The infamous photographs of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners and detainees (some of them innocent of any crime) by American MPs at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad have become iconic imagery of American military shame, displayed so many times that they have begun to lose their shock value.
Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure returns to these photographs, which were taken from three separate cameras and freely shared with other servicemen and women posted at the prison, as exhibit A in his investigation of what happened, how it happened and why it happened. They are the evidence that broke the story to the public and the raw material used by military investigator Brent Pack to construct a timeline of events. But they have since become symbols loaded with meanings accrued over time and media overexposure. Morris challenges us to really understand what the pictures show and what they don’t show, and what they really mean.
Along with soldiers, army investigators, a civilian interrogator, and former Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, Errol Morris interviews five of the seven indicted MPs (including Lynndie England, whose “thumbs up” poses with naked prisoners gave her instant global notoriety). They all speak directly into the camera (courtesy of his “Interrotron” system) to confront us directly with their stories. The technique grants them a palpable level of respect and challenges us to really confront them. It’s not that Morris thinks they are merely innocent dupes in a larger conspiracy, but he does believe that their stories deserve to be heard.
Morris is a filmmaker as detective, looking for contradictions, comparing the stories of witnesses, trying to find out the stories that we’re not being told. The result is not simply a political documentary, it’s a police procedural, an investigative mystery, a study in perceptions, a portrait in how the media shapes a story and how the government shapes a story for the media.
And it all comes back to the photos themselves: the evidence that shamed the military, embarrassed the United States, convicted the MPs involved, and now stands in as the iconographic image of American arrogance and hypocrisy. By returning to the pictures over and over again, Morris shows the power of the photos, how the visual record became the only evidence that carried any power in the media. What doesn’t show up in a photo is absence: of leadership, of accountability, of a plan. Greater tortures, we are told, were going on in the interrogations. And this treatment was going on long before these soldiers arrived. It had the tacit, if not the explicit, approval of officers much farther up in the chain of command.
But they weren’t photographed. It’s eyewitness statements that clue us in to this evidence, and those can be contradicted or denied. Or ignored. The photographs could not. The images are too incendiary and damning and the people in those photos were branded with the crimes. In fact, the only crimes that were prosecuted were the ones on the photographs seen by the public. This wasn’t justice, it was the military responding to a public relations disaster.
I had a rather alarming tangle with his images too. I recognized the famous photos of prisoner abuse that were leaked and strewn over the media. I felt the poetic power of Morris’ illustrations (sometimes referred to – misleadingly, I believe – as reenactments), which gave visual power to some of the observations and remarks of his witnesses. I was confronted by the interview subjects, who spoke directly into the camera and, therefore, the audience, and was compelled to hear them, really hear their stories. But when I saw the hazy, indistinct lo-fidelity video of the guard standing over the prisoners in the cell block, I understood that the be a re-enactment. Why? Because I had not seen them before, because I didn’t believe anything like that could really exist, and maybe because I just didn’t want to believe that this evidence could have been there, all this time. That mistake still troubles me. I can still be misled by images, even when it is not the filmmaker’s intention. It reminds me how much we all bring to bear on the images we see.
The major question that the film poses is: do the images reveal a crime, an aberration in the system, or standard operating procedure? Morris is not a particularly emotional director, but even he seems appalled at the hypocrisy he uncovers, not just the scapegoating of low ranking personnel (no one above the rank of staff sergeant ever served time for the abuses) but the refusal of the military to investigate allegations that are not part of the visual record.
Morris challenges us to understand what the pictures show and what they don’t show, and to see them in context. And he confronts us with the most important question surrounding them: Do they reveal a crime, an aberration in the system or standard operating procedure?
Read the complete review here.
The directorial debut of the husband/wife team of Israeli author Etgar Keret and dramatist Shira Geffen is a trio of tales of lonely people and disconnected souls in Tel Aviv. … It has the modest scope of a short-story collection, with simply but vividly sketched characters that briefly glow within their tales. It’s all quite sad and lovely, but never mawkish, thanks to a sprinkling of magic realism and the light touch and somber whimsy of its direction.
Read the complete review in the Seattle P-I here.