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"She Became the Poster Child for Torture": An Interview with "Standard Operating Procedure" Director Errol Morris

In his new documentary, Errol Morris revisits Abu Ghraib, asking tough questions about what was and wasn't revealed in those famous photographs.
 
 
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In his first documentary, Gates of Heaven , which critic Roger Ebert calls one of the ten best films of all time, Errol Morris examined two California pet cemeteries. Since then the Academy Award-winning filmmaker has made movies about physicist Steven Hawking, lion tamers, and former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. His 1988 movie, The Thin Blue Line , controversial for its use of reenactments and a musical score by Philip Glass, is credited with overturning the conviction of a man on death row. Morris returns to investigating in his latest movie, Standard Operating Procedure , about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

Morris, who has been writing about photography for the New York Times website in a blog called Zoom, was fascinated by the photos that came out of Abu Ghraib -- of prisoners being humiliated, piled together, leashed and standing on a box wearing a hood.

Morris interviewed five of the seven members of the 372nd Military Police Company indicted, including Lynndie England, who was in the infamous photo holding a man on a leash, and Sabrina Harmon, who is seen smiling and giving a thumbs up sign next to a dead man in another photo. Other interviews include the very angry Janis Karpinski, the former brigadier general who was the head of the prison system in Iraq before being demoted, and Brent Pack, who was responsible for investigating the photographs. Morris also has a book coming out with the same title that he collaborated on with Paris Review editor and New Yorker staff writer Philip Gourevitch.

Like The Thin Blue Line , Standard Operating Procedure has re-enactments, slow motion and eerie music, in this movie by Danny Elfman, who scores Tim Burton's films. Morris has said he sees his latest project as a non-fiction horror movie. AlterNet writer Emily Wilson caught up with Errol Morris before the screening of Standard Operating Procedure at San Francisco's International Film Festival.

AlterNet: You say you are interested in the context in which the photos were taken. What is that context?

Errol Morris: The important thing to remember about a photograph is it rips a piece of reality, preserving it as if in aspic, but we don't see to the left, to the right, to the top, to the bottom, before or after. That is the context. What are we really looking at? What happened around this picture? Is what we are seeing representative of something and if so what?

AlterNet:What does the context your movie provides change about the pictures we saw?

Errol Morris: I just wrote an essay for the Times about one photograph: Sabrina Harmon's smile and the thumbs up and the body of [Manadel] Al-Jamadi. You look at that photograph you think she killed him. She didn't kill him. The CIA killed him. She was taking those pictures; she was in that room to provide photographic evidence of a crime. She photographs a murder to prove a crime has been committed and she spends a year in prison and the person responsible for killing the guy has never been charged with anything. How's that for context?

AlterNet: You say you love to investigate, like you did in The Thin Blue Line . Do you have any hopes for what the outcome of the investigation will be?

Errol Morris: I'd like to see the right people blamed and prosecuted. This is a bad time for this country. It's a very bad time when people responsible for crimes walk away and lowly soldiers are scapegoated and imprisoned. I think it's just wrong.

AlterNet: Do you feel what happened there was part of a well-orchestrated plan or do you think these people were just put in horrible situation and didn't know what to do?

Errol Morris: Both. It's not A or B -- it's A and B. There were policies, well-known policies, that used women to humiliate Iraqi men, policies that relaxed the idea of what was permissible in interrogations, that allowed torture. There was an understaffed under-trained military in Iraq on the whole and Abu Ghraib in particular. It was a disaster waiting to happen, but there were policies in place that certainly encouraged it to happen.

AlterNet: In an essay for NPR's "This I Believe," you said you believe in truth. Do you think you found some truth in this movie?

Errol Morris: Films aren't the truth. This film is my attempt to find out something new. Truth is a pursuit, not something just handed over to you in a movie. The hope, of course, is you go to a movie and you think: you think about stuff that maybe you haven't thought about before, you think about what might be truth and what might be false, you think about what really happened, about who got blamed and who didn't, about justice, you think about, hopefully, a lot of things.

AlterNet: Did you push the soldiers you interviewed and ask them if they could have done things differently?

Errol Morris: I ask lots of questions. I don't necessarily throw them all into the movie. They all were asked questions about their feelings of responsibility in this. I think it's important to remember that they are all angry. They all know that they have been punished and that everyone in the prison knew what was going on, everybody was doing it and inevitably there is that feeling, "What did I do compared to this guy?" What about the colonels, the lieutenant colonels, the captain, the majors who skated away? If I were in their position, if I had spent a year or two years in prison for taking a photograph, I would ask myself again and again, what's the crime here? Is the crime taking a photograph and embarrassing the military or is the crime murder, for example, in the death of Al-Jamadi? Why is a murderer not punished and a person who takes the picture of the body in order to expose the crime put in prison?

AlterNet: But what about things these MPs did like the photos of prisoners in a pyramid or on a leash or those prisoners with underwear on their heads?

Errol Morris: They walked in on that! The underwear on the head, all of that stuff is policy. The humiliation of Iraqi men by American women is policy. [Tim]Dugan (a civilian contract interrogator at Abu Ghraib) goes to his first interrogation and the two female interrogators had stripped their male Iraqi prisoner nude. And he asks his superiors "Should I be doing this? Should I be involved with this? And he's told: "They can do it, but you can't." It's policy! What do you think we're looking at here? You have one of the chief prosecution witnesses telling you that the most infamous photograph of torture and abuse, the hooded man with wires on the box, is "standard operating procedure." What do you take away from that?

AlterNet: Why did you pick that title for this film?

Errol Morris: I, of course, feel it has a kind of ironic significance because it seems to me everything was standard operating procedure. The whole nine yards.

AlterNet: You have said how these people are seen as bad by everyone -- the left thinks they're horrible and puppets of Bush and Rumsfield and the right thinks they are evil rogue soldiers who let the Army down. Were you sympathetic to them?

Errol Morris: I was sympathetic to them. I quickly saw them as people, as interesting people, that I wanted to learn something about. Lynndie England, after all, has been described as someone who couldn't even talk let alone express herself well. She turned out to be articulate and perfectly able to talk and I found her story moving. I think it's an incredibly sad story.

AlterNet: What did you find moving about it?

Errol Morris: Her life was destroyed utterly. She became the poster child for torture and abuse. She became the villain of this story when she was only 20 years old in love with a guy who dumped her, left with a child and a prison sentence. I found it very hard not to empathize with her.

AlterNet: You have said that Abu Ghraib was a violation of the Geneva Conventions and the MPs were in an impossible situation: a prison that was being mortared all the time, outnumbered by the prisoners, living in horrible, dangerous conditions. Did you feel that that a lot of what happened came out of the situation they were in?

Errol Morris: That's one of the hopes for this movie, by the way, is that people could actually imagine themselves taking the place of these people. What would happen to me if I were put in this situation? What would I do? How would I act? A lot of us would love to think we would stand up against all kinds of injustice, but, really, what would I do? We're talking about the military here, we're talking about soldiers, people who are in a war zone in the middle of a war. What could they have done?

Emily Wilson is a freelance writer and teaches basic skills at City College of San Francisco.