2009, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 51, spring 2009
by Julia Lesage
To begin with, I would like to encourage readers of this essay to see one of the films described below, even better, two, so they can evaluate how a documentary might analyze U.S. involvement in torture.[1a][open endnotes in new window] To see these films now is important because the issue itself, state-sanctioned torture, has become the issue of our time, especially in the United States. Historically speaking, the films participate in our collectively creating a "story" around torture. Developing such a narrative, which is both descriptive and analytical, influences how we imagine and act on what happened, how we formulate our activism. Later, as years pass after this traumatic event, we may develop an "official version" of what happened—as seen, for example, in the Holocaust Museum or other museums dedicated to catastrophes—but it will long be a contested version, both in the way it is framed and in the aspects of the trauma that it elides. For teachers, these documentaries provide excellent classroom material. The films open onto other readily available information on the Internet and in books for student research, for example, or shown together in pairs they provide media and social studies classes with usefully contrastive examples of the "framing" of contemporary issues which most students would like to be informed about.
In general, documentary filmmakers who take on the task of representing a large-scale event of historical importance do us a service. Their films give information about the subject, indicate ways of dealing with the issues, invite an emotional response, and invoke an ethical stance. They offer a path to mastery over a complex topic, even if it is only a provisional mastery that becomes more nuanced and revised the more we consider other facts and other voices on the subject. In this instance, because there is so much information about the issue of torture, far more than any one person can remember or easily draw upon, the documentaries offer a structure for organizing that knowledge, setting out main ideas that can shape further exploration or be modified as the viewer reads more about the subject on his/her own. In this way, the films are a valuable tool for any concerned viewer, especially activists, since the films place an emphasis on understanding and also draw attention to how we understand. That is, the films indicate how information about torture is repressed, mediated, and filtered before it ever gets to the public eye.
Interestingly, the torture documentaries have as a predecessor a visual text that suddenly irrupted into public history in 2004, a text collectively known as the Abu Ghraib photographs. These images seemed to have come from "below," bypassing political censorship. In terms of their institutional impact, the Abu Ghraib photographs initiated an intense, long-term scrutiny of U.S. involvement in torture and illegal abduction and detention of prisoners. As images, the photographs remain shocking and puzzling. As political documents, they reveal a previously hidden world that seems to sum up imperialism's racialized and sexualized domination and abuse.
In addition to the Abu Ghraib photographs, because of legal action from progressive organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights, many military and government documents related to U.S. torture policy have been released. Some journalists have now devoted years to uncovering the history of this abuse as well. The Internet has become a tool for disseminating texts of analytic essays and primary documents, often in PDF form, and many journalists, lawyers, and activists have blogs that discuss both news and legal strategies, in addition to offering first-person narratives and opinions from those most directly involved. This pursuit of knowledge around torture continues unabated in the United States, and the massive quantity of information we now have is one of the topics I wish to explore in the essay below.
In Representing Reality, Bill Nichols explains documentary's pursuit of knowledge and the sense of mastery it gives, calling that pursuit epistephilia. Nichols explains how epistephilia is often the goal of both documentary filmmaker and documentary viewer. He delimits this sense of mastery, however, since documentary epistephilia mediates and filters information, structuring it in relation to the spectator who receives and uses it:
“Documentary convention spawns an epistephilia. It posits an organizing agency that possesses information and knowledge, a text that conveys it, and a subject who will gain it. He-who-knows (the agency is usually masculine) will share that knowledge with those-who-wish-to-know; they, too, can take the place of the subject-who-knows. Knowledge, as much or more than the imaginary identification between viewer and fictional character, promises the viewer a sense of plenitude or self-sufficiency. Knowledge, like the ideal-ego figures or objects of desire suggested by the characters of narrative fiction, becomes a source of pleasure that is far from innocent. Who are we that we may know something? Of what does that knowledge consist? What we know and how we use the knowledge that we have are a matter of social and ideological significance.”
I am interested in Nichols' approach not only because he qualifies documentary's granting spectators a sense of mastery and insists on the social uses of documentary epistephilia, but also because he leaves something out when he describes documentary's pursuit of knowledge, something documentaries about torture cannot elide—the role of affect, the affect the very information conveys (or rhetorically tries to suppress). Viewers cannot learn about torture without coming into contact with strong emotion. All the filmmakers who use images and first-person testimony of abuse understand that this material has a great emotional charge; it conveys the repeated story of people intending to inflict grievous harm on others. But the torture documentary uses this material differently than it might be used in we-know-it's-not-real works of fiction. Documentary images of torture and people's descriptions of torture become part of history, and they bear an affective charge enhanced by the genre's "representation of reality."
Such an affective charge not only adheres to documentary images, such as in photojournalism or the Abu Ghraib photographs, but also to the way these films use witnesses to torture, sometimes perpetrators and abused. For example, a number of these torture documentaries have interviews with lower-ranking military figures accused and perhaps convicted of torturing prisoners in Bagram and Abu Ghraib prisons. As I watch them in close-up talking to the camera, these former guards and interrogators seem sympathetic, yet I know of their terrible acts. As they speak, I search their faces for signs of remorse and any indication that they are lying or telling the truth. My emotional response, especially to the Abu Ghraib photographs, conflicts with these people's expressed attitudes about past events and about themselves.
At this point, I would like to step back and indicate something about my own writing style in this essay. From time to time, as I have done here, I will focus on my own spectatorial response in an autoethnographic way as a case study. While analyzing the emotional dimensions of the torture documentary, I hope to write in a way that could embrace a potentially wide range of responses, especially in terms of affect. By locating myself as a viewer, then, I would like anchor the discussion of affect with more specificity. In addition, I mention my viewing experience of evaluating these interviewees because that particular aspect of the torture documentary relates to my ongoing scholarly work. For example, I evaluate the eye-witnesses' reports according to my interest in autobiography and predilection for emotional expressiveness and melodrama in film. Specifically, I have a theoretical interest in the first-person voice as used in non-fiction reportage and film. Here the pronoun and speaking position "I" invites, as it were, a direct connection to a "you," in this case, me the viewer. In documentary film, such an "I" rarely has the complexity of literary autobiography, which often takes pains to explore mixed, layered aspects of the self, complexities of past situations, and one's own mixed motives and shifting ambivalence. In contrast, in non-fiction film and television, the "I" who's interviewed usually speaks words edited into a documentary argument. I am emotionally moved by what these interviewees from Bagram, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo have to say and by their direct address to the camera, but as I scrutinize them, their subjectivity ultimately eludes me.
I have organized this essay to explore two large aspects of the torture documentary—epistephilia and affect. To do so, and also to give some indication about genre structures, I provide a textual analysis of three highly accomplished films: two documentaries—Taxi to the Dark Side and Standard Operating Procedure—and a docudrama—The Road to Guantanamo. However, in the way that the documentaries actually work, knowledge and affect are not so neatly divided; all these documentaries elicit emotion and purvey knowledge and are structured to do so. Thus, even though I particularly use Taxi to the Dark Side to consider how it uses voices of authority—and more generally to offer my own to challenge torture epistephilia at this moment in the United States—I also consider how the film uses photojournalistic images for emotion, especially irony. In the same way, I use a textual analysis of Standard Operating Procedure, which takes as its topic just the Abu Ghraib photographs, to explore issues of affect in the torture documentary. However, I also explore how the film works as an analytic documentary, one that explores what the photograph, or indeed witnesses, can and cannot convey. Standard Operating Procedure particularly raises the question of "authenticity" in relation to its interviewees. It uses lengthy segments of people talking, with edited moments from what were clearly very long interviews, and the camera holds on them after a speech to capture just their individual expressions. We are asked to evaluate not only the history of Abu Ghraib torture that these participants tell us about but also how much we trust what they have to say.
Because of the historical role of the Abu Ghraib photographs and their shocking image material, I consider the photographs on their own terms, first in terms of torture, sexuality, and theatricality; and then in terms of elements within those photos that shape viewer response. Finally I offer a briefer textual analysis of The Road to Guantanamo, which as a docudrama has its own particular way of evoking the specifics of a situation and eliciting an emotional and political response.
The documentaries under consideration here:
Taxi to the Dark Side, dir. Alex Gibney, 2007: This film uses the documented homicide of an Afghan taxi driver in Bagram prison as the focus for interviewing Bagram prison guards and interrogators, as well as for investigating U.S. government policy and the legal and social/psychological issues around torture. The film incorporates dramatic reenactments and many still images taken by photojournalists on the political or war beat.
Standard Operating Procedure, dir. Errol Morris, 2008: Morris explores the circumstances around the Abu Ghraib photographs. He interviews participants from Abu Ghraib, freely uses dramatic reenactments, and edits to a highly emotional musical score by Danny Elfman. The film shows many Abu Ghraib photographs uncropped and at length as it questions what photographs can and cannot convey, what's outside the frame. Morris collaborated with Philip Gourevitch to write a book of the same name based on the transcribed interviews, court testimonies and depositions, and other documentation about torture, especially the abuses at Abu Ghraib. Morris has an extensive web site, and he also writes lengthy entries for a blog at the New York Times including many issues directly related to this film.
The Road to Guantanamo, dir. Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross, 2006, Channel 4, UK: This low-budget docudrama uses actors and the original figures of the Tipton Three, who provided one of the first exposés of Guantanamo abuses in England. The film traces the long journey of the young men, UK citizens from a Pakistani background, who traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan shortly after 9/11, were captured by the Northern Alliance, imprisoned by the U.S. military in Kandahar and Guantanamo, and two years later released. Because the film was made for activism, it was released on DVD and television within days of its theatrical release.
Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, dir. Rory Kennedy, 2007, HBO: Kennedy situates torture in the context of the Milgram experiments. In the film are interviews with MPs (military police) and MIs (military intelligence) from Abu Ghraib; legal figures and authors such as Mark Danner who explain torture's larger context. Uniquely, Kennedy interviews as witnesses former Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib who testify to being tortured there. The HBO website for the film has a useful resource page with links and a brief bibliography.
The Torture Question, Frontline, PBS, Oct. 18, 2005, written and dir. Michael Kirk: The Torture Question traces the history of national public policy decisions made in Washington after 9/11 about interrogation practices—including an internal administration battle over the Geneva Conventions. The film follows how that interrogation policy laid the groundwork for prisoner abuse in Afghanistan; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and Iraq. Like other Frontline documentaries, this film has an excellent website with many resources, including debates with legal experts, analysis pages, full text of interviews, history, teachers' guide, links.
Torturing Democracy, 2008, PBS; consultant, Jane Mayer, author of The Dark Side; written and produced by Sherry Jones: The film develops an history and argument, using an essay-like narration, read by Peter Coyote, and supplemented by brief segments from a wide range of interviews and testimony from detainees. It traces the history of torture after 9/11 and U.S. response to the legal issues that the government's stance poses. This film is part of a larger project, the Torture Archive, and has an excellent web site, including an annotated transcript of the film text, more full-length interviews, links to key documents, a study guide, annotated links to online articles and blogs, and a brief well-selected bibliography.
Part one: Taxi to the Dark Side
and torture epistephilia
Taxi to the Dark Side and some facts about torture
Alex Gibney's Taxi to the Dark Side uses a detective story structure. The narrative investigates the story of one man's homicide in Bagram Prison by tracing out ever-widening circles of cause and effect until it arrives at the larger crime of U.S. government-sponsored torture. In its broadest scope, the film analyzes torture and its effects but it also circles back at intervals to the opening story. This emblematic crime, the murder of Dilawar, a rural Afghani taxi driver, accrues more and more layers of meaning and affect.
Gibney presents the story of Dilawar largely through interviews with MPs (military police) and MIs (military interrogators) who worked at Bagram Prison in 2002. He also interviews New York Times reporters Carlotta Gall and Tim Golden, who uncovered the story and presented it to the public. Dilawar, the taxi driver, died following five days in captivity in December 2002, just several days after another prisoner, Habibullah, was murdered in the same prison. The men died in a similar way. At Bagram, prisoners were regularly shackled with their hands over their head, cuffed to chains hanging from the ceiling; their legs were also shackled together. Standing for very long periods in a chained position led to pooling of the blood in the legs, severe inflammation, and blood clot formation. Habibullah's death came from a blood clot that traveled from his beaten legs to his heart and lungs. In Dilawar's case, death also came from repeated strikes to his legs, especially at and just above the knees. MPs learned this kind of blow, called a peroneal strike, in military training where they learned to subdue prisoners by kneeing them so as to hit a specific nerve center in the leg. In Dilawar's case, because he called out "Allah, Allah" when struck like that, his cries amused the guards. Consequently many came in to knee and kick him just to hear him call out. The Army Coroner's report, uncovered by Carlotta Gall, ruled Dilawar's death a homicide, and it listed the cause as repeated blows to his legs, which caused a heart attack. The corner also wrote that Dilawar's legs had been "pulpified" and would have needed amputation if he had survived.
In terms of the film's documentary function, it needs to depict the specific torture procedures enacted upon Dilawar and other Bagram prisoners for a number of reasons. One narrative line relates how torture techniques directly migrated from Guantanamo to Bagram and then to Abu Ghraib. Captain Caroline Wood, who led the 519th MI Battalion at Bagram (and won the Bronze Medal for Valor in January 2003 for service there), had a posting at Abu Ghraib in July 2003, shortly after the Iraq war began, where she took control of intelligence operations. Later she admitted to Army investigators that while in Bagram, she had incorporated harsh techniques such as stress positions, forced standing, sleep deprivation, and use of dogs because she faced pressure from above to get more intelligence. In Iraq, she contributed directly to the general interrogation rules issued in September 2003 by General Ricardo Sanchez, military commander in Iraq, a list posted on the walls of Abu Ghraib Prison at the time the infamous photos were shot. In addition, specific torture techniques spread more directly to Bagram from Guantanamo. As New York Times reporter Tim Golden states in the film,
"…in early December 2002 the interrogators at Bagram looked on the Internet, they're in touch with the interrogators at Guantanamo, and they learned that these guys in Guantanamo had gotten new techniques from the Secretary of Defense, and they just started using them."
Through having witnesses describe what happened to Dilawar and by introducing the voices of other authorities on the subject of torture, Taxi to the Dark Side analyzes the procedures and consequences of particular interrogation "techniques," particularly sleep and sensory deprivation and "stress positions" such as forced standing and overhead shackling. What is important about this presentation within the film is that many viewers do not understand how such treatment of prisoners is clearly torture, torture of a particular kind, "torture lite." Torture that does not leave visible marks on the body as proof that it happened has a sad history in twentieth century democracies, especially the United States, Israel and the United Kingdom. Although Israel and the UK eventually legislated against such practices after long struggles and public denouncements, the U.S., especially the CIA, has not done so As Taxi to the Dark Side widens out its investigation and analysis, it thus offers succinct explanations of torture's history and effects, especially in the post-WW2 history of the CIA's development of investigative techniques. Alfred McCoy, author of A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror, describes in the film how the CIA learned to use sensory deprivation as a tactic to break down the psyche quickly (seen now in the ubiquitous hooding of prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq) and induce confusion, dread, and dependency. As MI and MP witnesses who worked in Bagram Prison describe their instructions to enforce a regimen of sleep deprivation there, the film shows a wall chart on which the MIs wrote schedules for sleep scheduling; on it, a timeline for each prisoner indicates with arrows how many hours "up" and "down." Pfc. Damian Corsetti, MI, describes the tactic's effect,
"If you've ever seen someone sleep-depped, past two days they just begin to be mumbling idiots; three days sleep deprivation, they're just worthless."
The soldiers say that using stress positions, especially overhead shackling with its threat of shoulder dislocation if the prisoner falls asleep or passes out, meshes well with sleep deprivation to breakdown individual self-sufficiency. Alfred McCoy points out that using standing as a torture tactic makes prisoners themselves feel at fault, as if holding up or holding out relied upon their own effort and will. What McCoy does not talk about in the film is that some of these techniques were developed decades before by the British for use against the IRA and were known there as the "five techniques": forced standing, hooding, sleep deprivation, starvation and thirst, and noise bombardment.As used at Bagram, forced standing for up to 72 hours at a time, especially with leg shackling, would have severe physiological effects. A Slate dossier on "The Taxonomy of Torture" describes the effects in detail:
"In 1956, the CIA commissioned two Cornell Medical Center researchers to study Soviet interrogation techniques. They concluded, 'The KGB simply made victims stand for eighteen to twenty-four hours, producing 'excruciating pain' as ankles double in size, skin becomes 'tense and intensely painful,' blisters erupt oozing 'watery serum,' heart rates soar, kidneys shut down, and delusions deepen.'"
In Bagram as well as Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, whatever practices were originally sanctioned or suggested soon got out of control. Tony Lagouranis, MI in Iraq, says in the film that he used muzzled dogs in interrogations, but as another speaker, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to Colin Powell, puts it:
"Take the example of Rumsfeld's memo and say, look, he said the dogs have to be muzzled. Well, that’s a man who doesn’t understand the military on the ground. Because when that E6 is sitting there with that muzzled dog and there is absolutely no impact on that person being interrogated, he's going to take that muzzle off. That's reality, that's human nature."
Alberto Mora, former General Consul to the Navy, describes such a spread and expansion of torture in terms of a phenomenon called "force drift," in which interrogators exert ever greater increments of force to get desired results. Citing a specific example of force drift, Tim Golden describes how sleep deprivation was effected at Bagram:
"…the previous unit [of MIs] had generally limited [sleep deprivation] to 24 hours or less, insisting that the interrogator remain awake with the prisoner to avoid pushing the limits of humane treatment. But as the 519th interrogators settled into their jobs, they set their own procedures for sleep deprivation. They decided on 32 to 36 hours as the optimal time to keep prisoners awake and eliminated the practice of staying up themselves."
Taxi to the Dark Side, as well as Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, Standard Operating Procedure and The Road to Guantanamo, all examine one or a few abusive situations in detail. The advantage of this documentary strategy is both to gain empathy by focusing on specific individuals and also to detail the particular circumstances surrounding the abuse and the abusers, especially the circumstances of the soldier on the ground. However, only Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and The Road to Guantanamo also look at the experience of torture from the eyes of the abused. Taxi to the Dark Side effectively uses the crime against Dilawar to broaden out to examine the chain of command and the larger issue of what torture entails. The film also repeatedly returns to this one specific instance of abuse so that we look at Dilawar's situation, and that of his captors, with new understanding each time the film circles back to Bagram. Gibney said that Golden's articles on Dilawar's death inspired his film, which seems to be more about finding those ultimately responsible for his death than it does about the life of an ordinary rural Afghani living in a time of war. As a documentary, Taxi uses this narrative structuring in an artful and informative way: widening circles around a central departure point, but it is limited in how much it tells us from the Afghani point of view.
Taxi to the Dark Side's visual style
Although I discuss the torture documentary's emotional aspect in greater detail in regards to a later textual analysis of Standard Operating Procedure, it is also important to acknowledge Taxi to the Dark Side's visual art. The film incorporates a variety of emotionally suggestive visual material to reinforce the arguments about torture that its authorities advance or that its witnesses explain on the basis of their own experience. In particular, the film uses dramatic reenactments to depict torture techniques, close-ups on texts to highlight ideas and words, and shots of Dilawar's family to heighten pathos. From the archive, Gibney draws on photojournalism, both photographs and video, already coded to elicit empathy with Iraqi and Afghani prisoners; other times "photo-op" stills of political figures stand in ironic contrast to what's being discussed on the sound track. Finally, the film is edited around the recurring image of a Bagram prison cell, showing shackles and chains dangling from the ceiling, from which prisoners were hung by raised hands. The recurrence of this image elicits ever-greater horror as the narrative circles back to it and as we know more of the background of torture, especially at Bagram.
Taxi to the Dark Side won the Academy Award for best feature documentary in 2008. Certainly much of its accomplishment lies in the range of its issues it addresses and its interviewees' explanatory power. However, it also integrates a wide range of visual styles that might not be remembered as much as its argumentative force. Although Errol Morris was widely criticized for using dramatic reenactments in Standard Operating Procedure, Taxi also uses them, including reconstructions of the Bagram prison and a recapitulation of the infamous Mohammad al-Qahtani interrogation at Guantanamo, from which a detailed log of torture tactics survives. Al-Qahtani was reputed to be the missing twentieth hijacker who presumably would know about future terrorist attacks planned for the United States. Donald Rumsfeld was personally involved in his handling, and when he was taken to Guantanamo, his torturous interrogation lasted fifty-four days straight. He was subject to many other abuses, including being in an isolation cell for three months under constant blinding light. 
Taxi to the Dark Side's depiction of al-Qahtani's imprisonment is particularly innovative, shot in black and white, often with stills or slow motion, and with overlaying words from the interrogation log. In fact, the reenactments in this section may have inspired Errol Morris' extreme-close-up dramatizations in Standard Operating Procedure (although Morris uses such visualizations across his oeuvre). In Taxi to the Dark Side, often these images are spare and symbolic, such as an extreme close-up of a man's eye and ear with a female whispering into it; the word WHORE is printed on the screen between them. Or a close-up of a man's shoulder and head as he lies on the ground face down, wearing a collar with a leash leading offscreen, is overlaid by LOG PAGE 47: DOG TRICKS CONTINUED. At one point, al-Qahtani is taken to the hospital for hypothermia since the air conditioner was turned so high; to represent this, one image shows the prisoner shivering on the ground, clinging to a small blanket, a small figure against a white background, with the words: LOG PAGE 53: THE INTERROGATORS REMOVED THE BLANKET AND TURNED AIR CONDITIONER BACK UP. Understanding the details, often grotesque or gratuitous, of al-Qahtani's torture plays a crucial role both in the film and in our understanding of how torture tactics were developed. Guantanamo is, as an intertitle puts it, "the laboratory," and what happened to al-Qahtani, according to Alfred McCoy, "contains within it the entire genealogy, the entire history of CIA torture over the last fifty years."
Also to illustrate the interviewees' points, Gibney selects well from numerous images by photojournalists, often shot for ironic effect. Frequently in such photos, the journalist has capitalized the distorting powers of a wide-angle "fisheye" lens to emphasize power differences. In one such photograph, a short, hooded man wearing a suit and standing outside a shop seems to have been recently arrested; the picture is shot from a ground level angle, as U.S. soldiers take his jacket off and a large machine gun looms in the left foreground while the other soldiers stand by. In another image, with a viewpoint steeply angling down, we see a boy and man with bandaged foot huddle in a corner as the man looks up to the soldier, whose side and large gun barely enter frame left. With more direct commentary from Gibney, a newsphoto ironically frames General Geoffrey Miller, commander of detention facilities in Guantanamo and Iraq; Miller's small head and shoulders appear in the lower right corner against a backdrop of a huge U.S. flag hung behind him that takes up the rest of the frame; superimposed is US ARMY DECLINED TO DISCIPLINE GEN. MILLER. Sometimes these ironic photos are of national leaders, such as the silhouetted Condaleeza Rice and Dick Cheney in an ornately furnished, elegant, red-toned White House room shown as the soundtrack tells how the Bush administration twisted laws and treaties to its own ends. Or a newsphoto of Donald Rumsfeld presents him standing at his exaggeratedly large desk working in his office, while the sound track reads what he wrote on a memo about interrogation techniques,
"However, I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to four?"
At this point the reproduced memo is shown, with a close-up on his penned words.
Gibney uses a wide range of video material as well as photography from photojournalists and videomakers accompanying the troops. Most of these are shots of the Afghani and Iraqi people, especially those taken into detention. The images selected show roundup procedures, including shackling legs and arms with zipties, the faces and postures of the detainees, and details of the locales where they are taken. One medium-shot shows a detainee pushed down on the street, gun in his ribs, with his artificial leg by his side; another close-up focuses on a man's hands ziptied behind his back; a label affixed to the ziptie identifies his status. Another poignant video clip shows a man facing away from us, hands ziptied behind him, as he stands by the small concrete cookstove behind his house, a common utility area in so many modest homes throughout the world. Within the film, photojournalists have already framed such images with social commentary in mind. Sometimes they are shooting with irony and other times with empathy for the occupied people. Many times news gatherers compose their images to demonstrate power relations and structures of authority. By using the previously artfully-composed images of photojournalists, Gibney can make political points, borrow the images' emotional impact, or set up his own ironic contrasts in an astute way.
In terms of visual style, the film also incorporates many close-ups on the written word, chapter headings, superimpositions identifying speakers, and inserts of onscreen text to make key points. Two of these moments occur early in the film. New York Times reporter stationed in Afghanistan, Carlotta Gall, heard about deaths in Bagram prison and followed up on them, finally tracking down Dilawar's family after an extensive search. She visited them with a translator and they showed a piece of paper they had received along with the body:
"… and that's when I opened it up and read it. It was in English and it was a death certificate from the American military. And it was signed by a U.S. Major, a pathologist. And there were four boxes [for cause of death] and she ticked the box for homicide. I said, my god, they killed him. And we had to tell the family. I said, do you know what's written here? They said no, it's in English, we don’t understand…. And the pathologist had said it was due to blunt force trauma to the legs…"
As Gall speaks, we see both images of Dilawar's family and close-ups of lines in the U.S. coroner's report. With this story, Gall indeed had a journalistic coup in early 2003 (The Abu Ghraib photos would not appear on CBS and in the New Yorker till April-May, 2005). However, the Times sat on the story for a month and then buried it on page A14, running it on March 4, 2003 under the headline, "U.S. Military Investigating Death of Afghan in Custody." Two years later, after the Times received a copy of the U.S. military investigation into crimes at Bagram, only then did they run an extensive article that included a backward look at Gall's findings. (This article, by Tim Golden, was one of the main inspirations for Gibney's film.) Other textual inserts in the film include lists of torture techniques; John Yoo's infamous definition of torture as leading to organ failure or death; individual words such as "habeus corpus" or highlighted words such as "nod-and-a-wink"; coversheets of manuals and documents, such as the CIA's 1963 KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation Manual or the Army Field Manual for Intelligence Interrogation; and copies of fliers passed out to Northern Alliance soldiers advertising $5,000 bounties for captured prisoners. The effect of the onscreen text is to elicit a kind of pause in viewing, an invitation to reflect on rhetoric and its social genesis and effect. In particular, because the material to which the text refers is also being discussed on the sound track, the effect of seeing an original document adds to a sense of historicity that the film is trying to convey. In addition, just as Gibney often uses press photography and video for ironic effect, he also uses the images of these words to the same end, since the logic of many of these documents is to define torture out of existence, especially in terms of U.S. culpability.
Finally, in visual terms, one of the key elements of the film, repeated in various ways throughout, is MP Sgt. Thomas Curtis' little drawing, made at the request of investigators right after Dilawar's death. They asked Curtis to draw how Dilawar had been shackled. The drawing is reproduced several times in the film, including as it was published in Golden's 2005 New York Times article. In addition, a reproduction of the detention cell, with handcuffs hanging from the wire mesh ceiling, is also shown repeatedly, as are some dramatic reenactments of overhead shackling. To reinforce the importance of such a torture tactic, as the film introduces Carlotta Gall, we see her hands playing a tape of General Daniel McNeill, Commander of Coalition Forces in Afghanistan, 2002-2003, explicitly denying such shackling exists. In the film's spiral of revisiting the Dilawar story, Curtis' drawing accrues metonymic emotional force.
Finally, the film is book-ended with lyrical images of Afghanistan as the camera people visit Dilawar's family and his grave. Toward the end of the film, the family members relate their grief as we see them gathered in their home, with Dilawar's three-year-old girl sitting in her grandfather's lap. With grave sadness, his brother poignantly says he cannot "taste anything" since Dilawar's death. These intimate images, also seen in the section with Carlotta Gall, lend the film a sense of being in touch with the everyday life of Afghanis affected by the war. However, the shots of Dilawar's family do little to inform us of the political circumstances of Afghani life but are used more for their connotative power. They contrast with the film's depiction of U.S. militarism and policies gone awry and thus are used in both an elegiac and utopian way.
Bagram prison now
Regrettably Taxi to the Dark Side will not lose its relevance for a long time to come. Bagram prisoners do not have the protections that President Obama promised detainees in Guantanamo. After the Supreme Court decision in June 2008, Boumediene v. Bush, which ruled that Guantanamo detainees have the right of habeus corpus, the U.S. government stopped sending prisoners there and directed them to Bagram instead. The population of Guantanamo went from around 700 to 250, while the population of Bagram prison went from around 300 to over 600. In addition, the government is building a new Bagram facility that will hold over 1,000. This is in addition to a highly secret CIA prison known as the Salt Pit, located north of Kabul. Bagram currently holds prisoners taken there after years in extraordinary rendition as well as those captured in Afghanistan like Dilawar was, often turned in by Northern Alliance warlords for bounty. And although senior Pentagon official for detention policy, Sandra L. Hodgkinson, says all "Department of Defense" detainees at Bagram have access to the Red Cross, nothing at all has been said officially to acknowledge CIA detainees there or at the Salt Pit. Reports are that the conditions in Bagram are worse than Guantanamo, and it is clear that prisoners' voices from there have been effectively suppressed.
However, in one of the most significant ongoing litigations around detainee status, a Federal court case was initiated by the International Justice Network during the Bush Administration asserting the habeus corpus rights of four Bagram prisoners, who had been taken to Afghanistan by rendition and who had been imprisoned there without counsel for over six years. In January 2009, Justice John D. Bates of the D.C. District Court, invited the Obama Department of Justice to reconsider its definition of "enemy combatant" in light of its pronouncements about Guantanamo and rejection of that label describing prisoner status. In response, the Attorney General's office wrote a meager one-sentence refusal, "Having considered the matter, the Government adheres to its previously articulated position." That is, the Bush lawyers previously argued that the United States could legally hold prisoners, then conveniently labeled "enemy combatants" instead of POWs, outside the country and outside the law. Sadly, in the Obama administration, the defense lawyers hold to the same arguments as before about the prisoners the U.S. holds in custody abroad. Fortunately, Judge Bates ruled that the D.C. Court does have jurisdiction, since it is not ruling on prisoners taken in Afghanistan, who might be considered POWs (although the government does not, in fact, give them that status, which would grant them Geneva Convention protections), but on those who were taken to Bagram Prison from other countries. So as this case and others like it move through the courts, Taxi to the Dark Side will have continued relevance as it points to issues we must face with the buildup of prisoners accompanying an expanded war in Afghanistan.
I wish to note here, as I revise this essay, further developments in the case I describe above make clearer the government's adamant decision to deny Bagram prisoners habeus corpus, including the right to an attorney.[23a] The passage of time will mark more and more such actions taken in this ongoing struggle. Even when no end to U.S. torture policy is in sight, understanding the scope and implication of the many issues adjudicated in the Bagram detainee case remains important for those concerned about justice. We have to name where torture is practiced, who experiences it, and what it consists of—and not let the government do it for us. As we conduct this war over meaning in public space—in books, on the Internet, in classes, and in the press—Taxi to the Dark Side sets out the issues in a concise and compelling way.
Authorities and torture epistephilia
All the torture documentaries considered here make extensive use of interviews. Most use interviews from people who were MPs or MIs at Bagram or Abu Ghraib prisons. Three—Taxi to the Dark Side, The Torture Question, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, and Torturing Democracy—use voices of authorities and voice-over narration, with The Torture Question and Torturing Democracy, both made for PBS, using the voice-over narration as their major structuring device. Taxi to the Dark Side and Standard Operating Procedure give a voice to interviewees who were actual participants in or witnesses to prisoner abuse; they are shot respectfully, often dramatically lit against a dark background. The films elicit empathy for them, many of whom had gone to prison or were demoted or dishonorably discharged for their crimes. Presumably they agree to appear because the filmmaker gained their trust and they now have the chance to tell "their side of the story."
Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and Standard Operating Procedure both focus on the abuses first brought to our attention by publication of the shocking Abu Ghraib photos. However, Standard Operating Procedure does not open up to the "larger" issues by using authorities, as Ghosts of Abu Ghraib does; instead, it focuses on the circumstances behind the images and ways of interpreting the photos themselves. Some of the authority figures seen across a number of these films include contrastive analyses by Alberto Mora, General Consul to the Navy under Donald Rumsfeld, an early high-ranking legal opponent of "enhanced interrogation techniques," and John Yoo, Office of Legal Counsel, Department of Justice, who wrote numerous briefs giving legal support for the infamous torture memos, in particular a long 81-page legal opinion expanding justification for those same "enhanced techniques." I am interested in the fact that Yoo agrees to speak in many of these films even though he knows he will be cast as a villain; and in each film where he appears he consistently presents his ideas in a quiet, measured, and logical way. His presence gives these liberal films the impression of fairly presenting the other side, unlike the films' use of television news excerpts showing figures like Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld speaking. In those excerpts from TV news, government officials are represented in their own words in order to convey the voices of liars, megalomaniacs, and obfuscators.
Other explanatory interviews, which are intended to represent the filmmakers' perspectives more directly, come from scholars, such as Alfred McCoy, and journalists who have devoted much of their recent career to exposés and analyses of official U.S. involvement in torture, such as Mark Danner, Tim Golden, and Jane Meyer (who was also a consultant to Torturing Democracy). Lawyers interviewed include Mora, Scott Horton, Lawrence Wilkerson, Gita Gutierrez, and Clive Stafford Smith (the latter two are lawyers for Guantanamo detainees). The experts' voices are interwoven with the narration to present a relatively cohesive discussion within the documentary about an issue such as chain of command, the government's defining torture (away), specific techniques such as waterboarding, CIA involvement, or U.S. history, often since 9/11. In terms of the PBS films that rely on narration, Frontline (PBS) documentary filmmaker Michael Kirk's The Torture Question, although released in 2005, maintains its relevance today because it focuses on the chain of command that led to abuses. In fact, those documentaries that open out to the wider issues surrounding torture all focus upon the way the Bush government and military officials covered up the chain of command, the details of which are laid out now in documents released by the Obama administration, filling in the gaps of what scholars, journalists, lawyers, and filmmakers could only intuit before.
I focus on this aspect of how information is presented in the documentaries because it points to "torture epistephilia"—an historically unique aspect of the torture documentaries as well as of the larger public discourse in the United States about torture since the publication of the Abu Ghraib photos in 2004. By torture epistephilia, I refer to the thirst for knowledge about official U.S. support of torture. To that end, reams of documentation have been published, in books and on the Internet and continue to come out, about this issue. To give a specific example, here I am writing an omnibus article about six films on the subject. To do this, I have 25 books in front of me, about fifty articles printed out from the Internet, at least 250 stored on my computer, and access to a "links" article I did earlier in Jump Cut on the Abu Ghraib photos. In addition, many of these books and articles detail how many pages of reports and interviews their authors studied to write their syntheses. When Tim Golden published his groundbreaking article on Dilawar's murder at Bagram, he had access to a 2,000 page leaked file of the Army's criminal investigation into the case. Philip Gourevitch, who along with Errol Morris wrote the book accompanying the film Standard Operating Procedure, based the book on transcripts of the interviews done for the film ("more than 25 times the length of this book"), interviews and depositions from the Army's Criminal Investigative Division, and many other documents made available thanks to journalists and "leakers." Senator Carl Levin's 2008 Report of the Senate Armed Services Committee, "Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody," released in its unclassified, complete version in April 2009, is 232 pages long with 1,800 footnotes, based on the testimony of 70 people and more than 200,000 pages of internal government documents. And the books on the subject are often also dense and long. The Torture Papers, edited by Karen J. Greenberg and Joshua Dratel, came out in 2005 and contained 1249 pages of documents gotten through the Freedom of Information Act; many of the later journalistic "revelations" could in fact be found in this book, but perhaps its scope made it daunting to read thoroughly.
What is the relation of all this to the documentary films about torture? Well, they are a short way to sift through all this information and come to an understanding of the situation in about ninety minutes. The viewer may gain only a provisional understanding but it's a beginning. In the United States, for many important reasons, "torture epistephilia" has led to an ever-expanding generation of documents and investigations, with no resolution in sight. And what would resolution consist of? A truth and reconciliation commission, trials against government officials? What would finally let us know, and mourn and move on? In the meantime the continued publication and analysis of more information continues at an explosive rate. Furthermore, among the documents themselves, many contradictions exist and many officials have testified in a way so as to put themselves in the best light. In one of the interviews published on the website for The Torture Question, Mark Danner explains the many investigations into Abu Ghraib abuses after the photos were published:
" The investigations themselves—there are a dozen of them depending on how you count—are a fascinating exercise in bureaucratic damage control. Anyone who wants to read these investigations can learn an enormous amount about what happened at Abu Ghraib, about what happened in Guantanamo, about the abuse of prisoners. One can read the statement of detainees, how they were abused. One can read descriptions in the Fay-Jones report and the Schlesinger [report] as well, very intricate descriptions of the kind of tortures that were applied. … You get a different message if you actually read what's in the report from what you get when you actually read what the investigator concludes in the executive summary…. There is no investigation that looks at the entire chain, that looks at the question of how policy, how what people decided in bureaucratic and executive officers in Washington actually determined what happened on the ground at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Bagram and so on. …. If Americans read these reports, they'd discover a couple of things. One is that the abuse was much more thoroughgoing and systematic than they had been led to believe. That is, we're talking about beating that happened day after day. We're talking about systematic use of sexual humiliation. We're talking about systematic use of stress positions—and this is handcuffing people with their hands behind their backs up on a window, very painful things; systematic use of dogs to threaten detainees; beatings of such an extent that people are beaten into unconsciousness. This is in the reports, that kind of abuse."
I cite Danner at length because he points to how we have relied upon, and must rely upon, interpretations of this mass amount of data. Documentaries, especially "serious" ones such as these, belong to what Bill Nichols calls the discourses of sobriety—legal, political, academic, ethical discourses. Such films are shot and edited for an argument; they investigate, interrogate evidence, explain, try to keep some elements from the past from slipping into oblivion. The films, especially those that use a traditional documentary form, endeavor to uncover something or get testimony from others who did, find causal structures, and finally tell a coherent moral tale. It is possible that in contemporary times, viewers crave such moral coherence as the torture documentary might offer, to create closure on a painful subject.
In fact, that's the usefulness of these documentaries, and what makes them stand apart from the news, which not only flows by us with its everyday presentation of death and casualty, both domestic and foreign, but which also elicit our spectatorial filtering strategies that we have developed both in relation to television and the Internet. We know in advance what interests us and what we want to "let through." Such strategies may sadly also keep viewers from seeking out these documentaries on DVD or the Internet. We've narrowed what we will look at. In addition, there seems to be too much information about torture. And it is a painful subject to pursue. Darius Rejali, author of the historical compendium, Torture and Democracy, made such a problem clear to me when I went to hear a lecture. He wittily introduced his talk with this comment, "Coming to hear me on one of your free evenings is about as enjoyable as going to the dentist." Researchers and writers on torture, and the filmmakers who take up that topic, know that their very subject matter filters out potential readers and viewers. In terms of cinematic viewership, for example, people who choose not to see a film on torture may think torture is a terrible aspect of U.S. policy that happens without their consent, that they cannot do anything about, that its reality has to stay outside of what happens to them. The act of seeing the film—going to see a torture documentary in the theater (and few people did) or renting one on DVD or viewing one online—is already a political act, indicating a certain kind of subjective readiness on the part of the viewer. This may include a readiness to look at atrocity, a sense of moral urgency, or, as I indicated above, a felt need to integrate ideas about this issue now.
Finally, in terms of torture epistephilia, these films often have a large web-based amount of documentation to accompany them. For example, the Torture Archive sponsored the film Torturing Democracy, and its website plans to include a searchable database of more than 7,000 original documents, running over 100,000 pages. In addition, many of the witness used as authorities in the documentaries have written books, maintain blogs, or otherwise have an active online presence. For example, Mark Danner, who recently leaked and wrote about the previously secret International Red Cross Report on the Treatment of Fourteen “High Value Detainees” in CIA Custody (Feb. 2007), maintains a website with the text of all his essays, and all of Tim Golden's pieces are archived by The New York Times. To research the topic of torture is to take a tour of some of the most morally provocative writing of our time.
Limits on torture epistephilia
Feature-length documentaries have to edit to an approximately ninety-minute length. So a director's pursuit of knowledge cannot be replicated in the film. As a documentary incorporates voices of authorities, it needs from them succinct summaries of their idea, memory, approach, or position. In terms of public knowledge, as one who chooses to follow the "torture news," I am interested in what the current pursuit of knowledge on this topic includes and where it stops. Often without question the documentaries seen here rely on prevalent liberal cultural narratives about threat, religion, body, torture, law, history, and human rights. In public discourse, much of what appears in the documents released by the Department of Justice or to the ACLU through the Freedom of Information Act relate to U.S. policy decisions. In contrast, in U.S. researchers and reporters have had far less to say about the experiences, social structures, and history of the Iraqis and Afghanis, including detainees. It is because he can rely on these liberal cultural assumptions—and limits to the pursuit of knowledge—that President Obama can so easily dismiss prosecuting the culpable with the admonition, "We must look forward, not back."
Furthermore, there's something peculiar about liberal torture epistephilia in the United States right now, the desire for ever more information and analysis without ever putting a punctuation mark to the topic, a kind of compulsive logorrhea that surely must stand as a symptom for a larger social disorder. Emblematic of the disorder is President Obama's release of so many legally incriminating documents with no further judicial process in mind. Of course, Jump Cut and I continue to advance such analyses but we must also consider to what end we do this, and if the outpouring of documentation itself could come to an end.
If torture seems a benchmark of what civilized society must reject, it is also clear that bodies are easy to hurt and torture appears regularly across history throughout the world. A moral response to torture, while necessary, is not enough. Part of the reason that the documentation of current U.S. participation in torture proliferates at such a rate is that that our responding to the realities uncovered by that documentation faces the barriers of political and economic realities in the United States, realities that leftists would summarize by the term "neoliberalism." Let me give an example: anywhere from 70% to 90% of the prisoners in Guantanamo, Iraq, and Afghanistan—held not as POWs but as possible suspects in the "war on terror" (formerly labeled enemy combatants)—are innocent, caught up in neighborhood sweeps after an attack. Because they do not have any legal rights, they have no course of action to gain their release. As President Obama expands the war in Afghanistan, this kind of mass imprisonment without due process will continue.
To give another example of the limits of the current public discourse around torture, while waterboarding and banging people against a wall may be eliminated from the torture repertoire, stress positions, sensory deprivation, sleep disruption, and solitary confinement probably will not. We know now that the detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq will not be given the rights of habeus corpus or legal representation won for prisoners at Guantanamo unless those rights are won by court cases pursued all the way through the U.S. Supreme Court. Furthermore, as Naomi Klein points out in one of the few analyses of torture that goes beyond promoting a struggle for human rights, moral outrage against abuse needs to look at the system that generates that abuse, in this instance, occupation by the U.S. military. Citing Simone de Beauvoir's analysis of French use of torture in Algeria, Klein writes:
"… occupation could not be done humanely; there is no humane way to rule people against their will." (126)
Klein's analysis in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism is one of the few that ties torture—in Chile, Indonesia, Argentina, Iraq—to a neoconservative economic mandate: that times of turmoil after a catastrophic event provide governments and capital their greatest opportunity to make "orchestrated raids on the public sphere."
"Shocked societies give up things they would otherwise fiercely protect."
Klein explicitly ties torture to neoliberal economic goals of turning all of society into a market, including privatizing what government has provided or that belongs to the commons. Thus, the Iraq War provided the occasion for Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld to enact their long-held dream of privatizing the military. And there is a particularly damning instance of using the 9/11 catastrophe to encroach on former "rights":
"The Bush White House began planning for torture in December 2001, set up a program to develop the interrogation techniques by the next month, and the military and the CIA began training interrogators in coercive practices in early 2002, before they had any high-value al-Qaida suspects or any trouble eliciting information from detainees."
As the Levin report indicates in its timeline of how torture policy developed, the very shock of 9/11 impelled the extension of national policy into directions of greater coercion and control, a policy tied to Cheney's doctrine of unlimited powers for the "commander in chief" in times of war. Michel Foucault might have tied this kind of torture research-and-development to the relation between power and knowledge in the modern state, with expanded power leading to and drawing from an expanded knowledge of how to control people by penetrating ever further into the smallest interstices of their lives. In this instance, the people that the administration turned to at this time for developing new interrogation techniques were two psychologists working as private contractors for the CIA and the military's SERE (Survive, Evade, Resist, Escape) program, Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell. Their directive was to reverse engineer the resistance training given to military personnel to help them survive capture. With no experience in the military, these men were and remain entrepreneurial behavioral psychologists, denounced by others in their field, both other SERE trainers and key members of the American Psychological Association. That the government developed policy on such an important issue in this particular way makes the connections between catastrophe, torture, and privatization absolutely clear.
As torture epistephilia generates ever more documentation and analysis, that documentation is, of necessity, pared down and reshaped as it enters the narrative of a documentary film. Documentary viewers themselves are a self-selecting group, likely those who pride themselves on their pursuit of knowledge. Interestingly Klein's thesis may point to why many of these otherwise well-informed people might not want to see torture documentaries. In fact, there's a larger system that demands understanding and confrontation. For a viewer who does not have the larger picture in mind, the problem of torture may seem interminable and insurmountable. The kind of mastery that Bill Nichols attributes to documentary may not seem like enough mastery to motivate viewers to watch these films. But this hesitancy may also come from a sense that such a film would be "hard to watch," that is, that it would make an emotional demand. And so it is that I need to turn to another, inescapable aspect of the torture documentary, its emotional tone.
When considered from this aspect, it becomes clear to me that in considering the parameters and limits of epistephilia as it applies to subcategory of torture documentary, I have not adequately defined this kind of film, especially in its relation to the viewer. The torture documentary does not just condense knowledge about the subject and implicitly call us to action; it also provides a viewing experience that elicits strong emotions and an empathetic body response. Such a response has ties to other genres, especially pornography and horror. Most of the filmmakers under consideration here have dampened down potential voyeuristic fascination in favor of analysis, but some, especially Standard Operating Procedure and The Road to Guantanamo, have chosen to work with that response as part of a call to remembrance and activism.
Part two: Standard Operating Procedure,
the Abu Ghraib photographs,
and The Road to Guantanamo:
relations between knowledge and affect
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,
"You're taught from the very beginning that you have to follow your orders and if you don’t, you're going to get in trouble. And if you do, obviously, you end up in trouble. You know, it's easy for retired colonels and generals and majors to say, 'Well these people should have known what were legal orders and they should have stood up to these lieutenant colonels and majors. They should have stood up to them at the time, in a war zone, where lives were at stake.' It's just kind of unrealistic to think that that would happen."
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:
"When I was in the brig, every single woman there was in that brig because of a man. For different reasons, yes, but it was because of a man."
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 what was going on at Abu Ghraib at this time, with roundups of thousands of people and cellblocks with a couple of dozen MPs. By the end of 2003, there were over 10,000, a city. Endless roundups of mostly innocent people put them in Abu Ghraib with no opportunity to get out."
"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,
"Roman Kroll says he was doing all this because he knew the prisoners in the cells were watching. For the very first time I became aware that this might be some crazy kind of theater. That central hallway in the prison block was like a proscenium on a stage with the prisoners looking on. That hands that you see through the cell bars [in a dramatic reenactment] try to underline that moment … and feel the power of that idea."
Layers of evaluation in Standard Operating Procedure
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:
"And then come the contractor interrogators and military people who had experience at Guantanamo Bay. They all arrived after Miller's visit."
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,
"We thought it was unusual and weird and wrong, but when we first got there, the example was already set. That's what we saw. It was ok."
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 concerned the government was that something bad about the United States military had come to light:
"You can kill people off camera, shoot people, blow their heads off. As long as it's not on camera, you're ok. But if it's on camera, you're done. You know, torture didn't happen in those photographs. That was humiliation; that was softening up. Torture happened during interrogations. Guys going through interrogation ended there dead. And they were killed. And they died. That's where the torture happened, we don't have photographs of that."
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. 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:
"[Looking at a photo of a hooded man, shown onscreen] Oh, this is my brother, my older brother. [Tears in eyes] They used to bring him naked. His arm was injured. They made him hold buckets of water and run down the cellblock. I was ordered to watch him. Either confess to the charges or we will bring your mother and do the same thing to her. Yes, this is my older brother."
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,
"The most painful thing for the inmates there were the cries of the people being tortured. One day they brought sheets to cover the cells in order for no one to see anything. They began torturing one of them, and we could hear what was happening. We listened as his soul cracked. The sound of his voice really twisted our minds and made our hearts stop. We later learned that this man was Manadel al-Jamadi."
And finally, with tangible detail, Mudhaffar Subhi describes the general situation at the hard site on the night shift:
"In the night Graner would bring two or three guards and start torturing prisoners as if they were having a party. He would hang people by their arms in positions that are unbearable even for five minutes. The inmates would start crying. He would hang five or six in different positions. After about a half hour all of them were screaming together. Then he would walk by and say, 'Now, that’s the music I like to hear.' They would make us listen to weird sounds either through headphones or a speaker. Every day they wouldn’t let us sleep. At times they would get a few inmates, torture them, and let them scream till morning. That was on a regular basis, fifty nights with no sleep at all. Just hunger, abuse, harassment."
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, and 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.
The Abu Ghraib photographs
Standard Operating Procedure not only interrogates these famous photos in terms of witnesses' reports, it also includes many other images from the soldiers at Abu Ghraib and frames and displays the images in an unique, indeed choreographed, way. In the next few sections, I would like to consider these photos as images as well as historical documents. As images, they are two-dimensional constructs with certain affective parameters, and these parameters depend both upon a viewer's own background and psyche and the social milieu in which s/he lives. Photographs themselves, especially snapshots, are often personal-historical documents that refer to a certain place and moment in the past. Most such images are not saved and their references known only to a few people for a temporally short period of time. (e.g., I know few of the people in my deceased parents' old photo albums). However, we can say of the Abu Ghraib photographs that they have entered and shaped history, although again, their impact may depend on where the viewer is coming from.
Let's be clear about it. U.S. journalists, lawyers, bloggers, and academics would never have investigated U.S. involvement in torture as we have over the last five years if it the Abu Ghraib photos had not been published broadly, especially in mainstream news venues. That we continue to know almost nothing about the many detainees held in Afghanistan is proof of this. The Abu Ghraib photos, almost instantaneously after their appearance on CBS and publication in The New Yorker, opened up a whole new historiographic space. They made history and they've shaped a history yet to come. They not only showed something irrevocably, but they made us as viewers feel something, with each person's spectatorial response varying according to personal background and social milieu. Even now the Abu Ghraib photos shape how a contemporary narrative about torture unfolds in the United States and across the world. We belong to the same political world that the images show. For we've seen no closure to the issues the photos raise, especially since the United States continues many of its same policies about torture, law and war.
However, viewers may not to want to look at those images any more. In fact, many did not seek them out when first published nor would they seek them out in a film devoted to the Abu Ghraib photographs, like Standard Operating Procedure. Some potential viewers find the photographs too grotesque to gaze at voluntarily, too voyeuristic. At the same time, the widespread circulation of the images often ideologically reduces them to a predictable source of representative, summarizable notions about "abuse," "scandal," "prosecutable offenses" or "imperial power." In this way, as Roland Barthes might put it, most of the critical and legal analysis of the photographs has participated in what he would call a studium, a concern with the cultural, political, ideological, and interpretive context of the images. Certainly that is partly what Errol Morris traces in his film, a studium of the photographs explained by those directly involved their production. Such a studium that adheres to photographs was first defined by Barthes in Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography:
"It is by studium that I am interested in so many photographs, whether I receive them as political testimony or enjoy them as good historical scenes; for it is culturally (this connotation is present in studium) that I participate in the figures, the settings, the gestures, the actions."
If we choose to re-view the photographs, many of the Abu Ghraib images never cease to arrest us. Elements in the image strike us in a deeply personal way, with what Barthes calls the photograph's punctum. There's an element of the image, he says, that pierces the viewer like an arrow, wounds, pricks, cuts, leaves a psychic hole. The punctum offered by the Abu Ghraib photos may come from the way many of them push at us naked bodies humiliated and stretched to the limits of pain, in compositions shot by soldiers who seem to have no sense that something is drastically amiss. In an unsettling way the photographs continue to have a capacity to elicit a semi-physical response in us that is at once familiar and repugnant. Viewers might respond to the photographs not only as the documentation of something that happened, as evidence, but as powerful images that use visual conventions that elicit an affective shudder. I would posit that such an affective response partly comes from the ways the photos and those taking them‚ often the same people orchestrating the scenes of torture, draw upon the "scenes" developed by other representational forms that provoke a bodily response, particularly horror—and its sub-genres of torture porn and splatter films—and pornography. In addition, the recurrence of sexual humiliation in the images, and in torture itself, needs explanation, if only in a provisional way.
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