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Standard Operating Procedure is a very disturbing documentary. The music and the images allow us to understand the prison and to see what went on in the prison. The clear context of the crimes against humanity that is so off putting and mainly off camera is contrasted with inviting film work that draws us into this story. There are very interesting images and techniques that are used that must be seen again for the simplicity and elegance of them. It is therefore a bit unsettling. Questions are asked and answered, but in doing so other questions arise. We find ourselves again asking for more information and questioning the truthfulness of everyone interviewed. Where are the commanders that ordered this to happen? Where are the political leaders that legitimated these behaviors? They are in the background. They seem to have run away to hide from the story and from history. Without pictures would we have been unable to see the abuses reported? Are we yet, with pictures, unable to see the real abuses? The aberrant seems to be the Standard Operating Procedure. We find ourselves questioning our own beliefs and wrestling with our own culpability.
In 2004 the media was full of accounts of the abuse, torture, and even
murder of prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison by Military Police.
Photographs surfaced depicting prisoners naked and wearing cloth hoods,
and being forced to masturbate, stand on boxes for fear of
electrocution, and forming human pyramids. Twelve soldiers were
convicted, and the commanding officer at the prison, Brigadier General
Janis Karpinski, was demoted to the rank of Colonel. Errol Morris'
documentary Standard Operating Procedure attempts to examine the
atmosphere surrounding the abuse, the people involved, and whether it
was all down to a few "bad apples", or if it was reflective of the
American military as a whole.
Morris keeps his authorial influence to a minimum, instead allowing his subjects to speak for themselves. He has interviewed several of the soldiers involved, including Lynndie England, who can be seen in many of the photographs smiling, pointing, giving a thumbs up. She and the other soldiers interviewed describe, with remarkable candour, what it was like living in Abu Ghraib prison, their relationships with each other and the prisoners, and the events and tensions surrounding those incidents depicted in the photographs. It all paints a picture of the prison as a dark and stifling environment, one just waiting to bring out the worst in people.
The real centrepiece of the film, though, are the photographs. Even four years after they dominated every front page and bulletin, they have lost none of their power to appal and disgust. Some, like the picture of a man forced to stand, arms outstretched, on a box with a cloth bag on his head, are surreal. Others, like a photograph of Sabrina Harman giving a thumbs up over a dead prisoner, are simply disturbing.
And hovering above all of this are the OGA, or Other Government Agencies, an often used euphemism for the CIA. It was during the CIA-led interrogations that the most heinous of human rights infractions were most likely carried out. But there are no photographs of these incidents. Standard Operating Procedure raises the point that it is these individuals who should have received the full brunt of the punishment, but it was simpler to lay the blame on lower ranking officers like England and Harman.
It is here that the main point of contention with Standard Operating Procedure arises. It is true that no one above the rank of Staff Sergeant was convicted. And it is true that this should not be the case, that those higher-ranking officers who let this abuse play out under their noses should be held accountable. But Morris tries to divert too much of the blame away from those who were convicted. While England, Harman and the others were just following orders and living in a deeply affecting environment, they are also human beings endowed with free will. They could have said no at any time, and just walked away.
That Standard Operating Procedure raises these arguments means that it is worthy of our time. It presents the facts as perceived by those involved, never itself commenting or judging. It leaves that to us, so that we can make up our own minds. So that perhaps we can learn from the mistakes made by others, and prevent them from happening again.
The well-known documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, who received an
Oscar for his 2003 study of Robert McNamara and Vietnam 'The Fog of
War,' has put the Abu Ghraib scandal under a microscope, but the result
is too limited a picture of events.
Morris' film describes and shows the humiliations, the nude prisoners cuffed in stress positions or forced to masturbate or pile on top of each other with bags or women's underpants on their heads; the man they called "Gilligan" in the fringed blanket with the conical hat standing on a box with fake electrical wiring to his fingers; the howling dogs terrifying a squatting naked man and biting another's leg; the corpse of a man beaten to death packed in bags of ice.
The images, both stills and some fragments of videotapes, have a dramatic and quickly sickening effect. The circumstances of their taking is thoroughly explained. But the result is disappointingly narrow and obsessive, because Morris has allowed the low-ranking Americans implicated by the pictures, the majority of them concerned only with their own fates and future, to be the dominant voices of the film. The exceptions are a crude but more experienced interrogator, a precise but morally numb military investigator, and the angry general Janis Karpinski who was scapegoated because she was commander of the MPs.
Rory Kennedy's 'The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib,' produced for HBO last year, has already presented all this information about the photo scandal--together with the larger context Morris has left out. Alex Gibney's 'Taxi to the Dark Side' thoroughly explored the larger implications--the responsibilities that go all the way up, the distribution of prison abuses throughout Afghanistan, Iran and Guantánamo, the violations of international law and the inadequacy of torture as an interrogation device. By specifically focusing on the beating and death of the taxi driver named Dilawar at the Bagram prison in Afghanistan Gibney showed much more detail than Morris about the specifics of one prisoner and the full extent of the physical brutality of US interrogators and guards. Anyone coming to Morris' film from Kennedy's and Gibney's will find it incomplete.
'Standard Operating Procedure' doesn't follow up on any Iraqis. Perhaps because Morris' mostly unheard questions were aggressive, his talking heads are always on the defensive, repeating that they were only "softening up" the prisoners as instructed. Lynndie England protests that she was in love with her boss, Charles Graner, and just did what he said. They do admit their process included sleep deprivation, hypothermia, loud noises, and also, when they lost patience or just felt like it, random physical abuse. We learn from the more experienced interrogator that his young associates were useless with high value prisoners. We also learn that no worthwhile information came out of interrogations at the prison. Karpinski explains how heavily overpopulated her prisons became, any suspects once held hard to release.
Morris commits several serious stylistic errors. He introduces fake basement-tape video reenactments (a device he has used before) to augment the visuals of the Abu Ghraib abuses--close-ups of "prisoners'" bodies, blood dripping on a uniform, keys going into a lock--so that after a while you aren't sure what is real and what is fake. The genuine images needed no enhancement, and this confusion is a terrible mistake. The score by Danny Elfman with its heavy-handed drumbeat sounds introduces frantic melodrama, also superfluous and in bad taste.
In fact Morris' material, which ought to have been allowed to speak for itself, is permeated by the banality of evil. The words of the MPs, including Megan Ambuhl, Javal Davis, and Jeremy Sivitz, as well as, most notably in this context, the two women amateur photographers, Lynndie England and Sabrina Harman, are notable for their lack of affect. There is no drama about them. Apart for one or two shaky expressions of doubt, awareness that all this wasn't right, especially on the part of Sabrina Harmon, writing to her "wife" Katie back home, they tend to speak as people going about what they believed to be their jobs; doing what others did and what everybody knew was being done at Abu Ghraib. Except, it seems, General Karpinski, because she was traveling from one prison to another, and says the ugliness was hidden from her. Perhaps it was. There's not much effort to question or puncture any of this testimony.
The film's title refers to the army investigator's conclusion that the majority of the photographed humiliations and punishments were "Standard Operating Procedure" and only certain scenes of physical injury could be classified as documenting crimes. This indulgence is something Morris does not explore further, however. 'Taxi to the Dark Side' goes much more thoroughly into the issue of torture. The distinction between torture and humiliation Morris alludes to seems less important than how the whole pattern of sordid conduct at the prisons get started, a topic 'Standard Operating Procedure' doesn't investigate. We have just had President Bush's admission that he knew and approved high-level meetings inside the White House on harsh interrogation tactics. Morris does not set the Abu Ghraib scandal within this larger framework.
We do hear that children were imprisoned and that there were children raped by prisoners and the prisoners were beaten and injured for that. We're briefly told that methods were transferred to Abu Ghraib from Guantánamo. It's all prefaced by a description of what a disgusting place Abu Ghraib was when the MPs and other American staff came to live there--with constant bombardment, because, in violation of international law (but we are not told that) Abu Ghraib was not behind the lines. This is presented elsewhere by some as mitigating circumstance. The low-ranking Abu Ghraib scandal scapegoats were not only just following orders (or "S.O.P."); they were under stress. Stuff happens. Here again, Morris doesn't connect the dots. Some will like that. The much admired, often awarded Morris is a sacred cow. But this time his result seems more repulsive than effective.
"Standard Operating Procedure" is without a doubt one of the most terrifying films to come out in the last few years. It is a bold documentary which may be at times too gut-wrenching for some people to watch, not that this should ever prevent anybody from seeing it. It was a good decision to look at the events at Abu Gharib mainly through the eyes of the convicted military officers; and of course the photographs speak for themselves. Apart from the depth of the material, the filmmakers have done an outstanding job with the enactments, the visuals and the brilliant music by Danny Elfman. Although the documentary does point out and emphasize that high-ranking officers were never imprisoned for the depicted crimes, in my opinion, the film does fail to ask many essential questions that I feel should have been included in this documentary. Such as: Why do we insist seeing these events as more of an embarrassment on the part of the U.S. than an insult on the Iraqi prisoners? Since the soldiers frequently mention that they are "just following orders", who exactly are these orders coming from? Why will the U.S. Military not allow Charles Graner to be interviewed? What kind of a system is this that can categorize a completely naked "detainee" handcuffed backwards to his bed or another prisoner made to stand for a long time in a difficult position by the fear of being electrocuted as "standard operating procedure"? I am aware that the answers to these questions would stretch the format the director has chosen for this documentary, but I still believe that Errol Morris should have looked more openly into these territories in order to have made an even bolder film; and bold, courageous and very well made this film certainly is.
As someone who spent the majority of his adult life in the military,
this documentary was especially disturbing.
It's not as it there is anything new here. I saw Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, a better picture, and I am sure that I will see some of this again in Taxi to the Dark Side, or at least I am told I will. It is not that this is new or surprising, but that it needs to be seen and remembered as much as the Holocaust.
That is not to say the murder of six million Jews stands equal to the abuses by our soldiers in Iraq, but that we need to remember this and make sure that we do everything we can to prevent it from happening again.
The professionals will tell you that there is no useful information that can be obtained from tortured prisoners. They will say anything to make you quit. So, there is no excuse for what happened here. It was just people reverting to their animal instincts.
The biggest shame, of course, if that no one above the rank of SSgt went to prison. That is just the way it happens. The troops are scapegoated and the officers are reassigned.
The method used by director Errol Morris in telling this story was unique and really added to the film. It needs to be seen by everyone.
Errol Morris has covered some interesting and weird subjects and I
found his last film (Fog of War) to be quite fascinating, so I was
looking forward to seeing where he went next. I was quite surprised
that he chose to do a documentary on Iraq. Sure, it is totally the
subject of our time but it has become a very cluttered subject not
only in documentary films but also the amount of news coverage etc that
is available. When I learnt that the film would be a tight focus on Abu
Ghraib I hoped that Morris would explore the total human aspect of it
and do a really good job of delivering this part of it.
Unfortunately what Morris manages to produce is a film that is solid but not as remarkable as the subject deserves. Part of this, it must be said, is familiarity with the subject; having seen many films that do it better. Taxi to the Dark Side comes to mind specifically because it uses the prison as its starting point before following the smell upwards and outwards to paint a much bigger picture of failure and things that are impacting beyond specific acts of torture. By remaining within the world of the prison, Morris potentially could do enough to standout as being THE film on the subject. The early signs are good because I was surprised to see several of the main names/faces that I knew from the news coverage of the scandal and thus this was going to be the story from those involved firsthand. This was a gamble in a way because the problem with the aftermath of Abu Ghraib was that it was only the "little people" that got the spotlight and nobody else and, by focusing on them, Morris needed to get a lot from them or else his film would end up the same way.
He does this to a point as they discuss in detail what they did and what they saw and it does still have the power to shock and depress. In some regards the anger described makes the violence a little understandable but what I was shocked by was the sheer banality and boredom-inspired viciousness of it all. It helps this aspect that so many of the contributions are delivered in such matter-of-fact manners that it does jar that they don't seem shocked by what they are describing. The truth is probably that they aren't partly because it was "normal" but also that they have discussed it many times. Everyone is a bit defensive and Morris doesn't ever manage to draw much emotion from them in the telling factually the material is engaging but Morris never really gets beyond that. While "Taxi to the Dark Side" moved up the chain of command, Morris needed to move into his interviewees' soul something he doesn't manage to do.
The second failing of the film is the overuse of "recreated" scenes and asides. In Thin Blue Line, it cost him (at very least) an Oscar nomination but here it has a negative impact immediately as you are watching it. With so much shocking reality to discuss and so many real images, some of the recreations are clunky in how out of place they are. I'm not talking about the creative sequences that Morris uses as a bed for dialogue (eg a cellblock full of shredded paper, the letters written back to a partner in the US) but rather the recreations and stuff "around" the pictures. It was unnecessary and distracted from what as real and powerful enough.
The film still works as a good summary of events within Abu Ghraib but it is hard to get excited about it since so much of it feels familiar. The tight focus itself is not an issue but it is when Morris cannot manage to produce searing questions, a bigger picture or intimate soul-searching it doesn't ever do anything that makes it standout in a crowded marketplace.
Standard Operating Procedure (2008) ***1/2
What's in a picture? They say its worth a thousand words, but how many words are what's not in a picture worth. How about thousands of pictures? That conundrum is one of the major foci of Errol Morris, the eccentric genius documentarian's new project, Standard Operating Procedure. Although I was not engaged as I was with Morris's other works, Standard Operating Procedure is still a brilliant and fascinating look at the Abu Ghraib photo scandal.
Morris interviews through the interrotron numerous members of the staff at Abu Ghraib prison. They give their thoughts on their complicity in acts of torture, and reflect back on their experiences. One of the film's major attractions is Lynndie English, that now infamous young woman so maliciously captured on film.
What comes across most intently is that they were just doing what they were told. Those orders always come from off camera left or right. No one above Staff Sergeant was ever charged with anything. This is a point the documentary tries to drive home. In any bureaucratic structure, the big dogs never take the fall. You always sacrifice your little men, your pawns. If people knew what was really going on at the top, they would most surely revolt, or at the very least make a stink, and that would be it for you.
Morris interviews one person who claims she took pictures because she knew it was wrong, to show the world. Is she telling the truth? Well she also discusses how it was "kinda fun" sometimes. She is probably guilty and innocent on all counts.
Morris delves into his subject matter with his usual detective style. He says very little, and of course never ever dares show his face on camera. He only prompts from time to time. He has a style that is uniquely his own in the documentary world. I did not find Standard Operating Procedure to be on the same level as say The Fog of War or Gates of Heaven. But then again how many are? This is a more than worthy addition to the Morris repertoire.
Respectful silence from the audience throughout. Not a word spoken by
anyone exiting the theatre afterwards. Standard Operating Procedure is
the film no one is talking about.
Errol Morris' documentary on the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison is smart and informative. While talking head interviews with the people directly and indirectly involved provide the backbone, cinematic reconstructions of 2003s grizzly events coupled with the well known photographs taken by soldiers work successfully at pulling an emotional response from the viewer.
Though intriguing, SOP doesn't really benefit from the big screen treatment and would probably have just as much impact if viewed on TV.
Dark and depressing, shocking and enlightening: SOP is 2008's must see documentary.
This disturbing documentary causes one to ask: is the U. S. military
populated by a bunch of degenerates masquerading as soldiers? Is the U.
S. military depicted in this movie the same U. S. military that was
welcomed as liberators during World War Two or has the U. S. military
iterated to the point that it is now completely unrecognizable from its
past? Abuse of authority is an old story but when it is officially
sanctioned and then covered up, then that is altogether another story.
Hasn't the U. S. military ever heard of the Nuremberg War Crime trial?
Yet this same military directed its lowest ranking personnel to commit
the grossest criminal acts and when the whole thing was uncovered
refused to take responsibility, instead opting to scapegoat those who
were stuck with having to carry out the orders. What kind of leadership
is that? There's a saying: S%$# flows downhill and what happened at Abu
Graib prison is proof of that. Where did the soldiers get the idea that
you could torture prisoners? Where did that come from? What kind of
culture would produce people who think that making people sexually
abuse themselves is acceptable ... and then gloat about it? The photos
shown in this movie speak for themselves. The United States did not
fight Nazi Germany just to adopt the procedures associated with the SS,
but at Abu Graib that is exactly what happened.
One other thing. What this documentary reports is another example of what happens when amateurs, in this case reservists, are asked to perform military duties for this they have no training or professional experience. But even that does not explain the total breakdown in discipline and the willingness to engage in repugnant behavior that they knew was illegal and improper.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
When looking at almost any photograph it is natural to wonder about the
back-story, about the context in which it was taken. I think that was
the motivation for this documentary, based on the infamous photos taken
in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
While the investigations into the back-story of the photos out of Abu Ghraib reveal valuable insights into the horrors of that place, it is seen that extrapolating a back-story from a picture can often be misleading. For example, perhaps the most famous photo form Abu Ghraib of the guy standing on a box wearing a tattered shawl with wires dangling from his outstretched hands appears to have been staged primarily *for* the photo. He was provided the shawl since it was cold and shortly after the photos were taken the wires, which were never connected to any power source, were removed. Upon review by an investigator this procedure was viewed as "Standard Operating Procedure."
What does a photo of a bloodstained floor say? Is it evidence of some horrible torture having taken place, or perhaps the blood of an insane man who was butting his head against a wall, or maybe the blood of a U.S. soldier who was shot by a prisoner using a smuggled gun? Lynndie England, the smiling young woman in so many of the photos, (like the one with her leading a prisoner on a leash) points out that the leash was slack and she was not dragging the guy and she was doing this to satisfy the desires of her lover. After seeing this film you might be more hesitant to draw conclusions based on certain photos.
Of course most of the photos, such as the ones of the pyramids of nude prisoners, or the sequence of photos of the corpse of al-Jamadi, document atrocities that can hardly be explained away by any imaginable context, and such practices were indeed judged as criminal. Prison sentences were meted out to many of the soldiers involved. But the documentary makes it quite clear that only low-level soldiers were ever sentenced while it was evident that their antics were known and passed over by higher level people.
I think the film succeeds in its narrow focus of trying to understand how the photos came to be and who was involved in taking them. The bulk of the documentary consists of interviews with the people most directly involved. Of course each of those people tried to put the best light on their behavior, with varying degrees of success. I felt the most successful person in this regard was Sabrina Harman whose letters home documented what she was experiencing at the time and indicated a sympathetic personality. The fact that she got sucked into this morass is disturbing. She said, "I don't know what else I could have done," and expressed regret for ever having joined the military.
Director Morris lets his interviewees just talk without interjecting comments or questions. I was struck by the fact that none of them expressed any great regret or terrible guilt about what they had done, but maybe they were so traumatized by it that it was too soon for them to address that. Or maybe the environment they were operating in permitted them to rationalize that what they were doing was all right, and they have carried that attitude forward? Or maybe they were indeed uncaring jerks. But the film tries to convince you, and I think succeeds, that they were not monsters. Some of the interviewees do give evidence of having been stuck in a hell--being at the bottom of the food chain, bucking the system was not an easy option and going along with the accepted procedures was.
What you seem to have had there was a bunch of young people who were in no way trained or equipped to handle what was happening. The real culprits were the interrogators who were doing the tortures and those who were establishing the procedures, and those people were not filmed. As was pointed out, if the Abu Ghraib photos had never come to light, nobody outside those involved would ever have known about this. Makes you nervous about how much we don't know.
Most of the interviews are not continuous sequences but are pieced together from segments. This has he distracting effect of having the talking heads pop up at different locations on the screen during an interview. I am sure Morris could have minimized this, so I am puzzled by this decision.
I have some qualms about the reenactments, but it is pretty clear what is real and what is staged. You may or may not find the ponderous musical score effective.
This is a rare instance where I found the director's commentary track to be illuminating and well worth sitting through. Usually you just get things like, "It was cold the day when we shot this," or "We had to get up at 4 AM that day." Morris' commentary expands on the issues of the film and he tells what he was trying to accomplish in many of the scenes, and what he wanted to accomplish with the film in general. Also he points out things that you may have missed on first viewing. If Morris is to be believed, the tragedy of Abu Ghraib was that no valuable intelligence was extracted from any of the prisoners in this sorry affair. Saddam was apprehended by soldiers on the ground, not by intelligence.
I came away from this with a different outlook than what I went in with. What more can you ask of a film?
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