Photo Ops

Photo Ops

Errol Morris’s new documentary Standard Operating Procedure lacks critical distance but produces masterful evocations of Abu Ghraib.


Who is Pfc. Lynndie England? Anyone can tell you: she’s the woman in the Abu Ghraib pictures. The world recognizes her as a slight female figure standing on the left side of the frame, holding a leash connected to a naked, manacled male figure sprawled on the right. Most people could place Spc. Sabrina Harman, too, if shown her most notorious snapshot. She’s the grinning young woman who leans into the picture from the top, flashing the thumbs-up over an iced corpse. We know about England and Harman because of photographs; and from there, it’s a short step to imagining that we know them through photographs.

No doubt the Lynndie England and Sabrina Harman who speak to the camera in Errol Morris’s documentary Standard Operating Procedure are also creatures of photography. Colored shadows with a synchronized soundtrack, they live within the confines of Morris’s film much as their younger selves are contained in the Abu Ghraib pictures. And yet when the silent, frozen figures of your memory give way to these images that move and talk, you are likely to feel a shock–not of recognition but of alienation. No longer the criminal gamin with boyish hair, England is suddenly a dour, resolute, puffy-faced woman dressed in a denim jacket. “When we first got there, the example [for treating inmates] was already set,” she says defiantly. “It was OK.” And Harman, with her thick curls grown out and her lips made up with color, now appears not at all like the sadistic, T-shirted imp of the still photographs. Sober but also a little ingenuous, she seems half gawker and half witness of conscience: “The first thing that I noticed [in Abu Ghraib] was this guy with underwear on his head, handcuffed backward to the window.” Another “looked like Jesus Christ…. I had to laugh.”

Once you gather your impressions of a dozen such interview subjects, weigh their testimonies, wince again at the display of photographs (far more of them than you’ve probably seen before) and mull over Morris’s ghostly evocations of the setting, you may begin to understand Standard Operating Procedure less as a reconstruction of facts than as a study in estrangement. Morris wants you to sense the otherworldliness of Abu Ghraib, a place he represents as an airless, windowless, round-the-clock delirium of shouts and banging, filth and raw concrete, huddled bodies and incoming shells and bizarre, ritualized ordeals. He wants you to experience the absurd gap between what happened in that other world and how US officials characterize what happened. (The film takes its title from the categories of the Army’s Criminal Investigations Division. As former CID Special Agent Brent Pack explains to the camera, no one from Abu Ghraib was indicted for placing a hood over a man’s head, standing him on a box with wires attached to his arms and telling him he’d be electrocuted if he fell off, because that isn’t a crime–it’s standard operating procedure.) And Morris wants to estrange you from one more element of this nightmare: the pictures that were the primary evidence of its existence and the government’s primary means for placing blame on a handful of guards. We know about the torture in Abu Ghraib because of photographs; but what we know through these photographs, as Morris demonstrates, is far from complete.

For example, the photographs seem to show Harman gloating over her victims. Was that why she took the pictures? In speaking to Morris, Harman claims an entirely different motive: she, too, was a documentarian. She didn’t think anyone would believe what she’d found in Abu Ghraib, and so she took photographs as proof. In support of this story, Morris puts on the screen some of the letters Harman sent home, in which she expressed her unease at the events around her. But if that was how she felt, how does she account for her beaming face and approving gesture in the ugliest of the photographs? “It’s just something that automatically happens,” Harman explains. “When you’re in a photo, you want to smile.”

Lynndie England: “[Cpl. Charles] Graner never would have had me standing next to [the man on the leash] if the camera hadn’t been there.”

Spc. Jeremy Sivits, sentenced to one year in prison for photographing naked prisoners stacked in a pyramid: “I was asked to take [the picture]. I’m a nice guy. I took it.”

Even in hell, it seems, people conform to the etiquette of photography: pose, say cheese, help someone record the scene. Standard Operating Procedure never suggests that these behaviors excuse what you see in the photographs; it merely points out, again and again, that you don’t see everything. States of mind, stage directions, the presence of people just outside the frame–all these may have been significant at the time, but they’re invisible now.

And so, too, is the prison’s code of conduct. This is the biggest piece of unseen evidence, Morris argues: the set of military norms established in Abu Ghraib. Some of the soldiers who were caught in the photographs, and punished for being caught, adopted those norms with culpable gusto. Others simply soaked them up. (“We didn’t kill ’em,” a self-justifying England says of the prisoners. “We didn’t cut their heads off.”) But no matter which individual a snapshot memorialized, at whatever place and time, the camera could not record the governing etiquette, which held that you did indeed have to stop short of decapitation, though not by much.

Unable to bring this code into sight, Morris brings it into mind by interviewing Janis Karpinski, former brigadier general of the 800th Military Police Brigade in Iraq–the highest-ranked officer to have been punished for the events at Abu Ghraib. Buttoned up in a suit, Karpinski sits straightbacked before Morris’s camera, her hair pulled tight, her chin jutting out, her voice controlled against quivers of rage, as she repeats a story she has now told many times. In September 2003, she recalls, her commander was insisting on a daily basis that she produce information leading to the capture of Saddam Hussein. To speed this process, Baghdad soon received a visit from Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller–“the guru” of interrogations, Karpinski calls him–who advised her superiors to “Gitmo-ize” Abu Ghraib: “You have to treat the prisoners like dogs.”

Given the Army’s version of police procedure, there were more and more dogs to be treated. Former sergeant Javal Davis, a night guard who was sentenced to six months in prison for his role in the photo sessions, explains that the method for uncovering insurgents was to sweep into an area and bring in every able-bodied man for questioning. “Taxicab drivers, welders, bakers. Imagine someone coming to your town and taking all the men in it.” Imagine all the men going into Abu Ghraib and never coming out. “What’s the release procedure?” Karpinski asks, with fury in her eyes but her voice still in check. “We don’t have any resources to provide for the 200 prisoners…and now you’re going to give us 1,500 more?”

Lack of food, lack of toilets, lack of adequate space in the cells, for a population that had been hauled in for the explicit purpose of being roughed up. Let’s say a tone had been set. And to complete it, Karpinski recalls, she received orders that her guards were not to interfere with the various interrogation staffs–some military, some not–who were busily applying their inexperience. On this latter point, Morris has the testimony of a surprise witness: Tim Dugan, a robust, goateed man of middle years who interrogated prisoners as a private contractor in Abu Ghraib. With the gruffness you’d expect of someone in his profession, Dugan dismisses Military Intelligence as a pack of puppies trying to be wolves. They didn’t understand the uselessness of their methods: A man being tortured will say “whatever the hell you want so that the pain stops.”

You’ve heard that before, of course; but the statement gains new force coming from Dugan. You will most likely trust the image he conveys of weighty experience, just as you may read the severity of Karpinski’s manner as probity, or interpret Davis’s suppressed agitation as a sign of outraged conscience. The habit of moviegoing trains us to make snap judgments like these, discovering meaning in a tilt of the head or a catch in the voice. But if Standard Operating Procedure teaches you anything, it’s to be cautious when seeking truth from a photograph–or, for that matter, from the snippets of a filmed interview.

This is where Standard Operating Procedure becomes problematic, I think–because Morris doesn’t want you to apply his lesson in skepticism to the material he shot. Just as he’s done in his films from Gates of Heaven through The Fog of War, he has brought his subjects before the camera to show you the candor, veracity, duplicity or self-delusion written on each one’s features. You’re meant to judge his people literally at face value–but now, in Standard Operating Procedure, he seems to expect you to go further and take some of their words the same way.

You can detect this departure from skepticism in the way Standard Operating Procedure sometimes overlays a subject’s voice with a reconstruction of the scene that’s being narrated. Morris has used such reconstructions before; but in the past they served to complicate the testimony rather than confirm it, the most notable examples being in The Thin Blue Line, in which the staged scenes showed contradictory images of the same event. Here, though, there’s no critical distance between the voiceover and the conjured-up image. Witness Morris’s statements about the evidence, as posted on the film’s website. What Karpinski, Dugan, Davis and others alleged before his camera, Morris asserts as fact.

He’s right to do so, of course. Independent confirmation in sickening abundance has poured in for Morris’s view, most recently in the form of John Yoo’s newly released memorandum of March 2003 on behalf of the Justice Department, setting forth for the Pentagon the very standard of conduct that would soon trickle down to Lynndie England: just don’t cut off their heads. Many similar documents were readily available to Morris while he was making Standard Operating Procedure; but they never entered into the movie, perhaps because England, Harman and the others received no instruction from them. The guards learned how to behave mostly by looking around; and so, by relying for his evidence exclusively on pictures (talking and otherwise), Morris presents you with a challenge like the one these soldiers faced as they tried to draw conclusions based on limited sensory data.

But Morris isn’t consistent in presenting his Introduction to the Phenomenology of the Dungeon. He ventures beyond what the guards saw, heard and thought by bringing in the contextualizing interviews–though this material, too, is puzzling, when you consider that Morris’s portraits contain significantly less visual information than do the Abu Ghraib photos. The snapshots that he questions so rigorously are full of the circumstantial details of their setting, whereas the filmed interviews that he presents as self-evidently reliable show only a succession of isolated individuals–figures without a ground.

So I come back to the alienation effect that Morris practices in Standard Operating Procedure. He distances you from what you thought you’d known through the prison photographs; he distances you from the interview subjects, as presented in their undefined space. By means of these estrangements–which include a cunningly macabre musical score (not written by Philip Glass this time but by the far more pop-oriented Danny Elfman)–Morris achieves his stated goal. He creates “a nonfiction horror movie,” in which the close analysis of photographs ultimately serves much the same purpose as a scientific discourse by Professor Van Helsing.

Strange ambition. Consider the fact that anyone who cares about this subject has already had the benefit of several years’ worth of investigative reporting, as well as two award-winning documentaries–Rory Kennedy’s Ghosts of Abu Ghraib (2007) and Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)–that cover much the same territory as Standard Operating Procedure but with far less fuss. What does Morris contribute by the addition of atmospheric effects?

As a critic, I am required to ask that question. As a citizen, I will wait to reply, since I don’t yet know how audiences will respond to the peculiar emotional tone of Standard Operating Procedure. Information, by itself, has failed to arouse a sufficiently large public; exposés have nothing left to lay bare. So let’s see what Morris can do with a little art. The methods may be fancy and the date of release a bit late; but if this movie succeeds in horrifying people, its shortcomings will be no more consequential than the awkward framing of the snapshots from Abu Ghraib.

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