NEW YORK - The old saying claims a picture is worth a thousand words. But in his new documentary “Standard Operating Procedure,” Oscar-winning filmmaker Errol Morris argues that a thousand words aren’t always enough.
This is particularly true when the picture in question happens to be one of the photographs taken at Abu Ghraib, the U.S. military prison in Iraq where the abuse and humiliation of detainees, documented in snapshots taken by soldiers, resulted in worldwide anger and disgust.
Standard Operating Procedure
Javal Davis, Megan Ambuhl, Sabrina Harman, Lynndie England, Roman Krol, General Janis Karpinski, Jeremy Sivitz, Ken Davis, Zhubin Rahbar
(Sony Pictures Classics)
A lot of that anger was specifically directed at the Americans who appeared in the photos, laughing while holding leashes attached to dog collars around the necks of prisoners or flashing a jolly thumbs-up sign while crouching above the corpse of a suspected terrorist.
But in “Standard Operating Procedure,” Morris takes a closer look at the photos in the hopes of finding out why, exactly, they even existed.
“It was my curiosity about the Abu Ghraib photographs that was the initial inspiration for the movie - the fact that they had been so widely seen by millions of people, yet we knew so very little about them, the people who took them and the circumstances under which they were taken,” Morris said during a daylong session of interviews in a Manhattan hotel in April.
“The photos also very quickly became politicized,” he said. ‘‘The left had their version of the story and the right had their version. You can argue that it comes down to policy or it comes down to the individual initiative of the solder. But I wanted to be careful not to add to all the partisan white noise. And the only way to do that, of course, is to talk to the people who were there.”
Using an investigative approach similar to the one he used in “The Thin Blue Line” - his 1988 documentary about the shooting death of a Texas police officer that resulted in the exoneration of a Death Row inmate who had been convicted of the crime - Morris uses interviews with the female soldiers in the photos, their commanding officers and the lawyers who prosecuted them to take the viewer back to the precise moment when the cameras flashed.
And what he uncovers is a much more complex story than the images suggested, revealing everything from the personal relationships between the women and the superiors who ordered them to strike the poses seen round the world to the motivation behind some of the pictures, which were not intended as grotesque trophies but as documentation of human rights violations.
The interviews also reveal some of the soldiers, such as Lynndie England, the infamous leash-holder, feel little regret about the photos because they stand firm to this day that they were just following orders - and had their lives ruined for doing so.
“I’m not saying these guys were all lily-white victims,” said Morris, who had to wait until England finished her three-year sentence for conspiracy, maltreating detainees and committing an indecent act in a military prison before interviewing her for the film. “But in the film we learn that the photograph with Lynndie and the leash was orchestrated by Charles Graner her superior officer, currently serving a 10-year sentence and that another soldier was in the photograph but later cropped out. And one thing the movie doesn’t tell us - it can’t tell you everything, because there is such an overwhelming amount of information about this subject - is that the leash was standard operating procedure and approved by the medics at Abu Ghraib.”
In another example of how the film looks past the borders of the photos, Morris uses an interview with Sabrina Harman to prove the infamous photo of her grinning over the corpse of suspected terrorist Manadel al-Jamati was taken as evidence.
“You look at the photograph and you see her and the thumb and the dead body and you think ‘Monster. This is monstrous. This person is beyond the pale,’” Morris said. “What you don’t know is she wrote a letter to her girlfriend shortly after saying she took these pictures in order to expose the military. Her commanding officer had lied to her and said the man had died of a heart attack. She took all these pictures of the corpse - literally over a dozen pictures detailing the injuries he had received - to make it absolutely clear he had not died of a heart attack and provide evidence of what the Army was trying to cover up, which was a CIA murder.”
Morris shot 20 interviews in total for the movie, with about half of them ending up in the finished film. Some, like his sit-down with Janis Karpinski, the brigadier general in charge of the prisons at the time, stretched on for 17 hours over two days. The sheer amount of information gleaned from the interviews - the longest he has conducted for any film - was at times overwhelming.
But the director says he kept the film accessible to even the most casual viewer by sticking to a simple tenet: “Just the photographs, ma’am.”
“You could make a hundred different movies out of this material, but I kept going back to the initial impulse, which was the photographs. They are in part a metaphor, yes for how elusive the world really is - how hard it is to grab a hold of and understand. They provided my way into the story.
“But the movie is ultimately about people as much as it is about images,” Morris added. “I was having dinner with a friend of mine who was writing a piece about all this and he kept coming back to the question of ‘Did they have any choice? Did they have any free will at all in this?’ It’s a question that makes you wonder what you would do. I’m so anti-authoritarian that I could never be in the military, because they would throw me out. But what do you do when all your superior officers are in the game and they’re telling you to shut up and do what you’re supposed to do?”
It is that human element that Morris hopes will help “Standard Operating Procedure” stand out from the recent batch of Iraq war documentaries and feature films, none of which has managed to attract a sizable audience despite often-strong reviews.
“I suppose ‘Standard Operating Procedure’ is an Iraq movie - how can you say it isn’t? - but I think it’s also a movie that will be around for a long time, because it’s about people and how we frame our conceptions of them.”