Boston-based Errol Morris is that rarity among filmmakers: an intense documentarian (he has worked as a private investigator) and a great aestheticist. Harper’s called him “the most obsessive and relentless forensic documentary filmmaker of our time.” He probes thoroughly, interviewing his exceptionally candid subjects through a device he invented known as the Interrotron, a two-camera set-up allowing the interviewee to see Morris but also inviting the viewer into an eyeline rapport with the witness. “Standard Operating Procedure” is in the tradition of Morris’s “The Thin Blue Line” (1988), in which he spoke to many people in pursuit of the truth about a murder case, rather than, say, “The Fog of War” (2003), in which he deconstructed top decisionmaker Robert McNamara‘s role in the Vietnam War.
Those interviewed in “Standard Operating Procedure” are, for the most part, small fry, young guards and other workers who were not properly instructed in gaining information (mostly about the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein) but were hinted to about going as far as possible in its pursuit by high-ranking generals who wanted to Gitmoize the overcrowded Iraqi prison known as Abu Ghraib.
Morris has long been a believer in the misleading power of pictures, how they require context to be understood. He proves it here, technically and artistically. How many people know that most of the photos were posed? Not all, of course: Think about the images of sexual humiliation, for example. With the help of such great DPs as Robert Chappell and Robert Richardson, Morris recreates scenes in pursuit of a truth that naturalism could never provide, abstracting frequently to strong effect. But Morris never loses sight of the larger picture, one that goes beyond the photographs made by the active participants: Abu Ghraib itself was one big violation of the Geneva Conventions.
Sony Pictures Classics opens “Standard Operating Procedure” on Friday, April 25 in limited release.
indieWIRE: There’s a celestial feeling to the film. Like the way you use reenactments, as you did in “The Thin Blue Line.” Here the pictures float. Something cosmic is going on, and Danny Elfman’s haunting music helps it along. Was that intuitive, or did you kind of have an idea of how you wanted to abstract it at a certain level.
Errol Morris: Well, yes, it is celestial in this respect. It’s the mystery of the Abu Ghraib photographs. I kept thinking about the errors that you can make about photography. When you’re given a bunch of photographs, photographs that were in consideration by the military investigators, approximately 270 – 280 of them, you see them and you think to yourself, “That’s it, that’s the universe. It’s a kind of galactic world.” You think, “This is all there is I need to know.” You see the people in the photographs and you say, “Well, those are the people responsible, because those are the people in the photographs.”
You never stop and think, “I am only seeing some small fraction of the whole. I’m not seeing a side of the frame, I’m not seeing the before and the after, I’m not seeing to the left and the right, I’m not seeing a whole world there” — which was close to 10,000 prisoners. A huge prison of which we know very, very, very little about. People looked at the photographs and they thought, “This is all we need to see, this is everything.” As a result, the photographs are both an expose and a cover up.
iW: I knew you were interviewing all kinds of people, but you ended up for the most part using the participants whom we see in the pictures.
EM: I interviewed a lot of people. I interviewed twice the number of people that I put in the movie. I ended up staying close to the pictures. With the exceptions of (Brigadier General, 800th MP Brigade Janis) Karpinski and (contract interrogator Tim) Dugan, all the rest of the people really are connected to the picture taking itself.
The movie was not meant to attack anybody. It was meant to explore a story that, I felt, no one had bothered to tell: the story of the pictures and the people who took them. Everyone had just assumed, “I know what these pictures are about. I know who these people are. I don’t need to know anymore.” If that’s the attitude you’re going to take, then the movie is not going to work terribly well for you.
In Berlin (where the film won the Silver Bear), I felt that people were looking at a different film from the one I made. I would hear people say, “Well, how come this isn’t addressing the higher-ups? Why isn’t this about Rumsfeld and Cheney? Why isn’t this about the generals? Why are we watching a movie about privates and specialists and sergeants?” Which struck me as strange. You can’t make a movie about everything. It’s like someone wants to tell you that the only way you can talk about this subject, this story, is by telling it in a certain way. Part of it has become so politicized, the war has become so politicized that people can’t even look at it anymore. Is this left-wing agitprop, is this right-wing agitprop? What is the agenda? It is unfortunate, because I don’t think that my movie has up its sleeve a political agenda. That’s not to say that I don’t have political feelings, because I do.
iW: In some of the photos, like when you show that (specialist and night guard) Megan (Ambuhl Graner) is cropped out of one of the photos, it’s unbelievable how overt the manipulation of was. I was shocked.
EM: There are so many examples. The left is going to tell you these are bad, rotten, monstrous people. The right is going to tell you they’re bad, rotten, monstrous people. It’s just going to be explained differently. But the common ground is that they’re bad, they’re monstrous, and they’re rotten. You look at this one picture, they called this prisoner Gilligan, the hooded man standing on this box with wires hanging from him. You can hear me say, “Oh this is administration policy, this is military policy, who cares?” But to hear one of the chief investigators and a major prosecution witness for the military say, “This is standard operating procedure,” as opposed to “criminal activity,” it’s unbelievable.
And there is the picture of (specialist and night guard) Sabrina (Harmann) smiling when the sun has come up. I have had arguments with my editors in the editing room about this picture. They say, “Wait a second, she didn’t kill the (tortured) guy. She wasn’t even there when he was killed. She had nothing whatsoever to do with his death.” She was told by her commanding officer that the guy died of a heart attack, and she wanted to see for herself. She wanted to take these pictures in order to expose the military. She writes this in the letter, at the time, to her girlfriend Kelly: “The military has been lying.” If not for her pictures, we would have no knowledge of this murder. The guy who killed the man, whose name was al-Jamadi, is CIA. Has he ever been prosecuted?
iW: Like (private first class and clerk) Lynndie England’s near-monologue. She’s not stupid. But what’s interesting is that in some ways we’re sympathetic, but at the same time, everyone is contradicting everyone else, each trying to save their own ass. You begin to realize that as the film goes along, you feel bad because they’re taking the fall. Yet at the same time, you realize they’re not telling the truth. How did you feel about that when you talked to them? I know you have a very intense interview process, but when you would catch somebody in a lie, would you just let them talk? Was that the best way to handle it?
EM: Well, to me there’s lying and there’s “lying.” Everybody obviously has their own point of view about what they experience. I had the feeling at times that certain people were not telling me the truth. I actually tried to edit stuff in a way that the more believable stuff and the more reliable stuff were included, and the less reliable stuff was just taken out.
Everyone is a self-serving narrator, myself included. You could create a story about yourself and what you’ve done, with you as the protagonist. Do I think (specialist and mechanic Jeremy) Sivitz is honest? I do. Do I think Sabrina is honest? I do. But everybody is telling a story in their own way, in their own light. It’s inevitable.
iW: Who would you say was your most credible witness?
EM: I think they’re all credible in certain ways. I think you’re given enough material to understand the ways in which they are reliable and ways they may not be. The same way that you would talk to me and think about certain things people say, and you would ask yourself, “Do I believe it or do I not believe it?” But I think (Janis) Karpinski is the most honest.