Standard Operating Procedure: People Behind the Abu Ghraib Abuse

Standard Operating Procedure: The People Behind the Abu Ghraib Abuse

Academy Award winner and documentary filmmaker Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure is an inquiry into the prisoner torture and abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison. It is, predictably, a very bleak and depressing movie. But the very scale of Standard Operating Procedure, which in its expensive-looking production values, special effects and elaborately choreographed re-enactments, shows that Errol Morris has grown weary of working in the dimly lit outer fringes of motion picture productions, to which documentary filmmakers are still too often relegated.

Standard Operating Procedure is a big, provocative and disturbing work, although what makes it most provocative is that its greatest ambitions are for its own visual style. In sweeping strokes, the documentary addresses many of the issues that abound when government-authorized torture is accompanied by that very government’s public denial of responsibility, leaving young male and female soldiers bereft of anything except their own poorly-informed tactics.

Morris explains that a major force driving the project was the profusion of photographs that were taken by the American soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison that document, in horrifyingly graphic detail, the prisoner abuse that those very soldiers helped to perpetuate. Morris and his documentary crew “set out to examine the context of these photographs,” attempting to uncover what had happened within the accepted narrative about the torture. For him the photographs functioned as both an exposé and a cover-up because while they revealed the horror, they also “convinced journalists and readers they had seen everything.”

Morris wasn’t convinced that he had seen everything. He made this movie, which at its finest and most focussed, tries to investigate how seeing both does and does not evolve into understanding. To that end, Morris employed two familiar documentary strategies: direct-address interviews and re-enactments in which actors re-enact actual historical events. As a tactic, the interviews with some of the soldiers who actually carried out the torture and abuse at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison could have enabled the documentary’s subjects to speak for themselves, to raise their own voices.

Unfortunately, as the film progresses, it becomes clear that even when those subjects are able to speak from the vantage point of looking back in retrospect, they are only capable of providing, or willing to provide, anything more than defensive testimonies on their own behalves.

It is testimony to a government’s pervasive moral vacuum.

Standard Operating Procedure: The People Behind the Abuse

Abu Ghraib Iraq Prison Abuses, 2003

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The Unorthdox Interrotron: Academy Award Movie

The Unorthodox Interrotron: Academy Award Movie

The Unusual Road to Filmmaking

After graduation from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a B.A. in history, Errol Morris embarked upon a number of unorthodox approaches to applying for graduate school that included, “trying to get accepted at different graduate schools just by showing up on their doorstep.” After having unsuccessfully approached both the University of Oxford and Harvard University, Morris was able to talk his way into Princeton University, where he began studying the history of science, a topic in which he had “absolutely no background.” At Princeton, his concentration was on the history of physics, and he was bored and unsuccessful in the prerequisite physics classes that he had to take. This, together with his antagonistic relationship with his adviser (“‘You won’t even look through my telescope.’ And his response was ‘Errol, it’s not a telescope, it’s a kaleidoscope.'” definitely ensured that his stay at Princeton would be a short one. He left Princeton in 1972 and enrolled at Berkeley as a Ph.D. student in philosophy. At Berkeley, Morris once again found that he was not very well-suited for his subject. “Berkeley was just a world of pedants. It was truly shocking. I spent two or three years in the philosophy program. I have very bad feelings about it,” he later said.

While at Berkeley, he became a regular at The Pacific Film Archive. Tom Luddy, Director of the archive at the time, later remembered: “He was a film noir nut. He claimed we weren’t showing the real film noir. So I challenged him to write the program notes. Then, there was his habit of sneaking into the films and denying that he was sneaking in. I told him if he was sneaking in he should at least admit he was doing it.”

In 1976, Morris began working on the film that would become his first feature, Gates of Heaven. Gates of Heaven was given a limited release in the spring of 1981. The late film critic Roger Ebert was a champion of the film, including it on his top ten best films list.

The Unorthodox Interrotron: Academy Award Movie

A spiffy feature of the 2002 Oscars ceremony was a short film that showed almost a hundred people, some famous and some not, all talking about movies. According to Morris, Laura Ziskin, the producer of that year’s Oscars, called him in late 2001 and asked whether he’d like to make a short movie about the movies, which would replace the dance number that usually kicked off the show. She hired him based upon his advertising films, not his career as a director of feature-length documentaries. In fact, up until then Morris had displayed a very dark comic take on the world, in documentaries such as Mr. Death and Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, which certainly would been looked upon as utterly incompatible with the earnest, happy “pomp and circumstances” of the Academy Awards.

After five days of shooting for the short-film (one in Boston, one in San Francisco, two in New York and one at the White House), Morris had interviewed dozens of people, civilians and celebrities. After all of his filmed interviews were done, Morris was sitting on more than twenty-four hours of movie talk, some pretentious, some lame, some delightful and some just plain strange. He whittled it down to an Oscar-friendly size, four minutes and fifteen seconds. “I really wanted to do something more with this thing, as a movie,” he said at the time. “I’m absolutely convinced it’s going to have a life after the Oscars. I’d like it to be a long-form film.”

Morris’s interviewing technique was truly unorthodox. He sat out of sight of the subject, in a curtained booth with a camera and a monitor, while the subjects stood ten yards away facing a customized device that Morris calls an “interrotron.” Basically, the interrotron is a camera with a special screen that displays the live, disembodied image of Morris as he shouts out questions, makes funny faces and orders his subjects to repeat things.

And just who are some of the 98 people who appear in the Academy Awards Movie? Well, if you look closely you’ll see: Jerry Brown (then the Mayor of Oakland, CA), Martin L. Perl (1995 Nobel Laureate in Physics), Alice Waters (Chef, Chez Panisse, Berkeley CA), the late Susan Sontag (writer), William L. Brown, Jr. (then the Mayor of San Francisco), Carolina Herrera (New York fashion designer), Iggy Pop (musician), Donald Trump (entrepreneur), Sidney Coleman (Professor of Quantum Field Theory, Harvard University), Laura Bush (First Lady of the United States), Jello Biafra (former lead singer of The Dead Kennedys), Philip Glass (avant-garde musician and composer), Fran Lebowitz (writer), Lou Reed (musician), Rev. Al Sharpton (President, National Action Network), Mikhail Gorbachev (Former President of the Soviet Union), Walter Cronkite (retired journalist), Laurie Anderson (musician and performance artist), Kenneth J. Arrow (1972 Nobel Laureate in Economics), Urvahi Vaid (gay rights activist) and Eric Lander (Director, Center for Genome Research at MIT) among many others.

The Unorthodox Interrotron: Academy Award Movie

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