Four years after the horrors within the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were revealed through amateur photographs, the incidents are the subject of another documentary. Following in the footsteps of Rory Kennedy‘s “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib” and Alex Gibney‘s Oscar nominated “Taxi To The Dark Side,” comes the anticipated new film from Errol Morris, “Standard Operating Procedure.” The horrors of war and the profileration of digital imagery are at the core of Morris’ compelling new doc, which had its world premiere tonight (Tuesday) at the Berlinale, the first documentary ever to screen in competition at the festival.
“These photos shook me to the core,” Morris said during a press conference Tuesday in Berlin. “What do they say about America, what do they say about us?” Continuing he added, “These photos took away America’s innocence about itself and forced us to look at ourselves in a new, different and not entirely appealing way.”
“Standard Operating Procedure” delves into the infamous photos that captured the incidents, embarassing the U.S. government, leading to the trial of numerous low-level American soldiers and forcing the subsequent apology by U.S. President Bush. Through interviews with many of the convicted U.S. soliders, including Megan Ambuhl, Javal Davis, Lynndie England, and Jeremy Sivitz, Morris captures first-person accounts detailing and explaining the pictures, not ot mention a damning interview by General Janis Karpinski, all pointing to the fact the actions resulted from the policies of military higher-ups.
“These guys are not the culprit and these photographs are not the entire story of what happened there,” Morris noted today in Berlin. “We are looking at a very dark and disturbing chapter of American history and something that does reflect deeply on my entire country.”
The filmmaker was pressed on his decisions to leave out interviews with the victims of the torture and then a journalist from Iran posed that the film seems to act at times in defense of some of the perpetrators of the crimes. Another international reporter charged that by focusing primarily on the photos and presenting them uncensored on screen, he is victimizing the victims all over again.
“To me it’s very very important that we do not just see the prisoners from Abu Grahi as faceless victims… this was a tragedy for the prisoners who were there, but it’s a much bigger human tragedy, a political and social tragedy that extends around the world and affects my country,” Morris defended, at times raising his voice and even seeming somewhat defensive in moments. “It is, for me still one of the most important stories of our time. The photographs are that essential piece of evidence, it was very important for them to be preserved intact in the movie.”
The film came from, in Errol Morris’ words today in Berlin, “My horror at current American foreign policy and the feeling that I should be doing something rather than nothing.” It is, he added, “My small way of weiging in on the current state of the world.”
“To me, this was a story about these soliders who took the blame and a story about these photographs that revealed to the world Abu Ghraib and I confine myself to that story. I am not saying it’s the only story to tell about this place but it’s the story that I chose to tell.”
Morris also faced some criticism today from a journalist who questioned his trademark re-creations and fictional footage. “With due respect I think this is nonsense talk,” he told the reporter at the press conference, “There’s this idea that truth is guaranteed by somehow the style of presentation, that if I run around with a handheld camera and I shoot with available light that is somehow more truthful.” Continuing, Morris noted, “Truth is a quest…something that I have never lost sight of and never will.”
“Truth is the process of thinking about the world, investigating the world and trying to figure out what is real and what is not.”
“My feelings get easily hurt,” Morris admitted later, returning to the earlier question about his use of fictional techniques in his work, adding, “I like to find things out…I have done my level headed best to try and uncover new material and a new story here and I believe I have done so.
“To me in every documentary film it’s very important that there be a connection with evidence and with the world, with reality…it’s pieces of evidence that I assemble in trying to look at this story, I can’t do better than that.”
indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2008 Berlinale is available in iW’s special Berlin section.