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Famed documentarian Errol Morris dissects what we saw (and didn‘t see) in the Abu Ghraib prison abuse photos in Standard Operating Procedure.



At first glance, Errol Morris‘s new documentary, Standard Operating Procedure (due out at the end of May from Sony Pictures Classics), would seem to be a worthy addition to the long march of films recounting our failed foreign policy in Iraq. In fact, its subject matter, the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, has also been explored in-depth in two previous films: Rory Kennedy‘s Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and Alex Gibney‘s Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side. But just a few minutes into the film, it becomes clear that Standard Operating Procedure has something different on its mind than simply an exposé of government foreign policy.

Carefully woven together as a three-way conversation between the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs, Morris‘s own meticulous reenactments and interviews with many of the guards who participated in and were ultimately charged with the abuses at the prison, Standard Operating Procedure patiently interrogates the people, events and circumstances that made up this scandal. But unlike the inexperienced army guards who were instructed to get answers at any cost, Standard Operating Procedure is more interested in finding the right questions. What do these photographs reveal? What do they cover up? How are we as viewers implicated as well?

In many of Morris‘s films, the protagonists — a man falsely accused of murder, a Holocaust denier, a former secretary of the defense — are less subjects than they are symptoms, manifestations of unreliable structures of power and knowledge. In The Thin Blue Line, a judicial system unable to recognize its own evidence creates an existential hell for an innocent man. In Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., a delusional empiricism allows one “scientific” man to ignore the moral consequences of the Holocaust. In Standard Operating Procedure, the military code — or lack thereof — governing the rules of interrogation create an “Alice in Wonderland” logic for the guards allowing torture, interrogation, detention, justice and just plain high jinks to become indistinguishable from each other.

The film‘s title comes from the surreal army standard that enables investigators to stamp some photos as evidence of abuse and others as “Standard Operating Procedure” — a distinction that rarely has anything to do with how degrading the acts depicted are. Nor, as the interviews make clear, are the photos completely transparent in terms of meaning. One of the more horrific photos, Sabrina Harman beaming a Miss America smile and giving a thumbs-up before the corpse of an Iraqi prisoner, is not exactly as it appears. Far from a gung-ho guard and torturer, Harman was actually overwhelmed by the ethical predicament of her situation, writing home, “The only reason I want to be there is to get the pictures and prove that the U.S. is not what they think. But I don‘t know if I can take it mentally.” Her composure, it turns out, was a result of her nervousness when being photographed — she always assumed the same lit-up expression whenever anyone snapped a shot.

Morris elicited the help of formidable talents like composer Danny Elfman, graphic designer Kyle Cooper and cinematographer Ralph Richardson to set the film‘s tone. In addition to the film, Morris collaborated with writer Philip Gourevitch on a book, Standard Operating Procedure (out in May, Penguin Press), about the photographs.


There have been a number of films about the Iraq war, but very few of them have sparked with the public. Why do you think that is? I don‘t know. I saw No End in Sight and really liked it, especially the way it unearthed new material about [Paul] Bremer [Director of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance] making claims that others disproved. But in making Standard Operating Procedure, I was not interested in making a film about the chain of command — not that “Who said what when?” is not an interesting or important question.

Do you see your film as being more about the limits of photography, more about the abuses that occurred in Abu Ghraib, or both? Both. Someone got mad at me about a New York Times article I wrote about the hooded-man photo. They wrote, “How dare you call that the iconic photo of the Iraq war,” as if somehow I made that decision. The picture is iconic because it was reproduced millions upon millions of times. It‘s perhaps the most recognizable image from the Iraq war. The reason it has such resonance is that it connects with people, and I felt that I needed to investigate that. So, at its heart, Standard Operating Procedure is an investigation. Of course, you see only a very small part of that investigation in the movie.

And much of that investigation is a philosophical investigation. It seems to be a continuation of the series called “Zoom” that you wrote for The New York Times online in which you focused on the epistemology of photography — that is, you focused on what a photograph means rather than what it says. Am I concerned with epistemological concerns? Yes, I have been since the very beginning, before I was even making films. It is not something that has just happened in the last two or three films.

In focusing on and reproducing these photos, did you worry that by using them you would only repeat the humiliations created when they were first released? It is not the photographs that did that. Photographs just document. They are evidence of crimes. People get very confused about the photographs and what the photographs depict. The best example of this is [guard] Sabrina Harman‘s photos of [prisoner] al-Jamadi‘s corpse. People somehow think that the crime was taking that photograph with her two thumbs-up, and that [this photo] is what represents this pernicious, criminal act. I would submit that the criminal act is the murder of al-Jamadi and not taking a photograph of his corpse. Should we not show crime-scene photos since they might offend somebody?

I see your point. But crime photos are handled in the media very selectively so as not to reignite a trauma. Yes, that is right, but what if every effort has been made to prep the underlying reality as to what the photo describes? This is a crime scene that has not been understood; the photos have not been understood. So it‘s important to return to the photographs to understand a) what they don‘t show, and b) what they do show.


That same drive to understand what happened can be found in your reenactments, which I understand some people have problems with. These representations, the photos and the reenactments, seem to provoke troubling questions for many viewers. The problem is that when you talk about reenactments, reconstructions, recreations or whatever nomenclature you want to us, [that subject matter] is so diverse. There are Civil War reenactments — people who want to dress up in soldiers‘ uniforms and reenact the battle of Gettysburg. That‘s one thing altogether. Then there is reenactment as fraud — shooting something and misrepresenting its provenance. You cut in footage, and you make it look like it was shot at the actual scene when in fact it wasn‘t. There‘s a technical term for this type of reenactment: lying.

Or fiction film? No, your expectation of fiction film is different. This is something that I‘ve been writing about today. Do you mind if I read you this part about Coleridge and the willing suspension of belief?

No, please do. “What exactly are photographic reenactments? In motion pictures they seem to be associated with a suspension of disbelief, a notion that derives from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, that effort of creating that ‘willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith.‘ Coleridge goes on to say ‘that it can bribe us into a voluntary submission of our better knowledge, into suspension of all our judgment derived from constant experience, and enable us to peruse with the liveliest interest, the wildest tales of ghosts, wizards, genii and secret talismans.‘ Regardless of what Coleridge originally intended, particularly when he was in the middle of some wildly extended opiated doggerel, the willing suspension of disbelief has been used in respect to the movies, but inappropriately, I believe. The difficulty with images is not suspending disbelief, but rather the opposite — suspending our natural tendency to believe in the veracity of images. The dreaded ‘seeing is believing‘ principle. Some documentaries document ongoing events; others document occurrences in the past. There is no way to photograph what took place in the past. The best you can do is to attempt to uncover what took place. The kinds of reenactments I have in mind are not intended to fool you into believing something that is not. Nor are they based on the suspension of disbelief. They are not asking you to suspend your disbelief in an artificial world that has been created. They are asking you the exact opposite: To study the relationship of the artificial world to the real world. They involve the suspension of belief, not disbelief. The audience is being asked the question, did it happen this way? It is trying to bring us deeper into the mystery of what happened and the mystery of what people thought.” So there you go.

If we don‘t take them as testimony of what happened, what do the reenactments do in Standard Operating Procedure? They do a number of things. They help give a feel of things. I was interviewed by someone from Cairo who raised the question of why we don‘t see Iraqis speaking. Well, actually many of the actors are Iraqis. But it is not that you don‘t feel the presence of the prisoners in the movie. For example, that whole sequence with the dogs is from a prisoner‘s point of view, a nightmare, a moment of incalculable violence. That is, in some way, much more powerful than just hearing a verbal account of what transpired.

This was the first time that you‘ve worked with Danny Elfman, who I often associate with big Hollywood scores. We had known each other for a while and we had always wanted to work together. I‘ve described the film as a nonfiction horror film, so in some ways I really wanted to appreciate that large aspect of it. It‘s not that I didn‘t want to work with Philip [Glass], but I had done three films with him.

You also hired Kyle Cooper to do the graphics. The graphics are very important here. We use them as a way of simplifying a mass amount of information and making it intelligible, whether it is numbers falling over Tokyo or a comparison of the American cities and Japanese cities and the percentages destroyed. We worked back and forth with Kyle, mocking up stuff and having him improve it.

You‘ve mentioned that in The Thin Blue Line, the recreations imagined every situation except the one that was probably true. For Standard Operating Procedure, you define three components, each having a different function and meaning: the photographs being what they are, objective without context; the interviews being subjective, but completely contextualized because they come from specific characters; and the recreations which serve as the meeting ground between the other two. That‘s a good way of putting it. In every movie that I have made, there has been an unsolved mystery at the center, and it usually remains that way at the end. In The Thin Blue Line you could say that I determined that Randall Adams was innocent and David Harris was guilty, but whenever I reflect on that story I am still left wondering, why did this happen? What does it mean ultimately that you can be walking along a road, hitchhiking in Dallas, you get picked up and you spend a day with a kid, and the next thing you know they are about to strap you into the Texas electric chair? There is a kind of existential nightmare lurking behind every frame even after the whodunit part of the story is resolved. I think that there is an existential nightmare lurking behind every frame of this movie as well.

How is that represented here? There is a moment in when [guard] Tony Diaz is talking about al-Jamadi, and I think that [here] is one of the most important lines. He is saying that he has nothing to do with [the killing], but he remembers finding a drop of blood on his uniform. In the recreation, you see the drop of blood [shot at] a thousand frames a second hitting his uniform. Is this a reenactment exactly? Yes and no. It is reenactment of a very specific kind. It is to make you think about that blood. Tony Diaz talks about going into the room, seeing al-Jamadi, and realizing that he was dead, and as he says that this is about us, about America, you and I included, while he is standing in that room saying he has nothing to do with this. And yet there is a drop of blood on his uniform.

It is very Lady Macbeth. I am not sure anyone‘s put it that way before, but, yes, it is so Lady Macbeth.

The inclusion of al-Jamadi is a bit complex. Unlike the other recreations, which imagine the activities around staging the photographs, al-Jamadi died at the hands of CIA agents in a locked cell. Did you storyboard this one differently? We storyboarded all of this, and to be honest a lot of what I shot was thrown away. If something became too literal, too much like a reenactment, I discarded it. The only scene of the al-Jamadi [murder] is the scene of the blood dripping from his nose and mouth and the drop of blood hitting the uniform. The rest is the aftermath. Sabrina coming into the room, taking the photo, unzipping the body bag, peeling back the bandage that was put on his eye. The violence itself was not reenacted. It is just suggested off-screen.

What was the process by which you decided what you would recreate? I worried about this from the very beginning. At first I said I was not going to go anywhere near any of the photographs and the [human] pyramids — I felt that was just wrong. The “Gilligan one” [the famous picture of a hooded prisoner standing on a wooden box with wire attached to his fingers], I abstracted as bits and pieces. I don‘t know if that comes across in the movie or not. The guards actually became friends with Gilligan [a nickname given the prisoner Saad by the American guards]. Gilligan was innocent of any wrongdoing or being a terrorist. Later, you know, he became the subject of a controversy I wrote about in the New York Times — “Will the Real Hooded Man Please Stand Up” — where another prisoner claimed he was the man under the hood, but in fact he wasn‘t. I wanted to get both Gilligan and Clawman [the man who claimed to be the hooded man in the photograph] together to talk about how each one was the real hooded man.

What an odd coda to this saga, that the people being abused in the photos would fight to be credited as being in them. I think that these photos are telling us something very important about the war. We like to hold them at arm‘s length, as if they represent something that has nothing to do with us, the same way that Tony Diaz may look at this spot of blood on his uniform and say this has nothing to do with him. But why is there this spot of blood? Clearly it has something to do with him just as these photos have something to do with us. This war of revenge and humiliation came from us, maybe it came from an administration that we didn‘t vote for. Certainly I didn‘t vote for [Bush], but it still belongs to us.


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