, Morris has pursued the story of Abu Ghraib, amassing over a “million-and-a-half words of transcript, over 30 interviews, tens of thousands of pages of documents and over a thousand photographs.” A book, by Morris and Paris Review editor Philip Gourevitch, also entitled Standard Operating Procedure, was released simultaneously with the film, which opened April 25 through Sony Pictures Classics. It contains even more material from the director’s on-going investigation.

The film S.O.P. bears the fruit of Morris’ labors. The horrifying events of the fall of 2003, when American troops routinely stripped Iraqi prisoners while tormenting them, are dramatically reconstructed by impressionistic camerawork, backed by the real, still scandalous, photographs and characteristically incisive interviews. Chipping away against initial resistance, the director was able to get convicted Abu Ghraib participants Javal Davis, Jeremy Sivits, Roman Krol, Sabrina Harman and Lynndie England to talk at length on camera. Other interviewees include Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, ex-Military Specialist Megan Ambuhl Graner and Criminal Investigations Special Agent Brent Pack.

The films of Morris occupy the same morally ambiguous territory as those of France’s iconic director, Jean Renoir. Even in his most didactic film, Grand Illusion, Renoir elicits sympathy for a fearsome aristocratic Prussian officer and military camp commander who feels honor-bound to shoot and kill an imprisoned French officer trying to escape, even though he regards the man as a friend.

That was then. Now, using his acclaimed invention, the Interrotron (which allows his interviewees to virtually establish eye contact with audiences), Morris gives us the straight-laced General Karpinski, her voice barely controlling rage, as she explains how she was misled into allowing Abu Ghraib to happen under her command.

Karpinski is just one of Morris’ cast of characters––all of whom have “their reasons.” The most interesting are the notorious Private England and Specialist Harman. England, the 95-pound poster child for the Abu Ghraib atrocities, appeared in the now infamous photo, smiling and smoking a cigarette beside a line-up of hooded, naked Iraqis. She has been so demonized by the media that even Morris wondered whether the now dishonored ex-private was capable of giving a cogent interview. But under the complicit eye of the Interrotron, England comes to life.

 "She’s perfectly articulate,” comments Morris. “What I got from her was this unending sadness. Imagine what it would be like to be blamed for the entire failure of the Iraq war. She’s been put in something like that position.”

For Morris, the truly remarkable photograph and “smoking gun” in Abu Ghraib is of Harman posing with the dead Iraqi Manadel al-Jamadi. His fascination with the photograph of Harman smiling with her thumb up over al-Jamadi’s body galvanizes the film. “I remember when I first saw that photograph, I thought, ‘Why is she smiling? Why does she have her thumb up?’”

Morris did ask Harman for an explanation but none was forthcoming. “What’s interesting to me is that we’re asking, ‘Why is she smiling?’ when the question should be, ‘What happened to that guy who is dead?’” he comments. “The assumption, of course, is that she is in some way responsible for his death. And, of course, she’s not.”

“Not only is she not the killer, she has nothing whatsoever to do with the murder,” he continues. “It turns out that al-Jamadi was brought in by Special Ops, by Navy Seals. He walked into Abu Ghraib under his own power, was brought to the shower room on tier 1B, and he left the shower room a corpse.”

It was only Harman among the military at Abu Ghraib who recognized the enormity of al-Jamadi’s death. “First she poses for the photograph…with the thumb and the smile,” Morris observes. “And they [other military] leave and she comes back. She starts taking forensic photographs. Over a dozen of them. Details of the injuries. She says, ‘It’s absolutely clear, looking at the injuries, [that] this guy did not die of a heart attack. He was beaten to death.’ She doesn’t tell anybody except her closest friends about the photographs. She’s the one who has the evidence of the murder.

“What’s so remarkable is that she’s threatened with prosecution for having taken those photographs,” Morris notes. “It becomes a perverse and disturbing story about how a photograph leads us in the wrong direction altogether, that we’ve seen what we need to know. And yet we have entirely missed the content of what we’re looking at.

“I remember reading Susan Sontag’s really interesting piece about the torture of others that appeared in The New York Times Magazine,” Morris continues. “And she remarks that many of the photographs [at Abu Ghraib] were posed—which, of course, is true. These are people, essentially, mugging for the camera. Not in all of the photographs, but in many of the photographs…I remember thinking very early on because Sontag has said so many contradictory things about posing in general—about posing affecting the authenticity of the photograph. What’s so interesting here is that the photographs are posed but it doesn’t mean they’re inauthentic. It makes them more terrifying, more horrible, but the word inauthentic is not something that comes to mind.”

In fact, it is the veracity of the images at Abu Ghraib that have swept Morris through his investigative process. Posed or not, they convey the terrifying message, that the US forces in Iraq have little or no compassion for the people who live in lands they now occupy and that, through imperial fiat, the Bush administration has condoned gross violations of human rights. The al-Jamadi photos, which prove a murder took place under the direction of the military or, more likely, the CIA, is just the kind of evidence that a detective would need to prove his case.

Sontag endorsed the notion of the photographer as the truth-teller. So, clearly, is a documentarian like Morris, whose credo for his nation may well be to not take anything at face value. “I think photographs are remarkable,” comments Morris. “It’s just that we have to be aware that we can be tricked by them. I think skepticism in general is a wonderful thing. Skepticism about what we read, skepticism about what we hear, skepticism about what we see.”

For Morris, who feels that his country “has gone horribly off-course,” the lucid investigative tone of S.O.P. is a bracing tonic for a society that has “been manipulated. We can be fooled,” he says, ruefully. “ I think awareness of that is a good thing. It’s essential.”

 

Marc Glassman is the editor of POV, Canada’s leading documentary magazine, and of Montage, the publication of the Directors Guild of Canada.