ERROL MORRIS ON THE VISUAL HORRORS OF ABU GHRAIB
We are all familiar with the horrifying photographs of abuse at Abu Ghraib in 2003. But what do the images tell us? Can we really extract the meaning of a photograph simply by looking at it? Errol Morris, the Oscar-winning director of the documentary Fog of War, does not think so. He believes that without context photographs can be misleading, because we are all free to interpret them as we choose.
But what if you could use a photograph as a doorway into history to get at the wider truth? Morris's latest documentary, or "non-fiction horror movie", as he likes to call it, Standard Operating Procedure, is an attempt to do just this with the Abu Ghraib pictures.
Inspired to think about the problematic nature of war photography by a quote from Susan Sontag, Morris asked: "Do we really know what they mean? Had anyone interviewed the people who took the photographs or who were in the photographs? Did the photographs show us everything we need to know about Abu Ghraib? Was there more that was not photographed?"
According to the film-maker, the images have served as both exposé and cover-up. "They have exposed the reality of crimes at Abu Ghraib, but they didn't go far enough," he says. Their inherent "truth" meant that it was obvious to everyone who the "bad apples" were. A smiling Sabrina Harman with her thumbs up next to a corpse, or Lynndie England trailing a naked Iraqi around on a lead, in a picture staged by Charles Graner, her boy-friend at the time, was all anyone needed to see to identify the villains. The photos reveal something "but they don't encourage you to look beyond the photograph," says Morris. "They tell you that you have what you need to know, and no more."
The lower-ranking soldiers behind and in front of the cameras became the fall guys for a policy that did not exist, claims Morris. The entire American war effort was geared towards finding and killing Saddam, and nothing else, he says. "That's what Abu Ghraib was there for. That's what we were there for. There is no rhyme or reason to this. This was bedlam: an understaffed, ill-equipped army pursuing some kind of non-policy policy that really has just gone berserk. To allow this to devolve into a problem caused by seven, eight, nine bad apples …"
He throws his hands up in exasperation. "The fact that this could even be sold to people, it's a combination of photography, a lack of thinking, and the perennial human delight in being able to blame someone other than themselves."
Even the investigation into Abu Ghraib was "fragmented", he suggests, in order to give the impression that something was being done. After all, 12 investigations must be better than one.
"So there's an investigation on the trunk of the elephant. There's an investigation on the eye of the elephant, the tail of the elephant, the foot of the elephant, but nobody really bothers to look at the elephant. And so the investigations serve more as a cover-up than a genuine inquiry into what happened (at Abu Ghraib]."
Which is where Standard Operating Procedure comes in, says Morris. "It's stepping outside those pictures, talking to the people who were there, and learning about what happened in this place that tells a very, very different story."
That story is told by subjects including Janis Karpinski, the fearsome-looking brigadier general who was head of the prison system in Iraq and who was later relieved of her command and demoted by George W Bush, and several of the so-called "seven bad apples" – the seven military police officers who were indicted – such as England and Harman. Through letters and first-person testimony, the latter emerges as the beating heart of the film and the book of the same name, co-authored by Morris and Philip Gourevitch.
"Sabrina puzzles me perhaps more than anybody," says Morris. "Here you have letters that were written for her wife, Kelly, from Abu Ghraib, sent back to America. At times she describes herself as crime scene reporter, forensic photographer, and at other times she is participant. Observer, participant, empathetic, inured to the stuff that she's seeing around her – it's a mess of contradiction, and I would not pretend otherwise. I find that endlessly interesting."
Ironically, Harman was threatened with prosecution for taking pictures of the body of Manadel al-Jamadi – she has her thumbs up in one of them – who had been killed by the CIA. Yet, says Morris, "Without Sabrina's photograph we would have no knowledge of this murder. She stumbled on this.
"She was not involved in the crime. She really just took a photograph of it and was prosecuted, in essence, for taking photographs that embarrassed the US Government and the US military, not for any of the things that she specifically did at Abu Ghraib." I suggest that he is beginning to sound like Harman's defence lawyer. "It's not that I think these soldiers did nothing wrong," says Morris. "I don't think that. But I think the people who are really responsible for what happened there, who are responsible for covering it up and attempting to cover it up, are more responsible." Morris has not escaped criticism himself. It was recently revealed that he paid for the interviews in the film, while his use of re-enactment has come under fire on the grounds of taste and supposedly blurring the line between fact and fiction. Speaking at a screening in America recently, the film-maker said he had no qualms about paying people like Lynndie England for their time.
"This is not a newspaper interview," he said. "This is something that requires people to travel. I brought Lynndie, her lawyer, her lawyer's wife, I brought Carter (England's son], all to Boston. I paid to put them in hotels. I paid them per diems, as anyone would be paid in the motion picture business. I also paid her money for the interview itself. I don't regret it … To not have paid many of these people would have been exploitation of the worst sort." Morris challenged anyone who believed that the interviews with the "bad apples" had been tainted by money to tell him what inaccuracies they had found.
As for criticisms over his use of re-enactment, this is an issue Morris has dealt with ever since his very first documentary, The Thin Blue Line – a film which led to the release of a man wrongfully jailed for murder. Thinking it was something that had been laid to rest years ago, the director's frustration boiled over when his methods were repeatedly questioned at a press conference at the Berlin Film Festival in February.
"My feelings get very easily hurt when I feel that the use of music or re-enactments is used to say that this isn't a serious attempt at investigation," says Morris, who amassed a million-and-a-half words of transcript, more than 30 interviews, tens of thousands of pages of documents, and more than 1,000 photographs while working on Standard Operating Procedure.
"I wonder what I've been doing for the last two years," he says. "Or what I've been doing for the last 20 years. I see myself as a movie-maker but I also see myself as an investigator. I like to find things out. I'm like one of those dogs that likes scratching around and digging things up."
And what he's dug up in Standard Operating Procedure is damning. According to interviewee Javal Davis, huge amounts of evidence were destroyed to cover up what had happened at Abu Ghraib. "It wasn't just one or two tapes but entire archives of material," says Morris. "Pictures, files, evidence of all kinds, gone. It's that save-your-ass phenomenon at whatever the cost." No-one knew about this wholesale destruction, he claims, because it was not reported in the press. "Nor was it common knowledge that children were kidnapped and put in prison. Moreover, the prison was located in the middle of the Sunni triangle and was mortared constantly. There were prisoners living in tents, and everyone's life was at risk.
"The task of this movie is to try and bring Abu Ghraib alive," says Morris. "To show things that are unknown. It's about the big guys who created a standard operating procedure and conveniently were able to blame the little guys. Crimes were committed and the wrong people were punished for them. I would like to see that made right."
First published in The Scotsman, 07 June 2008