Support the news

Abu Ghraib Film

This article is more than 11 years old.

It's been four years since Cambridge based filmmaker Errol Morris put out one of his signature investigative documentaries. 'Fog of War' was an intimate portrait of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara speaking frankly about Vietnam. It won an Academy Award. Morris' new release, 'Standard Operating Procedure,' takes on another controversial topic and another war. It's an examination of the infamous photographs taken by American soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. WBUR's Andrea Shea met with Errol Morris and has this story.

ANDREA SHEA: When news of the Abu Ghraib photo scandal broke in 2004 people all over the world were shocked and appalled. Pictures of young American soldiers degrading Iraqi prisoners...holding a leash attached to a man on all fours...a human pyramid stacked with naked men...and that shot of the hooded prisoner standing on a box, arms outstretched, wires attached to his fingers.

ERROL MORRIS: It's become the iconic picture of torture and abuse, reprinted again and again and again an again.

ANDREA SHEA: That's filmmaker Errol Morris. He says that notorious picture, and thousands of others taken at Abu Ghraib, don't tell the full story. Instead they raise questions about what happened outside the frame. Morris set out to find answers in making 'Standard Operating Procedure.'

ERROL MORRIS: I'm not talking about anything complicated here, something very simple. Namely talking to the people who took them and asking them why did you take these pictures? What did you think you were doing? What do you think is shown in the pictures? What's going on here? To use some high-falutin language: contextualize them for me.

ANDREA SHEA: Specialist Sabrina Harman took many of the famous photos and can be seen smiling and giving the thumbs up in a lot of them. She was a prison guard who worked the night shift.

Film audio Sabrina Harman: When I got there he was in the shower, there were wires on his fingers, and he was told he would be electrocuted if he fell off. There was no electricity going through the wires, and to say, 'hey, if you fall off you're going to be electrocuted,' I mean, that would keep anybody awake so it was part of the sleep plan.

ANDREA SHEA: The sleep plan was Standard Operating Procedure. Harman was one of the military and civilian personnel stationed at Abu Ghraib. Errol Morris says he started his investigation of what happened at the prison as he always does.

ERROL MORRIS: I worked years ago as a private detective and my boss at the time said the first people you should always interview as an investigator is you should interview the people who got fired because they're pissed off, angry and they're most likely to talk.

ANDREA SHEA: Such as Janice Karpinsky. She was Brigadier General in Iraq where she was in charge of overseeing the prisons. In the film Karpinsky says she lost her job after trying to keep the Abu Ghraib scandal from blowing up.

Film Audio Janice Karpinsky: I was preparing in my mind to hold a mini press conference, to tell the truth and to tell it early to say, 'This is what we've uncovered. We're looking into it, because we discipline ourselves. We're Americans and we know right from wrong.' General Sanchez said, 'No. Absolutely not.' The fear of truth silenced people.

ANDREA SHEA: Morris says he spoke with Karpinksy for 17 hours over two days. That endurance, patience and direct interviewing style yield candid, confessional footage. Morris also uses a device called 'The Interrotron.' It's a modified tele-prompter that projects the image of Morris' face over the camera lens...so the interview subjects feel like they're speaking to him rather than to the camera.

Film Audio: We just do what they want us to do. If they want us to keep him up that's what we do. If they say I want him to be awake. They say, he's dirty, I want him to shower a lot. (Morris) Did any of this seem weird? Not when you take into account that we're being told that that's helping to save lives, and you see that people are coming in from right outside the wire with their bodyparts missing.

ANDREA SHEA: The interviews are mixed with the gruesome still photos, writ life-size on the big screen, and also dramatizations. Morris's re-enactments are impressionistic, highly stylized and dreamlike. Out-of-focus actors play Iraqi prisoners, recurring shadows moving against blood stained walls.

ERROL MORRIS: The photographs are all real, that's the real deal, but the re-enactments, the retrospective accounts try to help you imagine, to visualize, to understand what the world around the photographs might have been like.

TY BURR: He makes these documentaries that are almost like found art.

ANDREA SHEA: Ty Burr reviews film for the Boston Globe and says 'Standard Operating Procedure' succeeds as an investigative piece, although he wishes more high-ranking military personnel were included. And he, like other critics, lament the absence of perspective from the Iraqis in the photos. Morris has also been criticized for paying some of his interview subjects for their time. Burr says whether or not that taints the film is academic.

TY BURR: I think it's open to discussion but in the end result I think no, not in this case. I think the strength of what they're telling, just the mass of details, almost everybody that he talks to has gotten to a point that there's no way they can look good, they're sort of standing beyond the wreckage of themselves looking at it saying well what the heck happened, here's what happened.

ANDREA SHEA: In the end Burr says Morris's film humanizes the demonized. Errol Morris sees the story of Abu Ghraib as a complex human tragedy. He says, in his mind, there is little doubt that the lower-ranking soldiers...he ones who lost their jobs and went to prison because of the scandal....were scapegoated. But even saying that is too simple.

ERROL MORRIS: We say someone has been scapegoated we think there's an argument that they are lily white or that they've done absolutely nothing wrong. I'm not saying that here. They did things that were wrong. But I am saying that they were scapegoated, that the pictures were misunderstood, and many of the things that we take to be evidence of the most horrible crimes in the photographs are guess what, 'Standard Operating Procedure.' They were policy. Military policy.

Film audio: When you walk from the main portion of the prison, and you get to 1A, 1B, they already had intelligence detainees down there. That's when I saw the nakedness. I'm like,' hey sarge, why is everyone naked?' 'Hey, that's the M.I. that's what the M.I. does that's the M.I. thing, I don't know.' 'Why do these guys have on women's panties?' He's like, 'Uh, it's to break him.' The guys naked, guys in women's panties, guys, you know, handcuffed in stress positions, you know, in isolation cells, no lights no windows, you open up the door, turn the light on, 'Oh my god, Allah!' Click, turn the light off, close the door. It's like, 'Whoh, what is that?' He's like, 'Hey, that's military intelligence, you know, just stay out of their way.' And from then on I was like, 'Something's not right here.'

ANDREA SHEA: In fact the military's investigation of what happened at Abu Ghraib concluded that the action in the famous picture of the prisoner on the box wasn't torture. It was Standard Operating Procedure. But who knows if American film-goers will want to examine the story behind the photos. Other movies about the war in Iraq have flopped at the box office. But with this meditation on photography, memory and truth Errol Morris's loyal fans will likely get what they're looking for...the filmmaker's unique lens on human nature.

This program aired on May 5, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

More…

+Join the discussion
TwitterfacebookEmail

Support the news