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Snapshots of the Dark Side

Errol Morris on the photographic ghosts of Abu Ghraib

By Mark Jenkins

Unlocking the Images: Errol Morris on his Abu Ghraib set. (Sony Classics)

Reviewed: REPRISE, the first great Norwegian movie of the summer

FROM THE THIN BLUE LINE to The Fog of War, Errol Morris has often evoked prisons and warfare, but never so complexly as in his new Standard Operating Procedure, which opens Friday, May 23. The filmmaker has called the documentary, which includes ghostly simulations of existence at Abu Ghraib Prison. a "horror movie." Morris has co-written a book, also titled Standard Operating Procedure, about the subject with Philip Gourevitch, and has steeped himself in Abu Ghraib lore. He regularly uses military acronyms, and calls the prisoners by the same nicknames the prison guards used, referring casually to Gilligan (the man in the fake-electrocution photo) and Taxi.

Essentially, the movie is a rigorous analysis of the infamous photographs taken by American troops at the prison. It shows the photos uncensored, and cross-referenced to provide minute-by-minute context. There are surprisingly candid interviews with most of the soldiers charged in the case, including Lynndie England, Sabrina Harman, Megan Ambuhl, Javal Davis, and Jeremy Sivitz, as well as with veterans with more experience in interrogation. Morris, who visited Washington in mid-April to promote the film, is himself a master questioner, although not of the brutal type. His interviews sometimes last for days, and usually begin with his admitting, "I don't know where to start."

It's true. I heard this first from Philip Gourevitch, who was poring over the transcripts for the book. I guess that's exactly what I do. I usually have no idea where to start. I don't like going into interviews and knowing what I'm going to ask. I mean, I prepare. But you just never know what's the appropriate way in.

Robert McNamara was the perfect example. How would you ever in advance what to say to this man? I was simply fortunate that I interviewed him a couple of days after this piece on Bob Kerrey — the Congressional Medal of Honor winner and accused war criminal — appeared in the New York Times Magazine. McNamara was primed to talk about war crimes. He wanted to talk about it. I think it's true with every interview.

As long as it doesn't get to point where the person walks out.

That's never happened to me. It came close a number of times with McNamara. Megan Ambuhl got very upset with me at one point, but came back.

What was it that brought you to this project?


Their relationship to reality, or more the political aspect?

I actually think their relationship to reality. What are we really looking at? Do we know, really, what's shown in a photograph? We think we may, but do we really in fact know? To me, there's a powerful mystery about these photographs. Why they were taken, what the people who took the photographs were thinking, what they show.

Was the fact that some of the photos were posed one of things that compelled you?

Yes, actually. The photographs came in three flavors. There were verité photographs, which almost mirror documentary filmmaking. For example, the photographs taken when they first arrived on the tier in mid-October. Photographs of Taxi, the cab driver, with panties on his head, naked, in stress positions, et cetera. That was there. Walk on the tier, click click click.

Then, these photographs where American soldiers are actually mug for the camera. Smiles, thumbs up, "look ma!"

Vacation photographs.

Vacation photographs, yeah. Having a great time, wish you were here.

And then the third variety, the oddest variety of all, are the ones that were, for lack of a better way to describe it, tableaux vivant. Cindy Sherman from hell. These were actually orchestrated for the camera. The pyramid, the leash. Arguably, this stuff would not have happened if cameras had not been present.

Gilligan and the wires. He's a CID [Army Criminal Investigation Division] hold, newly arrived at Abu Ghraib. CID tells them, "Do everything you have to do, short of killing him." They put the wires on his fingers, click click click. And then the wires are taken off. Quite strange. And endlessly fascinating.

If you asked me the question, having made this movie, Do I know exactly why the photographs were taken? I don't. I think there's a lot of different reasons.

Why were the photographs allowed to be taken?

Well, they weren't really allowed. Although cameras were sold at Abu Ghraib, at the concession stand. And people where taking photos. These photographs were well-known. Everybody — I can't say everybody; I don't know that — but lots and lots of people were aware of the photographs. And clearly, the soldiers who took them sort of understood that it was OK, on some level. There wasn't an attempt to hide them. People didn't skulk about, click click click, and then hide the CD under the mattress. The photographs were displayed on computer screens. And they were traded, much like you would trade baseball cards.

Sabrina, in her letters to [her girlfriend] Kelly, says that she took the pictures because she wanted to show that the military was nothing but lies. I believe that's part of it. I think the pictures were taken because it was so deeply surreal, people wanted to see if they were experiencing what they thought they were. Whether it was real.

Was one of the reasons to make this film the way the mainstream media had used these photos?

I felt that it was crude and simplistic. The photographs were immediately politicized, by both left and right. The left says, "Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Bush, tra la la," while the right says, "They were rogue soldiers who came up with all these ideas by themselves." To me, it's not a political argument. It's an argument about what went on there. These weren't monsters, they weren't automatons; they were people like you and me, struggling with something I am very grateful I have never had to struggle with.

When the movie first premiered, at the Berlin Film Festival [in February], people would occasionally say, "Well, there's nothing new here. He hasn't produced any new information." That's not true. I don't have a big flashing neon sign saying "new information" —

When people complain that there's no new information, aren't they really griping that you haven't solved the whole puzzle? That this isn't the movie that puts everything in its place?

Maybe. I would get this question, again and again. "Have you found the smoking gun?" And I would say, "Well, what do you want exactly?" It would be interesting if I found a video conference call where Rumsfeld is telling Chuck Graner to pile the prisoners in a pyramid. I don't believe that call was ever made.

But we have a lot of evidence. How many torture memos do you need before you get the idea that this is an administration encouraging torture? How much evidence do you need to convince yourself that something has gone deeply wrong?