[EDITORS NOTE: indieWIRE is publishing two interviews daily with Sundance ’07 competition filmmakers through the end of the festival later this month. Directors with films screening in the four competition section were given the opportunity to participate in an email interview, and each was sent the same set of questions.]
Already an established documentary filmmaker, Rory Kennedy brings her latest doc to Park City this year, entitled “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib.” The film takes an honest look at the violence and torture that occurred at Iraq’s notorious prison, Abu Ghraib, while also asking how normal people can commit such heinous acts. According to the Sundance Film Festival, “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib” is “powerful, restrained, and fiercely compelling,” and the photos “represent only the tip of the iceberg.” The film is screening in the Independent Film Competition: Documentary section. Rory Kennedy has directed numerous other documentaries, including “American Hollow,” which screened at Sundance in 1999 and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and a nonfiction Primetime Emmy Award.
Please introduce yourself. Where were you born, and where do you live now?
I am a full time documentary filmmaker. I’ve been making films since I graduated from college. I was born in Washington, D.C. and was raised in Virginia. I now live in Brooklyn, N.Y.
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?
At the end of my senior year in college I was doing final paper on women and substance abuse. I thought their stories were compelling and that the best way to tell them would be through film. I spent three years on what became my first film, “Women of Substance,” which aired on PBS stations.
What other creative outlets do you explore?
How did you learn about filmmaking?
I did not go to film school, but had the tremendous opportunity to work with Robin Smith, a TV producer with 15 years experience. She produced and directed “Women of Substance” with me and so I was fortunate to get incredible on-the-job training.
How did you finance your film?
For “Women of Substance” I raised money through foundations, corporations, and individual donors. Although production only lasted six months, it took more than three years to fully finance the project. Since that time I’ve been able to secure funding through broadcasters primarily. However, for many of my films I’ve augmented financial support through the generous donations of socially conscious foundations, including The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for “Pandemic” and the Fledgling Fund for this project “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib.”
Please discuss “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib,” and how the idea to take it on evolved.
A year ago I set out to explore how ordinary people, given certain circumstances, are capable of carrying out extraordinary acts of violence such as genocide.
Starting with this broad inquiry, I soon narrowed the focus of the film. The most apparent present-day example was Abu Ghraib. Not only was this a story of violence and torture and acts of real evil, but it was also a contemporary story, here and now — a story about ourselves.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, and what are your overall goals for the project?
My intention was to look at the personal and psychological make-ups of those most directly involved. How could our American soldiers be capable of such monstrous acts? What could possibly have motivated them?
The photographs that emerged from Abu Ghraib were so shocking that they instantly became the defining images of all that has gone wrong with the war in Iraq (and perhaps America, too). And yet, at the same time, we know very little about their genesis. They are images that each of us has been forced to fashion our own narratives around, to formulate our own explanations, because too many questions have remained unanswered. Who were the people in the pictures? Who were the victims? Who chose to participate in the abuse and why?
I hope that this film sheds some light on what exactly took place at the prison and how those horrific acts and the photographs of them came to be. If the images are a mirror of America, a window into our potential to morally transgress, then we need to look at them more deeply, to face them, to try to understand them and to help ensure that something like this does not happen again.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making the movie?
The greatest risk in making “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib” was not one that I took personally, but taken by the people I interviewed, particularly the Iraqi detainees who were wrongfully imprisoned at Abu Ghraib. As the situation on the ground was too dangerous, the six prisoners interviewed could not be filmed in Iraq. Their stories, however, were too important to go unheard and they seemed to know this. As an alternative, we arranged for them to fly to Jordan, but they were stopped at the Baghdad Airport and turned back. Still, unwilling to give up, we next arranged for them to fly to Turkey and, after overcoming a number of diplomatic obstacles, were able to get them into the country. Given all that already had been done to these men, months of imprisonment and torture, I felt they were incredibly brave to speak out on camera. Mostly, they feared an American retaliation if their identities were revealed; arguably, they were risking their lives. And yet, despite all this, they were willing to trust me, an American filmmaker.
What do you hope to get out of the festival, what are your own goals for the experience?
Sundance will surely elevate the film and the issues it raises. I hope that through Sundance, “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib” will inspire further discussion about American foreign policy, torture policy and our moral standing in the world.
Describe how you found out “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib” was accepted into Sundance.
I was at the office in the edit room because I hadn’t yet completed the film. I had known that others had already been accepted, but hadn’t heard anything yet. Obviously, when I got the call I was thrilled.
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