Images from Standard Operating Procedure [black border indicates snapshot taken by soldiers]
Morris said as he interviewed Karpinski for over twenty hours, she just became angrier and angrier.
Harman elicits an ambivalent response, especially since Morris and Gourevitch admire her...
...in spite of this damning snapshot, taken by the corpse of Manadel al-Jamadi. Her thumbs up and smile are both the photograph's studium (an object of study that provokes further analysis) and punctum (a detail that wounds and pricks the viewer).
In her interviews, Lynndie England is also different from and perhaps more sympathetic than...
...her former self. Again, the film asks us to consider her in a more complex way than our original response to the photo may have warranted.
Megan Ambuhl Graner speaks about herself but not about...
...her relation to the "villain," Charles Graner. If Graner could have appeared in the film, would we have reconsidered his role, too?
"...in the brig because of a man." A wryly ironic expression?
The central hallway as a crazy theater in one of Morris' famous detail-close-up dramatic reenactments.
"We thought it was weird and wrong, but the example was already set."
Images from Ghosts of Abu Ghraib
In this film the tortured speak.
Pitched camera angles and framing preserve anonymity.
Those who lack power understand how those in power act.
Who gets to say what an image "means"? The famous photographs take on new meaning...
...invested with personal grief. The photos function as international symbols of torture at the price of diminishing their original context, especially as the tortured and their families might interpret them.
These men respond to the cries of the other prisoners in a way that the soldiers have inured themselves to.
These Iraqi witnesses invite spectators to imagine a sound track for terrifying mute images.
Standard Operating Procedure: the witnesses, emotion, and the question of authenticity
In part one, I offered a close analysis of Taxi to the Dark Side to indicate some of the tools a more traditionally structured documentary might use to make an argument about an important social issue. In this case, the social issue—torture—is so amply documented that the torture documentary has as a main function not only delivering information but also providing a conceptual framework that viewers can use to organize the information about torture they constantly receive. These concepts are particularly important for socially concerned people who want to oppose torture but need to reinterpret the limiting rhetorical framework so often provided by politicians or the news.
Now I turn to a close analysis of a documentary made by a filmmaker noted for his innovative style. Errol Morris' Standard Operating Procedure has many of his well-known stylistic tropes—telling a story from different points of view, using dramatic re-enactments, letting interviewees speak at length, utilizing music, and engaging in visual flourishes such as extreme close-ups in slow motion. Significantly, many critics who liked Morris' other films disliked this one, some finding his visual and musical "embellishments" not appropriate for such a serious topic and others wanting a more postmodernist questioning of how we know the "truth." As he speaks about the film in interviews, Morris clearly has set himself two goals. First is to offer a media analysis of the Abu Ghraib photographs and second is to promote a kind of social activism, as evidenced in the topics he takes up in his blog and his publishing a book about torture with Philip Gourevitch. I am particularly interested in Morris' use of a cinematic strategy that has made other critics uneasy, his pushing of emotion in the film. In the next few sections of the essay, I would like to explore the implications of how he incorporates affect and encourages an emotional response, especially in relation to the film's focus on the Abu Ghraib photographs.
Standard Operating Procedure analyzes what's in and beyond the frame of these photographs that brought torture to the world's attention in 2004. To establish both the general environment and the Abu Ghraib guards' individual experiences, Morris includes in the film only interviews with those directly involved with or appearing in the pictures themselves. Here I refer to those interviewees as "witnesses," to evoke the sense that they not only speak directly to the camera, looking us in the eye via Morris' filming device, the Interrotron, but that their memories, rhetoric, and public personae are filtered through their prepared and delivered testimony at over a dozen military tribunals and at their own or others courts martial, as well as numerous media appearances and news interviews. In the process, they probably developed a version of events that they came to believe and prefer. In addition, they are filmed against the same prepared background, dark around the edges and blue-grey in the center, in a way that indicates they are speaking in a time and place set apart from both daily life and military environments, so that they have had plenty of time to prepare what they might like to say. We do not know their motives for speaking with Morris, perhaps because he paid them. But most likely they also want to tell their own version of events to the broader world, and Morris does give them ample time to explain themselves. As a matter of fact, Morris uses much longer interviews with former Abu Ghraib guards and interrogators, as well as former prison commander General Janis Karpinski and forensic photographic analyst Brent Pack, than are characteristic of other torture documentaries. Morris' interviews are highly edited, with jump cuts, but they also include prolonged holds on silent faces so as to give us time to "read moods."
In watching and listening to the witnesses, I am constantly aware of getting a recycled version of events, but still, as with the photos, I stare at their images trying to figure out more about their subjectivity, then and now. They give, in fact, only brief glimpses into what must have been mixed motives, ambivalences, levels of awareness, and states of feeling. They speak often about having to dull all emotions and moral sensibility during their nightmarish posting at Abu Ghraib prison. For example, Megan Ambuhl Graner was an MP told repeatedly to "shower" naked prisoners but seems to have little sense of gender politics used against prisoners. She concludes about her time there,
Because I know she married the presumed villain, Charles Graner, I stare at her face, trying to read it, trying to guess if she were more a villain herself or just a pawn. When I listen to Lynndie England, who has a child by Graner, talking about her time in the brig and watch her wry expression of ironic regret, I feel both more empathy for her and more "inside" her feelings, especially in these lines where her anger breaks through:
In his informative DVD commentary over the film, Morris says he wants to explore and convey what is behind but not seen in the infamous photographs, to listen to the people who took the photos, discover what they were like and what pressures they faced, what circumstances existed at Abu Ghraib. He invites us to join him,
"Try to imagine…" is the key phrase here, for as Morris marshals edited interviews, large-screen cinematic reproduction of the Abu Ghraib photographs, dramatic reenactments, and a concert-style musical score, he seems to have put that material together for emotional exploration and impact. For many critics, who have come to admire Morris as a "postmodern" documentarist, such emotional strategies seem inappropriate and inadequate to the subject matter, torture, and critics also decry that Morris uses witnesses' personal testimony uncritically. In contrast, Morris embraces expressiveness. He says he is trying to capture the nightmarish climate of the prison and the enactment of a sick theater at the "hard site," where most of the photographed abuses occurred. This theatricality became clear to him in an interview with participant Roman Kroll,
Layers of evaluation in
Watching the witnesses in this film explain their situation invites layers of evaluation. First of all, the perpetrators of the atrocities look much different now than they did in the Abu Ghraib photographs, and we contrast their expressions while talking to us with the mugging or other actions they performed for the camera then. Second, we must constantly balance their sympathetic presentation in the film with the crimes we think or know they committed. The same issue comes up with the MPs and MIs from Bagram prison interviewed in Taxi to the Dark Side, but since Standard Operating Procedure's voice track comes entirely from people connected to the Abu Ghraib photos, this kind of evaluation or "balancing" becomes an even greater part of the viewing experience, especially as the Abu Ghraib photos are often shown onscreen while witnesses speak.
The witnesses speak to the circumstances in which they found themselves. Tim Dugan, a contract interrogator with CACI Corporation, opens and closes the film by speaking over images of sunrise and sunset, talking about how he likes to see a certain flock of birds take off and return from the same place each morning and evening. Javal Davis, MP, describes the prison's inappropriate location in a combat zone, the Sunni Triangle near Falujah, which places it under constant mortar attack. General Janis Karpinski tells how Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld visits there with General Miller, who has plans to "gitmoize" Abu Ghraib:
Many of the MPs say they thought it was strange that detainees are kept hooded, naked, and in stress positions, but as PFC Lynndie England puts it,
Inexperienced, young, trained for police work but unprepared for custodial prison work, the MPs lived in cells themselves and followed the instruction of the MI interrogators to "soften up" detainees on the night shift for questioning the following day. The film invites us to imagine their everyday experience since it would be impossible to reproduce it. In the course of the film, they give detailed descriptions of several of the incidents documented by many of the photographs, in particular the death of Manadel al-Jamadi and the stacking of naked men into a pyramid and forced masturbation initiated by Charles Graner, a moment of abuse documented by various MPs' cameras. We follow this story of what happened at Abu Ghraib by listening to individuals' interpretation of their own experiences, their own roles. Lynndie tells of being in love with Charles Graner, a 20-year old pursued by a seemingly charming 34-year old man. Tim relates his role as an interrogator and what he's learned about getting useful information. Janis Karpinski speaks with fiery indignation throughout, both about prison conditions and her own demotion. We come to understand more of the story/ies behind the famous images but, as Javal puts it, the only big story that concerns the government is that something bad about the United States military has come to light:
Another film about Abu Ghraib, made more in the style of Taxi to the Dark Side, is Rory Kennedy's Ghosts of Abu Ghraib. This film is distinguished by having as witnesses Iraqi detainees formerly imprisoned at Abu Ghraib at the time of the photographed abuses.[open endnotes in new window] Kennedy said that although it was hard to locate such witnesses, she had contact with the lawyer of six of them who were suing independent contractors who had interrogated them. These Iraqis agreed to appear in the film anonymously, fearing U.S. retaliation. To preserve their anonymity, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib often presents these witnesses in extreme close-up, with a camera angle pitched up or down; we may see a man's forehead, eyebrow, and eye from a three-quarters view from the rear, or his lips and chin as seen from the front. Most tellingly, one of the Abu Ghraib photos contains an image of one of the speaker's brothers. He describes the circumstances behind what he sees:
Again, looking at the famous picture of Sabrina Harman with thumbs up by a dead man, al-Jamadi, wrapped in plastic, another says of that moment,
And finally, with tangible detail, Mudhaffar Subhi describes the general situation at the hard site on the night shift:
The importance of such testimony is that public guessing or investigating what's "behind" the photos has largely uncovered aspects of the U.S. chain of command, the CIA history of torture, and the testimony of U.S. witnesses such as those in this film. However, the photos, the subject of Morris' Standard Operating Procedure, and their documentation of the performance of torture take on a whole different aspect when the Iraqi prisoners can add their voice to the description of the scene. Torture epistephilia has mostly uncovered what's gone wrong with the United States, but that large body of documentation is incomplete both in terms of knowledge and feeling. In contrast to the U.S. legal system's norm of using only first-person, direct-witness testimony to adjudicate and punish crime, memories of and fury at torture long remain in the cultural memory of the groups who suffer it. In Latin America, for example, the voices of such groups are sometimes raised in testimonio, by speakers who represent a whole group and use a public forum to express their group's experience and point of view. In such an instance, the first-person voice is less personal than expressive of a "we." In our historical moment, however, few of the Iraqi and Afghani witness freed from U.S. custody who have experienced or seen torture first-hand feel free to speak in their own names and may avoid the press altogether. Interestingly, in preparing this essay, I constantly have had to go back to my notes to find the correct military rank or social position or first name of the authorities who speak in these films, but have only pseudonyms for the Iraqis in Kennedy's film. While I write this essay, then, I understand how the use of the proper name is politically charged, both in documentary and in critical writing. The effect of not remembering, using, or being able to use the proper names of the oppressed means barring them from public discourse and history.
Finally, in considering the voices of these witnesses, whom the films have presented with dignity and respect, what we think about them must be tempered and will continue to be tempered by extra-cinematic information. A book written by Philip Gourevitch, also entitled Standard Operating Procedure, offers a well-written, expanded account drawn from interviews done from the film as well as other testimony and documents. It deals with both the situation at Abu Ghraib and the larger political issues, including legal background and chain of command. Its chronology of what happened at Abu Ghraib fills in many more details about and from the witnesses who speak in the film. In addition, in their own voice, some witnesses featured in these torture documentaries have published books about their experiences: notably Tony Lagouranis, MI at Abu Ghraib, and Moazzam Begg, victim of extraordinary rendition, later taken to Bagram and then Guantanamo where he was held for two years in solitary confinement.
Furthermore, other information is available about the witnesses, external to the film, which may inflect how we interpret the material in the films. Does it affect our judgment of the speakers in Standard Operating Procedure to know, for instance, that while in Iraq Lynndie England was officially reprimanded three times, fined, and demoted to private for sleeping with Charles Graner; or that another witness presented as relatively "innocent" by Morris, Jeremy Sivits, was a witness for the prosecution in the others' courts martial and thus might have learned to speak about the events in a self-serving way; or that Tim Dugan has been named as an abuser in a U.S. lawsuit initiated by former Abu Ghraib detainees against CACI, which provided contract interrogators there? To a certain degree, for me, such additional information does shade how I receive their voices now on re-viewing the film, but more it confirms my sense of contingency and provisionality in watching these talking heads. As witnesses, they have become historical figures, only temporarily arrested in the cinematic present as full-screen figures speaking to me in the first-person voice. Still I am moved by the emotional force of what they have to say and grant them, as we grant all witnesses whom we do not consider liars, the authority of their narrated memories and experiences, qualify it as we may.