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by Anthony Kaufman
January 21, 2007 7:00 AM
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PARK CITY '07 REVIEW | The Return of the Oppressed: The Haunting "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib"

A scene from Rory Kennedy's "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib," which will screen in the Sundance Film Festival's Independent Film Competition: Documentary section. Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.

"Apocalypse Now" meets "The Shining": That's how one of the U.S. military police stationed at Abu Ghraib describes the infamous prison in Rory Kennedy's must-see new documentary, "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib." Like those dramatic films, Kennedy's investigation into the abuses that took place at Abu Ghraib is a chilling account of how the best-laid plans of men often end up -- as the U.S. military likes to say -- FUBAR (that's "fucked up beyond all repair," for the civilians out there).

While the documentary doesn't expose much beyond what Seymour M. Hersh wrote in a May 2004 New Yorker article called "The Gray Zone," the visual experience of the film is an entirely new and vital one. To witness the military personnel and the Iraqi victims testify about their experiences, to once again see the images of torture and humiliation (both in still images and cellphone video) brings the incidents at Abu Ghraib more harrowingly vivid than reading about them could ever convey.

What's more effective? Examining a photograph of naked men stacked up in a pyramid with a young female soldier in the background, smiling and giving a thumbs up? Or watching Military Police officer Sabrina Harman, the woman in the photograph, talking about how the photograph came to be? Or seeing a picture of a hooded man chained naked to prison bars, or a flesh-and-blood human describe life at Abu Ghraib: "We listened as his soul cracked," reads the subtitles of one testimony of torture.

To be broadcast on HBO on February 22nd, "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib" has a very straightforward, factual approach - talking heads, disturbing photos, declassified memos - all of which strongly disapproves the "few bad apples" or "'Animal House' on the nightshift" disinformation put forth by the White House.

In a cleanly laid out manner, the film describes specific choices made by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez and Guantanamo Bay prison chief General Geoffrey Miller, that laid the foundations - the "permissive environment," says one legal expert in the film -- for the acts of torture that took place at Abu Ghraib (and most likely U.S. military detention centers around the world) against civilians, many of whom were never charged or arrested for any crimes.

One of the most damning pieces of evidence - heretofore unknown by this writer - is that Specialist Charles Graner, one of the most egregious purveyors of abuse, received a recommendation for his performance at Abu Ghraib - well after many of the actions depicted in the photos took place.

In addition, Mark Danner, author of "Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror," offers this crucial piece of information: If the nine low-level MPs later arrested and charged acted alone as renegade "bad apples," how did they come up with a very well-known torture tactic developed by the Brazilian military - reflected in the iconic image from Abu Ghraib of a man balancing on a box?

While "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib" is obviously a strong political documentary, there is an underlying psychological and moral heft that takes it beyond the well-worn form. Not only does it show how the Bush Administration has irrevocably destroyed America's moral standing in the world, but it exposes the awful truth that human nature cannot be trusted.

This is made all-too-clear in the archival footage that brackets the film of Dr. Stanley Milgram's 1961 Yale "Obedience" study, which shows tests subjects giving increasingly violence shocks to an off-screen person (who was actually an actor).

"The results, as I observed them in the laboratory, are disturbing," Milgram says. "If in this study an anonymous experimenter could successfully command adults to subdue a fifty year old man and force on him painful electric shocks against his protests, one can only wonder what government, with its vastly greater authority and prestige, can command of its subjects." Indeed, one can only wonder.


Get the latest coverage of Park City '07 in indieWIRE's special section here at indieWIRE.com

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1 Comment

  • maya7 | February 5, 2007 5:40 AMReply

    Anthony, this is a well-synopsized piece on this chilling film and its horrific subject. Thank you for framing it so intelligently.