To most eyes, the Abu Ghraib photos offer irrefutable documentation of an inhumane horror show that needs no further contextualizing. The photos say it all. Or do they?
Errol Morris’s arresting new documentary, Standard Operating Procedure , digs into the content and context of the most infamous of those photos and finds that for all the abuses perpetrated at the Iraq prison, it was photography that was ultimately deemed the crime.
In the Bush administration’s preferred narrative, Lynndie England and her fellow “bad apples” were rogue military police whose hundreds of digital photos offered ample evidence of aberrant but isolated behavior. We know now that the soldiers of the 372nd MP Company were following orders from military intelligence whose own directives to “Gitmo-ize” Abu Ghraib were coming straight from the office of then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
While the Oscar-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side follows the administrative trail sanctioning torture, Standard Operating Procedure investigates the photos that exposed them to the world. Who took the photos, when, why, and what was just outside the frame? Morris’s film argues that the photos themselves can’t tell us anything for certain about Abu Ghraib because, like every photo, they were stripped of context the moment they were taken. We can tap the debatable memories of those who were there at the time, but we can’t rely on those isolated still images to come anywhere close to telling us the whole truth.
Of the film’s many remarkably intimate interviews (including a surprisingly frank one with England herself), Sabrina Harman’s stands out. The smiley young specialist is a regular, eerie presence in several Abu Ghraib photos, always offering a cheery thumbs up to accompany the grisly scenes being staged for the camera. In one shot, she strikes a pose next to the bloody corpse of Manadel al-Jamadi, a prisoner who was beaten to death by a CIA interrogator and then thrown onto ice on the shower room floor before his body could be snuck out of the cellblock.
In the film we learn that Harman took twenty tightly cropped, gruesome shots of al-Jamadi’s corpse—pictures so detailed they look like they could be the work of a forensic pathologist. Was she amassing documentation so she could report the murder, or was she collecting sick trophies to take back home? Morris excerpts letters Harman wrote to her partner in the States that clearly indicate the former. There’s plenty of rationalization and self-preservation in them, but they’re hardly the words of a monster.
Morris talks to four of the other seven implicated MPs (he wasn’t allowed access to the two in prison, Charles Graner or Ivan Frederick) and to indignant former brigadier general Janis Karpinski; contract interrogator Tim Dugan; and Brent Pack, the special agent charged with analyzing the photos for the military. Morris’s 116-minute film is distilled from 200 hours of interviews, enough research to produce a companion book with New Yorker contributor Philip Gourevitch that will be published in May and also fuel a series of thoughtful essays on his New York Times blog.
The film never feels overwhelming because, like the best of Morris’s documentaries, it’s a piece of cinematic detective work that uses a whole arsenal of feature filmmaking tools—3D graphics, computer animation, elaborately constructed sets built on sound stages, ghostly re-enactments, and, of course, the director’s own specially designed Interrotron camera—to reconstruct events for which there are often multiple, competing narratives. Morris’s weirdly seductive style of documentary filmmaking is sober Frontline journalism that’s been channeled through the lens of David Fincher. The miracle is that a man as gifted as he is so regularly makes movies about subjects that matter.
If you were lucky enough to attend the advanced screening of Standard Operating Procedure Tuesday night at the Walker (Sony Pictures Classics limited it to a small group), you also got the rare treat of hearing a chatty Morris and his longtime set photographer, Nubar Alexanian, talk about the movie, photography, and why Bush should be impeached. I’d give you a recap, but as Morris reminds us, my re-enactment would hardly be adequate.