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Errol Morris

Errol Morris is the epitome of restraint. In his previous film, The Fog of War, he could have spent two hours screaming at Robert S McNamara for his part in the Vietnam war. But he didn't, and we're all the better for it. The film provided a compelling insight into McNamara's experiences both in industry and government.


Morris's new film, Standard Operating Procedure, delves into the story behind the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse photographs. Like his previous film, he is not out to dress up the story for shock value; the candid accounts from his interviewees are shocking enough.


There is something to be said for restraint. Socialist anti-war types would do well to understand that. I know they're angry. Invading Iraq simply to demonstrate US might was the stated ambition of the PNAC before and after the US people gave them power. It was wrong then, and it's still wrong now more than five years later. But getting angry about it is counter-productive. Why? Because the general public feel somehow complicit and they don't want their noses rubbed in it. They want to make it go away. They could rise up against their own governments, sure, but most are consumed by their daily lives and don't have the spare time to become an anti-government rebel. The soldiers in Abu Ghraib are in even less of a position than us to question their orders. And so they are forced to live in a world where giving a "thumbs up" over a corpse is a criminal offense, but standing someone on a box by threatening to electrocute them is just Standard Operating Procedure.


As part of a promotional tour, Morris made personal appearances both before and after the film. He explained that one of the most common criticisms he receives is that people watch his documentaries hoping for the interviewees to confess, but he thinks this is an unrealistic and overly simplified view. These people are not pantomime villians, they don't enjoy doing evil deeds. They're not going to say "Yes, I did it! I loved every minute of it! MWA HA HA HA HA!".


In particular, Sabrina Harman's letters home corroborate her story that Abu Ghraib was fucked up from her first day there and, like the other lowly guards there, she had no power to do anything about it. "Military Intelligence" wanted it that way. All she could do was document the abuse via photographs ("The only reason I want to be there is to get the pictures and prove that the US is not what they think"), and the only way to get them was to play along with the others. She didn't change her story after she got caught. What outrages Morris is that she was charged primarily for taking forensic pictures of Manadal al-Jamadi, an off-the-record prisoner who died under interrogation by CIA agent Mark Swanner. Everyone except her conspired to cover up his death.


Likewise, Lynndie England's entire army career is Jerry Springer material. She fell for Charles Graner in a big way, got used a model in his photographic escapades, became pregnant by him, and was eventually cheated on and dumped by him. Sure, she should've known better, but naive twentysomethings fall for manipulative older men all the time. Her ruined lovelife is not unique. Being the poster-child for Americans abusing Iraqis is unique. Does she deserve it? Maybe, maybe not. Morris doesn't make these judgements, you get to make your own mind up.


One aspect of the film I was particularly impressed with was the visualisation of the forensic work done on the photographs. The Army CID inspected all the photos. They all had the wrong timestamps, both on the files and in the EXIF metadata, But by working backwards, they found that there were three main cameras used, each with a different wrong date, but because the different cameras often took pictures of the same events, they could put each camera's images on a timeline and match them up by subject matter, yielding the necessary date corrections to the time. This technical achievement was made easily understandable by a computer graphics depiction of aligning streams of photographs.


Notably missing from the movie are Charles Graner himself (he's still in prison), any "higher-ups" other than Janis Karpinski (a victim of mushroom management), and all the Iraqi prisoners who suffered there. Morris says the latter is because he couldn't get them. He wasn't interested in interviewing random prisoners, but he wanted "Gilligan" (the guy with the hood on the box with the wires) and "Gus" (the guy on Lynndie's dog-leash). He tried to locate them, but couldn't find them after looking for more than a year. All he got was a Gilligan impersonator, Ali Shalal Qaissi.


It's ironic that Morris wants the public to stop focussing on the US soldiers in the pictures and go up the chain of command to the architects of US military policy, as this is the one thing he doesn't do himself in the film. Why? Because he sees the film as a single story about the abuse pictures. His film starts there and ends there, and hopefully sheds light on the scandal. Following it up is a task for someone else. I asked him if he would ever invite Bush or Cheney for an interview in their autumn years, the way he did for McNamara. He said that didn't interest him.


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Taken on June 21, 2008