While his last film, The Fog of War, revolved around interviews with Robert S. McNamara, the much reviled Secretary of Defence during the Vietnam War, Errol Morris’s latest documentary is a study of soldiers at the bottom of the pyramid, themselves often victims of the botched war in Iraq. Taking as its starting point the photos of torture and humiliation shot at Abu Ghraib in 2003, and seen by millions worldwide, Standard Operating Procedure pieces together a fascinating, almost forensic study of the events depicted in the shocking images.
In an on-stage interview at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, Morris admitted that there is often a discrepancy between ‘audience expectations about what your movie should be’ and what it really is. So while audiences may have hoped to see George Bush or Donald Rumsfeld excoriated, Standard Operating Procedure doesn’t hold them to account for the horrific abuses that occurred at the Iraqi prison. The film’s not even an outraged attack on the war itself. Morris, who was a private investigator before he became a filmmaker, explained that he was more interested in understanding his subjects, in the ‘idea of people grappling with themselves’, rather than in eliciting the confessions his audience might crave.
Disturbing interviews with the notorious Lynndie England, as well as her fellow soldiers including Sabrina Harman, other investigators and interrogators, reveal a time-line of events that put the 270 photos of abuse into grim context. England’s best known for appearing in photos holding a prisoner on a leash, or grinning at detainees being forced to masturbate. Harman is seen in photographs smiling over the gruesome dead body of a tortured Iraqi. England talks about being a woman in a man’s world, fighting to be an equal. Harman wrote letters home to her partner describing the events in the photographs, many of which she took, in order to prove to people back home ‘the shit’ that happened at Abu Ghraib, things Americans would never believe if they couldn’t see it for themselves.
The humiliation in these photographs had little to do with the interrogations of the prisoners themselves. Soldiers like England and Harman, and other guards at Cell Block 1A, where the most notorious offences took place, were meant to soften up their subjects. They were supposed to ‘Gitmoize the operation’ and ‘treat the prisoners like dogs’. These low-ranking soldiers might have known that something wasn’t right, but they were either too ignorant or too powerless to defy the orders that came from above in a situation ‘where right and wrong was hopelessly blurred’. Military culture doesn’t tolerate dissent; these soldiers were screwed either way. They were forced by their superior officers, by the CIA and FBI, to become complicit in the crimes that were committed in the name of winning the war – something still unachieved five years later.
Standard Operating Procedure is as taut and compelling as any thriller, fuelled by Danny Elfman’s terrific score. Morris has mastered an interview technique that gives the appearance that his subjects are speaking directly to the audience, creating the illusion that we’re involved in a conversation as crucial as any we’ve ever had. Morris refuses to simply vilify soldiers like England and Harman, offering them a degree of sympathy instead. Ultimately, Morris leaves little doubt that the people responsible for the rampant, policy-driven abuse were never brought to justice: as he made clear during the interview, the photographs ‘deflected blame from the administration and gave people these visible culprits… these people took the stain of this entire war’.
For more Edinburgh Festival coverage see: EIFF 08: Under the Radar, EIFF 08: Best of the Fest and Interview with Olly Blackburn, Jay Taylor and Rob Boulter (Donkey Punch).