Film

Standard Operating Procedure

Errol Morris' new documentary, Standard Operating Procedure, remembers the pictures' effects -- the shock, the outrage, and the anger that greeted their release.


Standard Operating Procedure

Director: Errol Morris
Cast: Javal Davis, Megan Ambuhl, Sabrina Harman, Lynndie England, Roman Krol, General Janis Karpinski, Jeremy Sivitz, Ken Davis, Zhubin Rahbar
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
First date: 2008
Website
Trailer
The idea that photographs hand us an objective piece of reality, that they by themselves provide us with the truth, is an idea that has been with us since the beginnings of photography. But photographs are neither true nor false in and of themselves. They are only true or false with respect to statements that we make about them or the questions that we might ask of them.

-- Errol Morris, 10 July 2007

I have a bad feeling about this place.

-- Letter home, Spc. Sabrina Harman

"I was in the mess hall," says Spc. Jamal Davis, "And I looked up and I saw myself and Dan Rather." It was 2004 and the Abu Ghraib photographs were all over CBS. Davis, then a guard at the prison and now appearing in Errol Morris' new documentary, Standard Operating Procedure, remembers the pictures' effects -- the shock, the outrage, and the anger that greeted their release and changed Davis' life forever.

Morris' film reconsiders the photos in multiple contexts, provided by interviews with prison guards, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, and Brent Pack, Special Agent for the Army's Criminal Investigations Division. Assigned to analyze the photos taken by several young soldiers in order to figure out exactly what happened and when, Pack ensures that the film is not just about the crimes or participants, the "atmosphere" at Abu Ghraib or the responsibility of the military officers and civilian officials who were never charged. While these questions are surely compelling, the movie is more deliberately and (for lack of a better term) more poetically invested in how the crimes were defined by images. "In all my years as a cop," he says, "half of my cases were solved because the criminal did something stupid. The photographs were that something stupid."

As the film demonstrates, that something stupid" became evidence of a set of crimes the perpetrators didn't quite comprehend. As Lynndie England puts it, on arriving at the prison, she and other newbies were struck by the cruelty of what they saw and what they were told to do, namely, to "soften up" prisoners for interrogations. "We thought it was unusual and weird and wrong," she says, "But the example was already set." England's image is among the first to appear in SOP, the notorious shot of her with the prisoner the guards called "Gus" on a leash. On screen for a few seconds, the photo dissolves into pixels, underscoring the many countless contexts and pieces it assumes. Circulating in media space, the photo assigned England the doubled status of "pixie" and "monster," the sign of U.S. devolution and corruption, but also, separate and contained, the most notorious "bad apple" who defines the good norm.

"People said that I dragged him," says England, "but I never did." Now, her hair is longer, her face is fuller, and she has a son, Carter, by Spc. Charles A. Graner, Jr. (himself court-martialed and convicted of prisoner abuse and currently married to Megan Ambuhl, like England, a guard at Abu Ghraib and interviewee in SOP). Still, England appears oddly detached, even unaware of what she means in the culture that so badly needs her to mean something. "When I was in the brig," she reports, "Every woman was there because of a man. You enter the military, it's a man's world. They're gonna try to control you." She adds, concerning the prisoners, "We didn't kill 'em. We didn't cut their heads off. We didn't shoot 'em. We didn't make 'em bleed to death. We did what we were told, soften 'em up."

Her seeming lack of perspective becomes a perspective. As the prison population at Abu Ghraib grew exponentially (Karpinski says, "Nobody had a plan for how you release a formerly suspected terrorist. The order was, you're not to release anybody"), the crowded conditions and lack of supervision made for chaos; the soldiers did what they were told and repeated what they saw. "Did any of this seem weird?" Morris asks Ambuhl, his voice echoing from off-screen. "Not when you take into account that we're helping to save lives," she says evenly, her recollections throughout the film underscoring her loyalty to her husband and the "cause." While some soldiers recall felling discomfort at the time (Davis says, "For hours and hours, all you hear is screaming"), other interviewees echo Ambuhl's view, that they were doing what needed to be done, what they were told, what they understood to be right. As SOP shows, the perspectives from inside Abu Ghraib were fundamentally different from those generated by the release of the photos.

The fact that some guards took pictures, kept records, seems the most telling aspect of their increasingly inexplicable behavior, though it remains unclear exactly what it tells: "I started taking photos," says Spc. Sabrina Harman. Reading from a letter she wrote home at the time, she continues, "Not many people know this shit goes on. The only reason I want to be there is to get the pictures and prove that the U.S. is not what they think. But I don’t know if I can take it mentally. What if it was me in their shoes?" Harman's effort at empathy, refracted in her frankly remarkable documentation, is recontextualized again in SOP. The images of Abu Ghraib include shots of Harman posing with a dead prisoner, smiling while giving a thumbs-up sign (she explains it as a nervous reaction, not knowing how to pose for such a photo and so resorting to poses she learned as a child).

This photo raises questions concerning prisoners died at Abu Ghraib, who was responsible and how the very idea of responsibility became dependent on the photos-as-evidence. Former military-police sergeant Tony Diaz remembers holding one prisoner's arms while other guards beat him to death: "I think I got the blood on my uniform. It kinda felt bad. I'm not part of this, but you kind of are, 'cause you're there." But Harman, who appears in an image with the dead "ghost detainee" (unlisted in prison records, "He wasn't supposed to be there"), was charged with destruction of evidence, because she moved a bandage to arrange the photo pose: this charge was dropped, though she was convicted of other abuses.

The film notes the illogic of such legalisms (and especially the fact that only enlisted soldiers were even charged with wrongdoing). It also makes the point that the illogic is premised on the photos, the fact that no officers were blamed for what went wrong has to do with what was visible, what was documented -- and had nothing to do with context or framing, how the behaviors or the pictures were produced. (It's lost here that Army Major General Geoffrey D. Miller arrived at the prison in August 2003 and recommended "Gitmo-izing" the system in order to gain "intelligence" from prisoners.) "The pictures," says Ambuhl, "only show you a fraction of a second. You don't see forward, you don't see behind, you don't see outside the frame."

This collapse of limited vision onto missing time pervades the film. Though Pack carefully arranges the images derived from multiple cameras to form a remarkable timeline of ignorance, self-delusion, and multiple fears, you don't see how it happened and the stunning policy-making that determined that sequence. The pictures from Abu Ghraib tell an incomplete story. As Harman imagines an alternative life, some small part of that omitted story comes into focus: "If I could back all the way up, I wouldn't have joined the military. It's just not worth it."

9

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less
10

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image