THE BACK PAGES

SHOOTING THE MESSENGER

Errol Morris unearths the stories behind the Abu Ghraib photos and finds the real crimes occurred outside the frame BY BRIAN D. JOHNSON

May 5 2008
THE BACK PAGES

SHOOTING THE MESSENGER

Errol Morris unearths the stories behind the Abu Ghraib photos and finds the real crimes occurred outside the frame BY BRIAN D. JOHNSON

May 5 2008

SHOOTING THE MESSENGER

THE BACK PAGES

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film

Draped in a blanket, a hooded man stands barefoot on a cardboard box with his arms outstretched, his fingers trailing electrical wires. Among all the pictures of prisoner abuse snapped by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, that image is the most iconic. It became a global symbol of American malevolence in Iraq, as it ricocheted through the media, finding its way onto placards, T-shirts, and the walls of mosques and art galleries. But as it turned out, the prisoner who became a symbol of martyrdom—nicknamed Gilligan by his guards—had never been physically tortured, only humiliated. The crucifix-like pose had been staged for the camera. The wires

E MESSENGER

Errol Morris unearths the stories behind the Abu Ghraib photos and finds the real crimes occurred outside the frame BY BRIAN D. JOHNSON

were not connected to an electrical source. And Gilligan had been given the blanket with a hole cut out, like a poncho, to keep him warm, unlike many Abu Ghraib inmates who were trussed up naked in “stress positions” prescribed by military intelligence.

Other photographs taken by soldiers at Abu Ghraib in 2003 revealed far uglier horrors, including the mangled corpse of Manadel al-Jamadi, an Iraqi detainee who was killed during a CIA investigation—an act that went unphotographed and unpunished. In a classic case of “shoot the messenger,” Sabrina Harman, the U.S. soldier who photographed the corpse, and posed beside it with a smile and a raised thumb, went to jail for exposing the crime, while the interrogator who killed him has not been prosecuted.

That is a central irony that emerges from Standard Operating Procedure, an amazing documentary about the Abu Ghraib photographs that has its North American premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival this weekend and opens commercially next week. It comes from Errol Morris, the Oscar-winning director best known for The Thin Blue Line and the The Fog of War. “Photographs reveal and they conceal,” Morris told me in an interview. “You see a photograph and you think you understand what you’re looking at. You think you’ve seen everything. But you’ve just seen what’s in the photograph. At first I believed that Sabrina was implicated in Jamadi’s death. I was wrong. I, too, was fooled by the smile. Sabrina didn’t murder Jamadi. She

provided evidence he’d been murdered.”

In an age where nearly every soldier is armed with a digital camera, combat photography has undergone a DIY revolution. War is now being shot from the inside out. In the new home theatre of war, the mantra is point and shoot, lock and upload. Soldiers collect and swap their souvenir spoils, creating a virtual WarTube of military tourism. But the context can get lost. Exploring context is what Standard Operating Procedure is about—along with an equally devastating book of the same name that New Yorker writer Philip Gourevitch co-authored with Morris.

“The Abu Ghraib photographs serve as both an exposé and a cover-up,” says Morris. “They were embarrassing to the administra-

tion, to the military, to America—they were embarrassing to me. They stopped us in our tracks. If not for these photographs, many of the crimes that occurred would have remained unknown. But they didn’t force us to look farther. By the end of 2003, there were 10,000 prisoners in Abu Ghraib. You’re talking about a place that is immense. It’s not one cellblock with a few soldiers. But you see those photographs and you think that is Abu Ghraib—“I’ve seen it, I know who’s responsible and I know what they did!’ ” Morris takes the viewer beyond the frame, weaving a forensic analysis of the photos with penetrating interviews of the soldiers who took them and posed in them. At first the meaning of the photos seems as grotesquely

clear as pornography. A human pyramid of naked prisoners. A female guard with a naked man on leash. But as Morris uncovers the stories behind the images, we begin to see the guards as ordinary people trapped in an insane predicament. He argues the soldiers convicted of abuse, the so-called “bad apples,” were scapegoats—punished not so much for humiliating Iraqi detainees as for humiliating the U.S. military.

You might expect that a two-hour movie documenting torture and abuse in an Iraqi hellhole would be hard to watch, or at least unpleasant. But Morris is a master of the seductive image, and what is most disturbing about Standard Operating Procedure is its eerie beauty, which feels almost perverse

under the circumstances. There are three layers to the filmmaking—photo forensics, dramatic re-enactments and interviews—and they’re all mesmerizing.

The photographs are dissected with the sort of sexy computer graphics and sound effects you’d expect in a Hollywood thriller. Throw in some animated blueprints of the cellblock, a high-strung score by Danny Elfman (Batman), and a serious investigation plays like high-voltage entertainment. Defending his approach, Morris says, “I’m a filmmaker. I want to draw people in with whatever means are at my disposal.”

The dramatic re-enactments unfold in a slow-mo limbo of arty, dream-like impressionism. Morris, a former philosophy Ph.D. student, has a lingering taste for metaphysics. And here, making a fetish of light and shadow, he’s enamoured with drops of water, streaks of blood, and dust suspended in golden light above angled floors. The man never met a dust mote he didn’t like.

Morris argues the re-enactments don’t attempt to reproduce reality, but to convey the “unimaginable.” He mentions former Sgt. Tony Diaz, who was perplexed to see blood drip onto his uniform after a hood was lifted off a detainee, blood that he says he had nothing to do with. Morris says “that deeply disturbed me—it made me wonder about the nature of complicity in war, my own included.”

The thrust of the film’s narrative is driven by interviews, conducted in the director’s

trademark style. Framed in starkly lit close-ups, subjects speak directly to the camera with a confessional intimacy. Morris has a knack for securing trust and conjuring charisma. He delivers characters that we’re happy to spend time with. With piercing eyes and glacier cheekbones the prison’s former commanding officer Janis Karpinski has the raging ferocity of a Vanessa Redgrave as she blasts her superiors. And you could picture Tommy Lee Jones playing Tim Dugan, a contract interrogator who unleashes a withering critique of military intelligence.

But the film’s real power lies in its empathetic portraits of the guards, especially the women, who served jail time for crimes in

‘WHAT’S HERETICAL IS I’VE TRIED TO TURN THEM BACK INTO PEOPLE’

which they appear to be pawns. “I’ve tried to draw them back from the world of monsterhood,” says Morris, noting that these “bad apples” have been demonized by all sides. “The left says they are rotten because Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld are rotten. The right says, no, they’re rogue soldiers. But the one thing the left and right share is that they are rotten. What’s heretical is that I’ve tried to turn them back into people.”

He delves into the sad soap opera of their private lives—the young Spc. Lynndie England falling for Spc. Charles Graner, who staged many of the photos, and who made her pregnant only to dump her for her friend, Megan Ambuhl, now married to Graner, who’s serving a 10-year term for prisoner abuse.

With her radiant smile and air of childlike naïveté, Harman is the film’s most intriguing subject. She was known to be incapable of violence but was fascinated by its aftermath, and by the dead. Harman obsessively photographed prisoners and posed with them. At first she snapped and mugged like a tourist adrift in some ghoulish carnival. But in letters that she wrote home to a woman she

called her “wife,” she talked about her desire to document injustice. “The only reason I want to be there is to get the pictures and prove that the U.S. is not what they think,” she wrote. “What if that was me in their shoes. These people will be our future terrorist.” Harman examined a corpse that had been left on ice, wrapped in a body bag. Her commanding officer said the man had died of a heart attack. She peeled back bandages to reveal evidence of torture, which she photographed in meticulous detail. She also posed with the body, offering her customary thumbsup smile. The next morning, the body was wheeled out on a gurney, disguised as a sick prisoner with a oxygen mask and an IV hookup. Later Jamadi’s death was classified as

homicide. Harman’s photos were the first evidence of it, and they got her a six-month jail term. Had she been a photojournalist, she might have won a Pulitzer Prize. In fact, before joining the military to finance her college education, Harman had an ambition to be a forensic photographer.

What made the Abu Ghraib photos so inflammatory, and unprecedented, was the role women played in degrading naked inmates. “One of my theories,” says Morris, “is that this is a war of sexual humiliation. There was a policy to use American women to humiliate Iraqi men. We see it re-enacted

in some of these photographs—Lynndie with the leash, the pyramid, Lynndie pointing at the dick of the Iraqi male.” Because of those pictures, Morris had trouble convincing the head of Hollywood’s MPAA to give the movie an R-rating, as opposed to a harsher NC-17. “I’m telling her I can’t change the photographs because they are central evidence. She says, ‘Funny thing, you know horror movies have changed since the war started. It’s not enough to kill people any more. Now you have to degrade them and humiliate them.’ She mentioned Saw and Hostel.”

Morris has described his own film as “a non-fiction horror movie.” But does that mean he’s reproducing its photographic horror on a grand scale? “I don’t feel the abuse

is photography,” he replies. “The abuse is what the country has done in terms of its foreign policy abroad.”

Megan Ambuhl perhaps offers the most lucid explanation of the movie’s raison d’être. “The pictures only show you a fraction of a second,” she tells the camera. “You don’t see forward and you don’t see backward. You don’t see outside the frame.” Morris takes us beyond the frame and into an abyss. M

ON THE WEB: To read Brian D. Johnson’s full interview with Errol Morris go to www.macleans.ca/errolmorris