In Defense of Errol Morris’s ‘Standard Operating Procedure’

Morris knows how our own projections have been weaponized against both those in the Abu Ghraib photos and ourselves as the public consuming the photos, obfuscating the standard operating procedure of the title.

“When you see a picture you don’t see outside the frame.”

Ten years after its initial release, Errol Morris’s 2008 Abu Ghraib documentary Standard Operating Procedure might seem an unlikely candidate for a defense: among other things, the film received a rhapsodic, four-star review from Roger Ebert; garnered the Silver Bear (Grand Jury Prize) at the Berlin Film Festival; and was shortlisted for an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature. While it performed poorly at the box office, grossing only $324k worldwide, this almost certainly has less to do with the film itself than with the fact that, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) notwithstanding, audiences have tended to steer clear of documentaries about the “War on Terror”: Alex Gibney’s Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), for example, earned just $294k during its theatrical run. By any reasonable standard for evaluating the success of works in the genre, then, Standard Operating Procedure could rightly be said to have done just fine.

In addition, there’s a strong case to be made that the film and accompanying book, Standard Operating Procedure (first printing title / The Ballad of Abu Ghraib, second printing title, Penguin, 2008), which Morris co-authored with New Yorker journalist Philip Gourevitch, have contributed something crucial to our understanding of the images that emerged from the Iraqi prison: using interviews with military investigators, the perpetrators, and others who worked at Abu Ghraib, as well as unaltered versions of the photographs and their metadata, these works demonstrate that we should seriously question what we think we now know about prisoner abuse and torture at the facility. “[Standard Operating Procedure] points out, again and again, that you don’t see everything,” writes Stuart Klawans in his incisive review of the film for The Nation (May 2008).

States of mind, stage directions, the presence of people just outside the frame — all these may have been significant at the time, but they’re invisible now. And so, too, is the prison’s code of conduct. This is the biggest piece of unseen evidence, Morris argues: the set of military norms established in Abu Ghraib. Some of the soldiers who were caught in the photographs, and punished for being caught, adopted those norms with culpable gusto. Others simply soaked them up… But no matter which individual a snapshot memorialized, at whatever place and time, the camera could not record the governing etiquette…

All of that said, the film is not without its high-profile detractors. In his review of the film for the Village Voice (April 2008) for example, J. Hoberman opines that “Morris’s work [since 1988’s The Thin Blue Line] has grown more public and more problematic — lofty yet snide, a form of know-it-all epistemological inquiry,” citing Standard Operating Procedure as the best example of this trend. Similarly, Film Comment‘s Michael Chaiken feels that the film pales in comparison to the director’s previous efforts: “Where reenactment has served the director well in the past, here the film’s bloody dramatizations, set to a menacing score by Danny Elfman, suggest a fundamental distrust of the efficacy of the word over the image and a bland assumption that audiences have lost their ability to empathize.” (April/May 2008)

But perhaps no one has been as scathing and thoroughgoing in their criticisms of the film as preeminent documentary scholar Bill Nichols. In his article, “Letter to Errol Morris: Feelings of Revulsion and the Limits of Academic Discourse”, which was first presented as part of a panel at the 51st Annual Conference of Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) in 2010, and subsequently published in both Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media (also in 2010) and his book Speaking Truths with Film: Evidence, Ethics, Politics in Documentary (University of California Press, 2016), the author speaks directly to Morris in letter form, expressing at length why he felt such “disturbing feelings” while watching Standard Operating Procedure (182).

In mounting a defense of the film, one must necessarily contend with criticisms of it, and Nichols’ article provides a solid point of entry in this regard. While his is a particularly personal response — “my body speaks the language of feelings and emotion”, he says to Morris — it also clearly articulates the three most commonly expressed concerns about Standard Operating Procedure (181). First, that Morris is too deferential to his subjects. Former guards speak, with minimal interruption, through Morris’s “Interrotron” device, which creates the illusion that interviewees are making direct eye contact with the audience. “You seem to think that, as victims, they deserve a chance to offer their rationalizations to us,” Nichols writes. “But as perpetrators, they were found guilty, and sentenced to jail. Believe me, Errol, I understand how they were used as scapegoats by the administration but sometimes scapegoats are also guilty.” He further chastises Morris for failing to investigate “their family life, their educational level, their political views and social habits” and how these things might have “contributed to their criminal conduct.” Using a rather discordant analogy, Nichols compares Morris’s “curiosity about their state of mind” to “that of the press as they listened to the rationalizations and denials by public figures charged with sexual misconduct.” He asks: “Is denial, deception and outright lying all that fascinating, especially when we know that is what it was?” (185).

For Morris, the answer to that question might very well be “yes”. Nichols acknowledges the director’s career-long fascination with those who “become swept up in self-, or, here, small group-fashioned worlds of beliefs and behavior”, and Standard Operating Procedure is, in fact, no exception to this penchant (186). Furthermore, Morris’s films have always demonstrated a disinterest in the “adversarial” style of interviewing, and are distinguished by their comparative lack of condescendingly explanatory gestures. One of the things that makes the experience of watching his 1988 masterpiece The Thin Blue Line so thrilling, for example, is that the audience is effectively allowed to put the pieces of its central puzzle together themselves, rather than having it all neatly put together for them. Scott Pelley observes this tendency in a segment about Morris for 60 Minutes II, saying to the director, “The audience wants you to tell them [what to think]. And you refuse to do that. They leave the theater with more questions than they came in with.” (28 Feb 2000) Morris’s response? “Good. If part of what I do is make people think, that’s OK. I can live with that.”


Of course, with this bold approach comes some degree of risk. During post-production for his 1999 feature Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., for example, Morris screened an early edit for a test audience at Harvard University — a cut that included no explicit refutation of the eponymous Holocaust denier’s claims whatsoever. This was not because Morris didn’t think Leuchter’s comments were anti-Semitic and patently absurd, but because he felt the audience was smart enough to realize that without being told. But Holocaust scholar Deborah E. Lipstadt presented Morris with another perspective, based on her experience of the screening. In her book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier (Harper Perennial, 2006), she writes, “I explained that while critics might understand Leuchter was a nut, innocent viewers would not. Morris, possibly stung by the strength of my objections, dismissed my concerns and assured me that everyone would grasp how eccentric Leuchter was. I doubted he was correct” (36). Morris eventually did come around to Lipstadt’s point of view, however, and the final edit of the film includes critical voices, most notably Holocaust scholar Robert Jan van Pelt.

Echoing Lipstadt’s reaction to the earlier edit of Mr. Death, Nichols indicates that Morris “[retreats] behind [the Interrotron] and [forfeits] the moral ground to [the] subjects” of Standard Operating Procedure (187). There’s a logical fallacy in this argument, though: it presumes that Morris intends us to receive everything we hear as gospel truth, and absolutely nothing significant is going on when he juxtaposes the interviews with manifestly irreconcilable elements. In point of fact, as Chris Wisniewski notes in his review for Reverse Shot, the film “sets up competing levels of discourse”, which include “the photograph, the letter, the interview, [and] the reenactment.” (25 April 2008) This seems an obvious attempt to steer the audience away from moral certitude, and towards more questions. Wisniewski describes the overall effect quite well:

[Sabrina Harman’s] letters [to her partner] are tortured, guilt-ridden, and sad. So how do we make sense of her smiles and thumbs-up to the camera in picture after picture? In her interview, Sabrina insists that she simply can’t resist posing for the camera — but really, thumbs up next to a dead, decomposing body, just because you need something to do with your hands? Meanwhile, Lynndie England defends herself valiantly throughout her interview, but she still lets out a damning chuckle after recalling how one prisoner was made to masturbate at length in front of her.

Along the same lines, Linda Williams, who also presented at the SCMS panel where Nichols debuted his letter, sees quite a bit implicit in the England interviews. As she astutely notes in her article, which was published in Camera Obscura (1 May 2010):

The totality of England’s testimony in the film makes it clear that in her mind the photographs do not so much depict her abuse of prisoners but [fellow guard Charles Graner’s] abuse of her. To her, the prisoners are incidental. She had already accepted their abuse as “OK.” She is obviously bitter over her public notoriety for actions she did not herself plan or execute beyond obligingly posing, usually with a smile, in pictures directed by another. England thus cannot see the harm in the photo beyond the harm that being in it did to her. This is her ethical limitation, and the film presents it for us to judge.

It’s selling a filmmaker of Morris’s caliber insultingly short to argue that this is not precisely his intention, or that he somehow isn’t as aware of what his interviews contain as Williams is.

But if Nichols is not especially convincing on the matter of Standard Operating Procedure‘s interviews, he at least has more voices of agreement behind him when it comes to his second major concern about the film: its aesthetics. “The reenactments [of torture and abuse] were agonizing to watch,” he tells Morris.

[They] are more aestheticized than the allegedly real torture perpetrated by the guards and captured by their own cameras. Showing this again, even and maybe especially in aestheticized form, struck me as morbid. Your response is as if you were examining a strange, unfamiliar form of life that you’ve place inside your Interrotron as if under a bell jar (186).

This critique of the film was most common among those who shared Nichols’ distaste for the whole endeavor. It certainly didn’t help that the higher-than-normal production values were rather pronounced: as mentioned above, the film includes a score by Danny Elfman (of Batman, Edward Scissorhands, and The Nightmare Before Christmas fame), not to mention cinematography by three-time Oscar-winner Robert Richardson, the director of photography best known for his work with Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, and Quentin Tarantino.

However, as Wisniewski puts it, “complaints [about the film’s aesthetics] don’t so much miss the point as see the point, identify it, and then misinterpret it.” What if Morris wasn’t mindlessly aestheticizing prisoner abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib, but actually commenting in some way on the role of aesthetics in our understanding of these events? Indeed, Kris Fallon is quite right in his chapter “Interrogating the Media: Errol Morris in the Information Age” for Daniel Marcus and Selmin Kara’s Contemporary Documentary (Routledge, 2015), clarifying that “Standard Operating Procedure is not so much about Abu Ghraib the profilmic event as it is about the Abu Ghraib images, and their role in establishing Abu Ghraib as primarily a media event” (133). Within this understanding, then, what is Morris doing with these reenactments?

It’s helpful first to disabuse ourselves of comparisons to his past work. In Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present (University of Chicago Press, 2011), W. J. T. Mitchell compares The Thin Blue Line‘s reenactments with Standard Operating Procedure‘s, pointing out that the former’s are “forensic reenactments of the sort that can be effective in a courtroom. They restaged in a schematic, deliberately unrealistic style the set of events that corresponded to alternative verbal narratives” (133). By contrast, as Elisabeth Bronfen notes in Specters of War: Hollywood’s Engagement with Military Conflict (Rutgers University Press, 2012), with Standard Operating Procedure, “Morris defamiliarizes the infamous images by artistically reenacting the context from which they emerged. He makes us stand back and rethink photographs that, by virtue of their excessive and diverse media deployment, have been all but depleted of their meaning” (165).

Bronfen continues, writing that Morris’s reenactments evince that the film “shares [Susan] Sontag’s conviction that the ethical imperative inscribed in photographs from the war zone is that they invite us to pay attention, to reflect upon the suffering we see depicted there, precisely because this information comes to us at a distance, formalized and framed as a photographic image” (164). Morris and co-author Gourevitch say as much in the Standard Operating Procedure book, writing: “There is no keeping our hands clean of Abu Ghraib. Ignoring it doesn’t work, nor does denouncing it, and there is no disavowing it, never mind denying it. The stain is inescapable and irreversible, and it is ours, and if we have any hope of containing it and living it down it can only come from seeing it whole” (159-60). In a conversation with Morris for his and Joram ten Brink’s book Killer Images: Documentary Film, Memory and the Performance of Violence (Wallflower Press, 2012), Joshua Oppenheimer (director of The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence) observes an affinity between Standard Operating Procedure and Sontag as well:

[In here New York Times Magazine essay on Abu Ghraib, “Regarding the Torture Of Others”], Sontag argued that this celebratory staging of snapshots to be browsed through fondly again and again betrays an amorality and alienation in the broader culture. Even if the photographs may be, as I think your film reveals, artefacts of Sabrina Harman’s effort at exposé, an act of disobedience, the mere fact that Sabrina might imagine her gloating smile and “thumbs up” to be a plausible cover for her undercover project reveals something very nasty indeed about the culture of the guards at Abu Ghraib. And that in turn reveals something even more frightening about our society as well — the same frightful thing, I think, that motivated Sontag’s essay. That is, whether or not the celebration is genuine, whether or not Sabrina’s smile is sincere, the very thing Sontag laments in her essay is indeed apparent in the photographs: namely that we inhabit and are products of a culture in which such photographs are plausible mnemonics for happy memories (318).


The highly stylized, even over-produced reenactments in Standard Operating Procedure are also how Morris gets his audience to think the form of the images from Abu Ghraib as well as their content: the amateur, low-resolution photographs, taken with consumer equipment, were powerful to many not only because of what they showed, but how they showed it. As Stella Bruzzi observes in her chapter “The Event: Archive and Imagination” for Alan Rosenthal and John Corner’s New Challenges for Documentary (Manchester University Press, 2005), the general public seems to see “an inverse ratio between documentary purity and aesthetic value.” Using the example of the Zapruder film, she explains that we often tend to assume that the more an image “[lacks] premeditation, intention and authorship”, the more likely that “it is able unproblematically to yield the truth” (422-3). (The Warren Commission, of course, famously wrote, “Of all the witnesses to the [Kennedy assassination], the only unimpeachable one is the camera of Abraham Zapruder.”)

Morris knows this, and how our own projections have been weaponized against both those in the Abu Ghraib photos and ourselves as the public consuming the photos, obfuscating the standard operating procedure of the title. In order to pull back the curtain on the system, the film’s reenactments have to take a much different approach than the source images. In his Political Torture in Popular Culture: The Role of Representations in the Post-9/11 Torture Debate (New York: Routledge, 2016), Alex Adams describes very well how Morris’s strategy works here:

Some of the perspectives [rendered in the film] are impossible, some unclear, some imaginary: none trustworthy or authentic. By deliberately highlighting the distance between his images and their real-world referents, Morris foregrounds the gesture through which images appear to capture reality, and casts doubt on the capacity of images to deliver truth (181).

That the effectiveness of the reenactments depends on regular reference to the original images brings us to Nichols’ third major concern: “the complete absence of the voices of the Iraqi detainees”. He continues: “They are the living referents of these horrific photographs. What happened to them? Why did you exclude them but recycle these degrading images of them?” (187). Even critics who praise the film, such as Wisniewski, worry about this aspect of the film:

Morris relentlessly presents photograph after photograph, some of them graphic — a few pornographic — most of them nauseating. I am not sure, ethically, how I feel about Morris displaying these photographs of people humiliated and tortured for our edification, and I can certainly admit this was the least pleasant filmgoing experience I have had in some time…

Moreover, when Morris was asked about pre-production in an interview with IndieWire (22 April 2008), he made no mention of even trying to speak with detainees, saying that the film “was meant to explore a story that, I felt, no one had bothered to tell: the story of the pictures and the people who took them” (emphasis added).

To be fair, the final intertitles allude to problems of access: the US military would not allow Graner, still serving time during production, to be interviewed. Also, though Morris received criticism at the time of the film’s release for financially compensating the other guards who participated, they apparently would not have spoken to him otherwise. It’s probably reasonable to assume, then, that Morris would not have been granted access to anyone who was a military prisoner in Iraq at the time of production, and certainly reasonable to assume that he wouldn’t have been so naïve as to dream he might. In addition, according to a report in the Washington Post from around the time of the film’s release, “the first extensive medical examinations of former detainees in US military jails [including Abu Ghraib]… [showed that] most also had symptoms of long-term psychological damage, including post-traumatic stress disorder.” (19 Jun 2008) Former detainees, then, might have had other reasons for being unable or unwilling to participate, whether they were invited or not.

Morris could definitely have made room for Iraqi voices from outside the Abu Ghraib context, though. Indeed, an Iraqi perspective on the photographs and insight into how they were received by non-American viewers would certainly fall well within the scope of his stated intentions with the project. In the same way that the voices of Holocaust scholars were seamlessly integrated into Mr. Death, and probably improved it, it’s conceivable that Iraqi voices could have done the same for this film.

Still, despite this missing opportunity, it’s a bridge too far to insinuate that Standard Operating Procedure isn’t thinking at all about those who suffered torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib. On the contrary, the film is far from aloof when it comes to the experience of the prisoners. Consider the most bravura sequence in the film, which recounts the circumstances that led to the “Hooded Man” photograph (which Time Magazine called one of the “100 most influential images of all time”). With Richardson’s camera lingering on small details in the reenactment (such as a tightly-wrapped electrical wire tugging on the prisoner’s finger), while Elfman delivers some of his most plaintive and powerful piano scoring, it’s pretty unambiguous where Morris’s empathy lies. Similarly, he ends the sequence with a punch to the gut, showing the original photographs as we hear Harman’s recollections about the prisoner (who was dubbed “Gilligan” by the guards and later identified as Ali Shallal al-Qaisi): “He became one of our workers, so he was let out, like, every day. He’s, like… He’s kind of fun. But I think it was proven he was innocent.” (In fact, according to the Geneva International Centre for Justice, Mr. Shallal’s only “crimes” seem to have been peacefully protesting the US invasion and attempting to help the foreign press report on American violations of human rights. While Standard Operating Procedure could have done far more in terms of representation, scenes like this demonstrate that the film hasn’t remotely lost sight of the Iraqi people.

Admittedly, Morris’s is a big, bold approach to a raw subject of far-reaching importance. As such, it’s hardly surprising that many would be resistant, and even hostile, to Standard Operating Procedure, feeling that Abu Ghraib requires a more lucid, no-nonsense approach. At the same time, it certainly seems like Nichols and likeminded critics have some peculiar ideas about Standard Operating Procedure, and what it is and isn’t doing. What’s more, while Morris might have a fanciful a sense of his audience, projecting upon them greater capacities for compartmentalization and skepticism than might be reasonable, it’s probably not helpful to make unfavorable comparisons with other filmmakers, as Nichols does towards the end of his letter. (Among those he namechecks: Rithy Panh, Alex Gibney, Rory Kennedy, Alain Resnais, Ari Folman, and Claude Lanzmann.) He winds up talking out of both sides of his mouth, though, insisting to Morris, “[But] you are a distinct voice, one that has shone brightly when you have captured the idiosyncrasy of others non-judgmentally… and I am sure I will lose you if I start to discuss what these other filmmakers managed to do that your film doesn’t” (190).

Though no response from Morris is included in Nichols’ book, the filmmaker could have been offering a rejoinder of sorts during his conversation with Nichols as part of a masterclass at the 2015 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. Musing about the finger-wagging that has been directed at him throughout his career, he says: “If there’s a moral fable here — and I hope there isn’t, but if there is — no one should tell you how to make films. You know, you out there who think you know how I should make films: go fuck yourself.”