Errol Morris on 'Standard Operating Procedure'

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Widely regarded as the father of modern documentary film, Errol Morris – whose new film, ‘Standard Operating Procedure’, opens next week – began his directorial career with 1978’s ‘Gates of Heaven’, a touching portrait of a California pet cemetery, before overturning a real-life miscarriage of justice with his investigative study ‘The Thin Blue Line’ (1988). His highly influential films often blend first-person testimony with deliberately artificial reconstruction. His latest feature is a quizzical meditation on the scandal-making photos taken by US military personnel in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib detention centre

The question of what actually happened at Abu Ghraib is such a huge one, how did you find your way into it?
'I look at the movie as a really honest attempt to try and examine the phenomenon of the photographs and these soldiers. It confines itself to that world. To me the question is "What would I do?". What would anyone do? You’re put in this Looney Tunes environment, which you didn’t create. You wander on to a stage set that’s been constructed for some macabre play, and, yes, you participate in it. You’re not guiltless, you’re not free of blame, but you’re a player in something which has been designed.'

In many ways, Brent Pack, the military forensics investigator, is our guide through this maze…
'I guess I see him as myself in some way. Someone dumps a pile of photographs on a table and says "I find these really disturbing, so will you please make sense of them." So he proceeds in diligent forensic investigator style to establish a chronological order, to discern which camera took which shots and which person was behind the camera. Inevitably, he finds himself trying to understand them, much as ourselves. The smiles. The looks of enjoyment. The thumbs up. The posing. The documentation of things you would think we would like to avoid documenting.'

Did the photos fall into distinct categories?
'There were three kinds of photograph taken. When MP Sabrina Harman arrives, she sees the prisoner known as "Taxi Driver" – underwear on head, stress position – and takes photos, click-click. Then something else happens: they start taking shots of the American soldiers and the Iraqi prisoners contrived so they’re together. Then there’s the third kind of photographs, the most disturbing of all, where they orchestrated events into tableaux vivants. The pyramid of bodies, Lyndie England posed by Charles Graner with the inmate known as "Gus" on a leash, and so on.'

And all of this is in some ways dependent on the technical advances of digital photography – these pictures might not even have been taken if the soldiers had to hand over analogue film to someone else to develop, for instance?
'It’s a sea-change, obviously. It’s really changed how we relate to the photographic image. One of the very interesting photos from Abu Ghraib was taken just a few seconds after the really famous shot of the prisoner they called "Gilligan", the guy on the box with the hood and the wires. It shows the photographer on the edge of the frame with their camera, having just taken the shot which I rather hyperbolically claim to be the photo seen by more people than any other in history. There they are, looking at what they’ve just taken, and what’s happened is that the event has now become an image which they’ve created. It’s private, but now it’s also public.

'What’s also interesting and has never really been clarified is how the images actually emerged from Abu Ghraib. It’s always been assumed that one of the soldiers had a disc which he passed on to "Sixty Minutes" and Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker, but we’re not really sure. The military, of course, did everything they could to stop this stuff getting out, to the extent that they allowed the soldiers at AG a two-week amnesty period to hand in any images and so a lot of material was destroyed. But even though they wiped the hard drives, it was too late, once the soldiers had started making copies and circulating this stuff, it was just spreading and spreading. It couldn’t be stopped.'

Do the other images, where the prisoners are masturbating for the camera, suggest that sexual humiliation was almost encouraged as a cultural weapon against the detainees?

'I would agree with all of that, except the "almost". It was encouraged, explicitly so, to have female American MPs and interrogators strip Iraqi males. It all goes back to the very concept of torture and confession. What is it that we’re trying to achieve here? Is the goal simply information, or is it, on some crazy level, humiliation. That seems a very prominent feature of this war. Humiliation of Saddam, of Iraq, of Iraqi prisoners photographed by US soldiers, whose actions then humiliate the American military and the American government, and who themselves are then humiliated by the military and the government.'

Response to the film in the US has been mixed – were some viewers perhaps expecting the bad guys to be nailed and justice to prevail, as in ‘The Thin Blue Line’?
'Some people see it and they do wish it had been a different movie, but if you look at the interviewees who were on duty at Abu Ghraib, the likes of Lyndie England, Sabrina Harman and Jeremy Sivits, they’re clearly not monsters – however much we would like to believe they are. I don’t think they’re devoid of any moral dimension. Also, they’re soldiers. What do we think we’re doing when we declare war? We send these young kids to Iraq and Afghanistan, and we’re not asking them to constantly evaluate the morality of what they’re doing, they’re there as part of a command structure with supposedly rigid discipline. But when policy gets involved, and its fingerprints are all over Abu Ghraib, then no wonder Brent Pack, the military forensics investigator charged with making sense of the photos, struggles to define that the act depicted in this particular photo is criminal and in that photo it’s Standard Operating Procedure, and just ends up with…weirdness.'

The soldiers who took the photos are also the ones to have been punished, but we’re certainly not left with the idea they’re the only ‘bad apples’?
'The story make me ill at ease, and I think it will make anyone who watches it ill at ease too. Who are these soldiers? If you read Sabrina Harman’s letters, she says she knows it’s wrong and yet she sees herself doing these things. She reflects on what she’s doing, and there’s the idea that the pictures, not altogether but at least in part, were taken as an exposé. I’ve never had the opportunity to talk to Charles Graner, who was given the longest sentence by the court martial and is still in prison, but the interviewees who knew him say that he took the pictures because he wanted some record. Maybe this is the stupidest irony of all. He wanted some record of the things he was forced to do, but, of course, he was also taking pictures of things that he did on his own initiative.

'In many instances, the crime was photography itself. Would the prisoner on the leash have happened in the same way if the camera hadn’t been present? Was that pyramid of bodies built in order to take a photo of it? I suppose in my most cynical and ironic mode that what Graner has done in those two photos, the pyramid and the leash, is that he’s given us an image of American foreign policy. He’s created a kind of grotesque cartoon, a monstrous cartoon of ourselves.'

Standard Operating Procedure’ opens on July 18.

Author: Trevor Johnston



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