In a career stretching back nearly three decades, documentary filmmaker Errol Morris
has trained a cool but compassionate eye on such disparate subjects as a pet cemetery, cosmology, the legal system, and the waffling confessions of Robert S. McNamara
. His films are always arguments of a kind, designed to tamper with the status quo. The Fog of War
(2004) may have won him an Oscar, after all, but one suspects that Morris is even prouder of The Thin Blue Line
(1988), which got an innocent man off death row. Yet he is too fascinated by human ambiguity to divide his dramatis personae
into freeze-dried heroes and villains. In almost everybody, he sees the potential for both--which is what gives his latest production its somewhat creepy power. A visual meditation on the Abu Ghraib photographs, Standard Operating Procedure
is an elegant movie about profoundly ugly behavior. During a recent swing through Manhattan, the director sat down with Propeller to talk about the photos, the film, and his responsibilities as (to use his own phrase) an "investigative vacuum cleaner, hoovering up stuff as I go along."
Propeller (submitted by not2needy
): What was your own reaction when you first saw the pictures?
Morris: I had a feeling of shame, actually. At the same time, the photographs struck me as utterly bizarre--there was something insane about them. They're unique. They're very different from war photographs. They're not taken by journalists or war photographers, but by soldiers themselves. And because they're taken by soldiers themselves, the question arises: are these pictures of policy, or of some aberrant behavior? It's one of the central stories of our time, I think, and I remain as fascinated now as I was when I first heard about it.
Propeller: You mentioned earlier that you've collaborated on a book
about the Abu Ghraib photographs with Philip Gourevitch. How will that differ from the film?
Morris: When Philip and I started working together, he saw the transcripts of the interviews that I had done up to that point, and they represented over one and a half million words. So there's a lot of material, and the movie is just one small part of it. I interviewed probably twice the number of people that I used in the movie.
Propeller: How did you decide which people to use in the movie?
Morris: I kept going back to the photographs. If the center of the story is the photographs, then it was important to feature those people who were directly involved in taking them. It was as simple as that.
Propeller: Is there a voyeuristic element to dwelling on the photographs? Are we in some way prolonging the humiliation of the victims by doing so?
Morris: One of the things that's so fascinating about this story is that people were blamed for taking pictures--not so much for what is depicted in the pictures. People were blamed for embarrassing America, for embarrassing the administration, for embarrassing the military. But this loses sight of a fundamental thing: the crime here is not photography. The crime here is what is depicted in the photographs, and as such, the photographs represent very significant evidence, not to be hidden, suppressed, redacted. They should be shown and discussed.
Propeller: Why didn't you interview Joseph Darby
, who first turned over the Abu Ghraib images to the U.S. military command?
Morris: I did interview him, at length--I have a six- or seven-hour interview with Joseph Darby. I chose not to use the interview for a whole number of reasons. Darby is really not part of the story that I wanted to tell. First of all, most of those photographs were widely known, I believe, before Joseph Darby turned them in to CID [Criminal Investigation Command]. I also believe that CID is implicated in many ways in some of the things that happened at Abu Ghraib.
Propeller: And how did you decide which photographs to use in the film?
Morris: In a certain way, I did something very simple and crude: I tried to put the pieces in chronological order. Always ill-advised, because chronology never follows the dictates of drama. I picked the photographs that were the most infamous. I mean, there's Gus with Lynndie
) holding the leash. There's the night of the human pyramids, when everything seemed to go nuts. Then there are the Al-Jamadi photographs
, because this was the story of an actual murder that had nothing to do with these guys, with these "bad apples." If they were responsible for anything, they were responsible for uncovering it.
Propeller (submitted by Spadecaller
): Can one truthfully assert that the photographs depict a series of isolated events caused by a small group of misguided soldiers--by, as you just said, "bad apples"?
Morris: Everybody loves to imagine what these stories are. You see something really, really, really bad--and I would put Abu Ghraib in that category--and the natural human tendency is to imagine that these people are beyond the pale, they're not like you and me, they're in some deep sense subhuman. And on the flip side, there are the real heroes, who stood up and said, "I won't allow this to happen." Now, I'm not saying that there aren't people who are beyond the pale, and that there aren't real heroes. I just think that the story is far, far more complex.
For both the Left and Right, the bad apples are these odd constructions. Everybody has an investment in seeing them as bad. Part of what the movie is trying to do--and I think it's a risky thing to do--is to show people struggling with a kind of nightmare.
Propeller: The nightmare of Abu Ghraib itself?
Morris: Yes. I mean, the place was crazy. They put a prison in the middle of the Sunni Triangle! One of the standards of the Geneva Convention is that you do not put prisoners in a war zone, where they can be killed. You put them behind your own lines. Abu Ghraib, setting aside all its associations with Saddam's regime, was in a place that was just dangerous
. There were two military intelligence officers who lost their lives that September during a mortar attack. Prisoners were killed, too. It was a dangerous place, ill-supplied, understaffed, with people pouring in from random sweeps. People coming into the place were unable to get out, due to endless bureaucratic rigmarole. For all intents and purposes, we were running a concentration camp in the middle of the Sunni Triangle. Congratulations!
Propeller: So does the nightmarish location essentially give these soldiers a free pass? That, plus the idea that they were just following orders?
Morris: First of all: it's the military
. Of course they follow orders! They're privates, and specialists, and sergeants! What do you think happens in the military? Philip and I have been talking about writing an essay for the Times
on the whole concept of following orders--what it really means in the post-World-War-II period. Obviously it's not an excuse for everything and anything. But this is how armies operate.
Propeller: But sometimes there are
people who refuse to follow orders. And Darby did eventually turn in those photographs.
Morris: Take my word for it, I could not in good conscience include Darby. Nobody knows the full story.
Propeller: Do you think there's any chance that somebody like George W. Bush or Donald Rumsfeld will someday submit to an extensive interview for you, the way Robert McNamara did in The Fog of War
Morris: I don't know. I'd be happy to interview Rumsfeld anytime. I'd do it tomorrow--I'd cancel a lot of these press interviews if necessary! But meanwhile, it amazes me that people will say, "How come you didn't interview Cheney? Why didn't you interview Rumsfeld? Why do I have to listen to fucking privates
talking about this?" There's a very simple answer. You have to listen to them because they are right there at the center of it all.
To me, the story is about the people who took the photographs. It's not a story of seven bad apples who got caught because they were so stupid. It's a different kind of story. And I like to think that I'm trying to tell it in a way that it's never been told before.
Propeller: Did you interview any Abu Ghraib prisoners?
Morris: I didn't want to talk to prisoners at random, I wanted to talk to the prisoners in these iconic photographs: Gus and Gilligan. I could find neither of them. And it's not because I didn't try.
Propeller: Did the military ever get any usable intelligence out of Abu Ghraib?
Morris: That depends on who you talk to. If you talk to Janis Karpinski
), the answer is no. I'm sure that they got some intel out of the place. But the great irony is that the main reason for Abu Ghraib's existence was to find Saddam. And there was no intelligence from Abu Ghraib that led to his capture.
Propeller: Your film includes interviews, photos, and stylized reenactments of specific incidents. How are viewers supposed to treat those differing levels of reality?
Morris: Here was my thinking. I was trying to tell a story about photographs. How do you do that? You show the photographs, you put white borders on them to show that they haven't been adulterated--yes, it's anachronistic to put the white borders on, but that's how I think the pictures are read. I then have retrospective accounts, which are themselves a kind of reenactment: they're people speaking two or three years after the fact, about why they took the photograph. They're all retrospective accounts: verbal reenactments, if you like.
I hear what the people say to me. Inevitably there are lines that suggest images, which would allow me to bring their retrospective accounts to life. It could be somebody throwing a Nerf football, it could be somebody talking about how they forced these three prisoners to "low crawl." The images are there, usually in ultra-slow motion, to bring you into that moment when the photograph was taken.
Propeller: But is there some danger of blurring the line between what is authentic and what is not?
Morris: The word authentic
worries me. The reenactments are not authentic, and they're not intended to be in that sense. I've probably created the problem myself, by referring to them as reenactments. They're attempts to imagine, or reimagine, what might have taken place. Not because you're reconstructing reality perfectly--you can never do that. But because you want the audience to join with you in thinking about what transpired.
Propeller: A certain kind of postmodernist might say that we're beyond the truth, it doesn't really matter anymore.
Morris: That makes me sick.
Propeller: Yes, well, at what point is exposing the truth not enough?
Morris: If exposing the truth means adjudicating the final details, that's not enough--I would agree. You can uncover useless, irrelevant truths with respect to certain issues. I like to think (in a self-serving way) that some of the things I've uncovered are relevant to the war.
Propeller: Did the making of this film transform your own feelings about the war in any significant way?
Morris: My own two cents--and I shouldn't really interpret my own movie, I should just make it and shut the fuck up--is that we're dealing with some crazy war of humiliation. The idea was to show Iraq and Saddam Hussein who was boss.
Propeller: You see that in the actual conduct of the war itself, or elsewhere in the culture?
Morris: It's taken various kinds of expression. I think it was half a year ago, I was at the MPAA [Motion Picture Association of America] in Los Angeles, arguing for an R rating for the movie. At the same time, I was telling people that I did not want to redact the photos. I didn't like the idea of blurring them out, I wanted them to appear as they were. Otherwise it seemed to spoil the whole underlying idea that these were the real photographs.
Anyway, I started to tell the head of the MPAA my feelings about this being a war of humiliation. And the head of the agency, who has to watch everything
, said to me: The horror movies that have been coming in since the war started are different. Now you don't kill people. You humiliate them first, then kill them--the killing is an afterthought. And I think there is some truth to it.
Propeller: Do you think the administration knowingly pursued this scenario of humiliation at Abu Ghraib?
Morris: Maybe the administration didn't order up all these things from some kind of luncheonette menu. I don't think that they did. But what is clear is that they created a setting where things could just devolve into insanity. Whether it's relaxations of what constitutes torture, or abrogating certain conventions, treaties, international agreements, or sending an ill-equipped army to an area where bad things are inevitably going to happen. There's no single element that you can point to. It's a myriad of different things. But the combination of them produces a disaster.
Propeller (submitted by SonOfTheMask
): You've spoken about journalism as being a process of recovering reality
. What reality do you think your film has recovered for us, and how might that change the national dialogue about Abu Ghraib?
Morris: I remain firmly convinced that Abu Ghraib teaches us something, perhaps something deeply unpleasant, about ourselves. It is a kind of State of the Union address in its most perverse form. It tells us more than what we want to hear and what we want to know.
Propeller (submitted by Spadecaller
): Is the seeming indifference by the media and the public a defense against a frightening reality: that our leaders have made it more inviting to look the other way?
Morris: The US government and the military would have loved to suppress all of these photographs. And the photographs rendered an enormous public service, an ironic one: they opened the curtain and gave us a glimpse into Abu Ghraib. But then we stopped--as if somehow, the photographs shouldn't lead us deeper into the place and what it was about.
Propeller (submitted by gamahuche
): Exactly. We can have an almost Pavlovian reaction to such photographs, where they seem to prevent
us from thinking.
Morris: The photographs became iconic for a reason. They seem to express something, yet it's not really clear what they express. Having spent years thinking about them, I can't say that I understand them fully. They're these weird tableaux vivants--Cindy Sherman from Hell, things created for the camera--yet they captured something about the zeitgeist, something very disturbing.
Propeller (submitted by Radiofreeeuropa
): Do you see yourself more as an artist or a journalist? Or to put it another way, what is your responsibility, and what is ours as the audience?
Morris: I think we all have a responsibility to think about this stuff. Why this country is so apathetic about the war, I can't answer. It very quickly devolved into a Battle of the Blogs--the Right and Left could take their positions, and people could get really tired of listening to it. But I truly believe that before you decide what something is, you have to know something about it: you have to investigate it. And the photographs, which horrified me and made me ashamed... well, I needed to know what they were and how they were produced and what they were about.