2009, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 51, spring 2009
Interrogating and responding to the Abu Ghraib photographs
In the section that follows, I would like to explore in greater depth how Standard Operating Procedure invites the viewer to interrogate and once again respond emotionally to the Abu Ghraib photographs. Unlike many critics, who repudiate Morris' use of heavily emotional elements such as dramatic reenactments and scored, concert-like music, I find his presentation of both the original images and his enhancement of them suggestive and respectful, perhaps legitimately restoring to the photos their original shock. In the style in which they are presented, the snapshots are demarcated from the rest of the film by a white border. They are usually framed large in the center of the screen, and are show at length, from three to five seconds and up to as long as eight. (Anyone who has edited film or video knows how long that is to hold a static image on screen.) Furthermore, because Morris edits long passages of interviews with individual witnesses via jump cuts, he uses as cutaways some of the snapshot images (and less frequently video shot with a cell phone). Other times these images have no voice-over but are presented in clusters and combined with an extended musical theme. The film's central thematic treatment of the photos, then, shows the worst of the incidents, the building of a "pyramid" of naked men and forcing them into masturbation or simulated fellatio. For me, the cumulative effect of that central incident, combined with witness testimony and music, was the impact of mourning and grief.
In her review of the film, Caetlin Benson-Allott indicates the work the film requires of the viewer:
"Standard Operating Procedure .. positions its viewer to regard the Abu Ghraib photographs as multivalent fragments that occasion multiple stories rather than telling the whole story. … The photographs are insufficient and require interpretation from viewers who may bring external impressions and motivations to the task."[open endnotes in new window]
To indicate the kind of processes that such a concerned documentary viewing might entail, I incorporate into the essay here some of my own spectatorial responses to try to indicate lines of questioning or suggestions that the images open up, which partly depends on my knowledge external to the film (as with how I interpreted the witnesses above) and also on the way the film incorporates the images taken by the soldiers, which I call the "snapshots." Not only does my research inflect my viewing but also my experience of teaching both film criticism and video production, both in the United States and abroad. In addition, I have seen the film in the cinema several times and also numerous times on the small screen, including frequently pausing the DVD on my computer to log the witnesses' words, grab images, and make general notes of my own. So my analysis of viewer response must also depend for its effectiveness on the degree to which it resonates with viewers beyond myself.
a. Snapshots of daily life
I am fascinated by how an early cluster of the snapshots gives a glimpse into the MPs' daily life and includes many images not previously seen in films or journalistic publication. In Standard Operating Procedure, accompanying Lynndie England's long speech about her relation with Charles Graner and her life in "a man's army" are images of the small cells in the prison that the guards occupied, with Lynndie supplementing her bunk with a colorful bedspread as a touch of femininity. (I observe myself wanting to think of her as Lynndie and him as Graner. She calls him Graner in her interviews, and he could not give interviews while in jail. Thus all accounts of the Abu-Ghraib photos characterize him as a cardboard, sadistic villain in a flat way.) We see images of the MPs from their first posting at Al Hillah in the first summer of the war, including video of them swimming and of Graner petting a small kitten they'd adopted. The unit's first posting was relatively peaceful, as Philip Gourevitch writes:
"The MPs felt safe walking the streets; they made friends with the Iraqis, played with their kids, shopped in their markets, ate in their outdoor cafes. The company's headquarters, in an abandoned date-processing factory, was minimally fortified, and never attacked."
Later, not only was Abu Ghraib under constant bombardment, living inside the small cells must have been, for the MPs, a claustrophobic, hothouse environment. In that environment, Graner's sexual relations with both Ambuhl and England seems to suggest something of the concentration camp sexuality traced out in fiction film by Liliana Cavani's The Night Porter or Lina Wertmüller's Seven Beauties, which indicate both an ongoing sexual practice within the camps and its legacy years later. Part of the shock of the Abu Ghraib photographs comes from their sexual representation, however we interpret the sexual connotations of what we see, and our wonderment at the guards' participation in this milieu. In this vein, Anne McClintock describes the Graner-England relation and its visible trace in one of the most iconic, seemingly S/M, photos of a young woman soldier with a naked Iraqi man "on a leash":
"For Graner, persuading England to pose in his depraved theatrics flaunted his power to make her “do things.” In the notorious photo of England holding a prisoner on a tie-down strap, Graner had choreographed the scenario, dragging the prisoner from the cell himself then placing the strap in England’s reluctant hand. Photographing the scene bore double witness: to Graner’s gender power over England and to his racial power over a humiliated, animalized Iraqi prisoner. He e-mailed the photo home: 'Look at what I made Lynndie do.'"
[click here to see more "domestic" images of MPs' life]
The snapshots of daily life are fascinating because they are on a continuum with the snapshots of abuse. Sometimes they are photos to send home, sometimes male fratboy hijinks, other times memorializing, "this is what it was like." They may have had the future perfect tense of travel photography (a place I'm visiting which we'll talk about later) or serve as a communal contribution to photos routinely shared with peers on base (what we are all going through). We see in the snapshots the routinization of daily life and the guards' participation in grotesque abuse—although grotesqueness is an attribute applied in retrospect. On the base at Abu Ghraib, a circle of people knew Graner's reputation as a photographer, and some came to him for CDs of his travel pictures, others for his trophy pictures, especially the ones that imitated porn. Much of this material is probably similar in content to pictures that circulated during other wars, with the photos of travel and daily life sent to family and photos of corpses and mutilations circulated among a smaller circle of mostly men, who could "take" looking at the stark visual realities of war.
Judith Butler comments on a seemingly banal succession of such images captured by a digital camera at Abu Ghraib. To her, their seriality implies "a certain structure of ordinary life under conditions of violently imposed occupation":
"Some of these digital cameras had files that include pictures of dead Iraqis, Iraqis being killed, murdered, raped, forced into sexual relations, and these are interspersed with photos of the local bazaar, friends smiling and eating, soldiers saluting the flag, views of the street and the neighborhood, Americans making love in apparently consensual terms, a soldier randomly shooting a camel in the head. So, in these instances, it would seem that the photos are a part of a record of everyday life, and that everyday life has to be understood in this context as consisting in a certain sequential interchangeability of such images."
If the snapshots of daily life are new to most viewers of Standard Operating Procedure, they are a necessary counterpoint and accompaniment to the images of abuse and, of course, a counterpoint to the experiences of the prisoners who were held and tortured in cells very like the guards' but whose voices are still largely unheard.
b. The murder of Manadel al-Jamadi
Of great importance to the film is the extended representation of Sabrina Harman and her photographing the corpse of Manadel al-Jamadi. She is the one participant in the abuses whom Morris and collaborator Philip Gourevitch go out of their way to exonerate. Not that they want to flatten out her behavior and motives solely to her desire to act as "forensic photographer," but that is one role they assign to her, especially since it used to be one of her career dreams. Within the film, we see close-ups from letters Harman writes to her wife Kelly saying she takes pictures because otherwise no one would believe the "shit" the United States is involved in.
Al-Jamadi was killed, probably by a CIA interrogator and his translator, during an interrogation in a shower; he was hooded and hung by his wrists from a window behind his back. His corpse was wrapped in a body bag and iced down for a day till the officers could decide what to do with him. Finally they rigged an IV to the corpse and carried it out on a gurney, so the sight of a dead prisoner would not cause a riot. Harman went to the shower once with Graner to get a trophy photo, a famous one with her smiling and giving a thumbs-up, but later she went back and took over twenty more close-up images clearly forensic in style. She said she did this to prove the MPs had been lied to, that there was a cover-up, and that al-Jamadi clearly had been murdered. But that thumbs-up photo with the corpse makes it hard to believe her.
To expand upon this incident, Gourevitch and Morris write a profile of Harman in The New Yorker, Jane Mayer writes about the it and the probable murderers, and Harman and her letters home explain it in the film. Yet the punctum of the trophy image taken with Harman and the corpse, her youthful sunny face and her thumbs up in blue latex glove, persists in the minds of the viewers, including Morris himself as he writes a long article about that one trophy snapshot in his blog. This image, more than most others in the film, is one that Morris found to have hidden or bypassed the social reality beyond and behind the frame:
"Photographs don't tell us what was policy, who the real culprits might be. They can give us a glimpse into an unseen world but can also serve as a cover-up, can misdirect us. They can confuse us and they most certainly did in this particular story."
For Morris, Sabrina's letters provide visual and textual evidence crucial to his film. Often close-up segments from the filmed letters will have words highlighted to emphasize something Sabrina is reading aloud. Morris says that having access to these letters is particularly important to him because they are written at the time the photographs are taken. In legal terms, they perhaps have the status of memoranda of record, notes someone writes up, for example, right after a meeting and sends to the other participants, which can function as evidence in court. For Morris, the letters approximate what might have been Sabrina's "original" state of mind. And he and Gourevitch write about the particular use writing letters and picture taking had for Harman while in Iraq:
"…as she described her reactions to the prisoners’ degradation and her part in it—ricocheting from childish mockery to casual swagger to sympathy to cruelty to titillation to self-justification to self-doubt to outrage to identification to despair—she managed to subtract herself from the scenes she sketched. By the end of her outpourings, she had repositioned herself as an outsider at Abu Ghraib, an observer and recorder, shaking her head…. Harman seemed to conceive of memory as an external storage device. By downloading her impressions to a document, she could clear them from her mind and transform reality into an artifact. After all, she said, that was how she experienced the things she did and saw done to prisoners on Tier 1A: 'It seems like stuff like this only happened on TV. It’s not something you really thought was going on. At least I didn’t think it was going on. It’s just something that you watch and that is not real.'"
Because she is the (forensic) photographer of and (morally concerned) writer about al-Jamadi's murder, Harman figures large in Morris' cinematic treatment of this incident. But this incident and a later one, about building the naked "pyramid," are given even more elaborate development in the film, with witness testimony supplemented by dramatic reenactments, sound effects, and a developed musical score, reinforcing emotion in a sustained way.
First comes a dramatic reenactment about OGAs, other government agencies. The camera tracks down a long sepia-tinted corridor toward the vanishing point. Fronting the corridor are cells made out of bare board, presumably interrogation rooms with one-way viewing mirrors, into which ghost figures along walls gaze. We see these shadowy juxtapositions fleetingly in the hallway as well as placards listing agencies that had interrogators there: Central intelligence Agency, Iraq Survey Group, Defense Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Foreign Government Services, and Task Force 121. As Javal Davis puts it, both these interrogators and their prisoners were officially ghosts, both often referred to as OGAs; the interrogators often made themselves known by only a first name, clearly fabricated, and did not log in their prisoners. As one of their spectral detainees, Manadel Al-Jamadi was thus not officially there.
Javal Davis narrates the kind of tortures that would be enacted in the shower room, and metonymic images show water streaming down from a showerhead and a face on the floor over which water streams down. Then close-ups from the prison log are shown, in negative with white print:
"OGA in 1B shower not to be used until OGA is moved out."
In this sequence with Davis, and later with Anthony Diaz and Jeffrey Frost, who took the prisoner down (he was hung from a window behind him by his wrists), there are numerous sound effects, as well as music. A common Foley FX "thunder sound" used to be made by striking a sheet of tin with a mallet; such a synth sound occurs frequently on the film's sound track and is heard when we see the notation in the prison log. The dramatic reenactments here also are accompanied by shower sounds, other FX like those in gothic films, and a synth choral tone.
The visual style has echoes of a horror film but here it asks us to imagine real-life horror in a real-life dungeon. Through a translucent screen, we see the hanged body. The image is hard to decipher at first but we can make out other figures who pass by. Later there is an extreme close-up of the hanged man's mouth and chin with blood dripping from it in slow motion. Here and elsewhere in the film Morris exaggerates such gothic-style images by framing them with a skewed angle. And then later, as the MPs describe more about what happened to the body, there is a longer reenacted sequence, with ghost figures moving the body to the shower, icing it down, and shutting and locking the door.
At this point, Morris makes his debt to the gothic and horror conventions explicit. He is famous for using extreme-close-up, detail shots as inserts, often illustrating a word or idea from the sound track. In this case, after Sabrina's long narration commences, we see a dramatic reenactment of very large keys, in a starkly shadowed composition, turning with a click in a lock and then removed. Of course, this is Morris' indication that not only were Harman and Graner curious about the dead body but that she got the key again and returned for further image-making and a more forensic-style documentation. After more of her narration and images of the letters home, the gothic key in lock reenactment returns. Finally Harman concludes the section with these lines:
"They tried to charge me with destruction of government property, which I don’t understand. And then maltreatment, of taking the photos of a dead guy. But he's dead, I don’t know how that's maltreatment. And altering evidence, for taking a bandage from his eye to take a photo of it? And then I placed it back. When he died, they cleaned him all up and then stuck the bandages on. So it's not really altering evidence, they had already done that for me. In order to make the other charges stick, they were going to have to bring in the photos. Which they didn't want—to bring up the dead guy at all, [or] the OGA, because obviously they covered up a murder and that would just make them look bad. So they dropped all the charges pertaining to the OGA and the shower."
No one has been charged with this murder although the perpetrators are known. CIA interrogator Mark Swanner and contract translator "Clint C." in all likelihood were responsible for al-Jamadi's death but Clint C. got immunity from criminal prosecution for his testimony and Swanner has never been charged.
The dramatic reenactments I note here, as well as others used throughout the film, do not depart from an aesthetics of realism. Metonymic details enlarge on some aspect of the photos or some line in the interviews: flaming helicopter parts descending, a live grenade bouncing on the floor, falling playing cards designating high-value Iraqis, swarming ants on a prisoner's skin, blood on the walls, cell bars as framing devices, hooded men, naked men, men crawling on a wet floor, and snarling dogs lunging at the camera with teeth bared. But if the reenactments remain in the realm of metonymy, they are isolated details recast in skewed angles and extreme close-ups, pushed to become authorial commentary and expressive punctuation, conveying emotions of nightmare, fear, power and shame.
c. The worst night
The al-Jamadi section of Standard Operating Procedure immediately segues into the "pyramid" section, which relates the most horrifying incident that the photos and witnesses testify to. This incident generated most of the atrocity photos, including video shot with a cell phone, and its recapitulation provides the most pathos-filled section of the film, partly through the use of music and length and size at which the photographs are shown. This incident, as the multiple cameras on scene document it, contains the most sexual humiliation of detainees.
The section begins with a textual close-up from a prison log," riot reported at Camp Ganci." It was a riot quelled with live ammunition. Witnesses in the film give two explanations for their particular anger at the detainees who were tortured that night—one from Javal Davis was about the seriousness of the riot and injury done to a female MP who "had her face smashed with a cinderblock or something like that," and the other, from Graner and Harman who said some of the prisoners had raped a boy. Both explanations are possibly true: Camp Ganci, the overcrowded tent prison, was of necessity scantily guarded with few MPs available to control the site. Canadian reporter, Doug Saunders, describes the conditions there in 2004:
"Former guards say the inmates were a mix of petty criminals, protesters, bystanders, members of the organized opposition and foreign fighters. Adolescents were thrown in with adults; some guards complained that the youngsters were being beaten and sexually abused. Frequently, the guards say, violence would break out, with rock-throwing incidents on an almost daily basis. The Red Cross report listed incidents in which live ammunition was fired from guard towers into rioting crowds."
The treatment of the detainees that night is first described by Javal Davis, who tells his anger and what he did. Then there is a long narration by Jeremy Sivits, accompanied by snapshots and video, as he explains how he used a knife he carried to cut the zipties on a detainee whose hands had turned purple and could have been lost. He's in the video, shown onscreen, and got a year in jail for that. Sabrina Harman took that video and photos of simulated fellatio, made a phone call, and then came back. Two images of this, with one man standing and one keeling, one putting his hand on the other's head, are each held about six seconds, with the music falling to silence at this point. Lynndie England describes the action and comments on the proliferation of photos, including taking pictures from the upper tier. We see many more photos and video taken by Harman, including video of Graner first making the "dogpile" and then the "pyramid" and then forcing the prisoners to line up naked against the wall and masturbate. Lynndie said Graner badgered her into posing with the "one guy who was still masturbating," that it would be her birthday present. At this point, the film holds for eight seconds on the famous image of her pointing her finger like a gun at the humiliated prisoner, cigarette hanging from her mouth.
CID (Army Criminal Investigative Division) forensic investigator Brent Pack goes over some of the same photos and additional ones to explain which camera captured what image. He describes the incident and the photos in this way:
"This is the infamous seven-man, naked, Iraqi stacking. The facial expressions kind of set the tone for what they were thinking and the feeling at the time. You look into their eyes and it looked like they were having fun…. it's not so much that you're there committing these acts of abuse, if you're in the pictures while this stuff is going on, you're going to be in trouble."
Pack is the one who would testify as an expert witness in the MPs' courts martial as to which images depicted crimes and which depicted standard operating procedure, hence the title of the film. In this section of the film, however, Morris modulates Pack's opinion, which resonates with what other viewers of the photos might assume: the MPs look like they're "having fun." Concluding what I call the "pyramid" section of the film is a long sequence in which Sabrina reads from her letters to Kelly, and we see close-ups of her words there. Accompanying her reading are visual echoes of previous scenes, here reinforced by close-ups of cameras shooting and prisoners framed in viewfinders. The OGA ghosts, in superimposition, again throw al-Jamadi into the shower, and his corpse appears in Harman's viewfinder as do other images of atrocity. She reads from her letters home with a certain self-recognition about her role. However, her words are also disingenous, since she's in the pictures in very compromising ways, and those pictures themselves will provide the proof to convict her:
"Something bad is going to happen here. … We might be under investigation. There's talk about it. Yes, they do beat the prisoners. I don’t think it's right, I never have. That's why I take the pictures, to prove the story I tell people. No one would ever believe the shit that goes on. No one. If I want to keep taking pictures of these events, I have to fake a smile every time….I guess reality hit and what was going on wasn’t right. Of course, you know from the beginning, but it was your job and there was really nothing—. You can't just walk away and say, 'Hey, I'm not coming back.' I'm not doing this, because either way, you're going to get screwed."
d. The music
These two sections—the al-Jamadi section with its dramatic reenactments, and the "pyramid" section, saturated with Abu Ghraib photographs and video—are heavily emotional in a way my verbal description does not do justice. Partly this comes from how the interviews and images are edited together in conjunction with a forcefully enunciated musical score that plays a prominent role in the film. In Standard Operating Procedure, music does not provide "background." Unlike in many documentaries, in this film the score by Danny Elfman is like concert music, with an original movement developing a piano melody that we hear in theme and variation throughout the film. Various sections have their own tempos and themes as well, some with prolonged and sustained musical development. If I were to describe the overall style and aesthetics of Elfman's music here, it seems much like that of Philip Glass, with important differences. Like Glass, Elfman uses short melodic lines, up to sixteen bars but most often shorter, that return in variations. In addition, throughout the film simple ostinado figures of two to four notes establish or double the beat, and these figures are often carried by piano or strings. There are few horn passages or crescendos across the film score, rather understated terminations of sections and melodic figures without discrete beginning and end. As with Glass, establishing these long, pulsing, repetitive musical lines can be seen as forward moving or mechanical or meditative, or for those who dislike this style, as producing "numbness." For me, the music's effect, especially in the pyramid scene, is to beckon the viewer to slow down to look at and emotionally react to, as if with renewed vision, the Abu Ghraib photographs.
In the al-Jamadi section, there is more use of synth and less harmonic music; the music combines with threatening sounds like crashing water or percussive crashing, prolonged with echo and reverb. When reenactments show an extreme close-up of the hanged man's face with blood dripping from it, we hear a two-step motif, with low strings and a bassoon on the one hand and very high pitched violins, on the other, the violins reminiscent of menacing music in horror films. Many sound effects are mixed in with the music, and when Sabrina Harman describes her picture-taking of the corpse, a repeated melody in the strings gives a dirge-like ending to this long, developed musical theme.
Sometimes the music is used ironically, as in the three-quarter-waltz beat that accompanies Brent Pack's forensic analysis to determine the source and time of each photo. In this section the music feel like a hurdy gurdy or calliope and conveys a sense of the mechanical. In contrast, at a later point, one of the most important in the film, Pack sorts the printed photos and stamps some (of sexual humiliation, not just nakedness) "Criminal Acts" and some (of stress positions and nakedness) "S.O.P."—standard operating procedure. Over this section, we hear the sounds of the rubber stamp as well as the opening piano theme and then full orchestral development of that theme. With such an orchestral treatment, Morris indicates the centrality of this official decision-making to his film, and we are intended, I think, to reflect on the ways that criminal investigations and trials will never do sufficient justice to the events as they occurred, both events recorded and those remaining unseen.
If music amplifies feeling and once again makes the photographs "arresting" to us, then their representations of the stressed naked body and of sexuality make them even more so. Many writers have discussed the government's exploitation of what it considers Arab attitudes toward gender, nakedness, cleanliness, and sex, and Judith Butler, in particular, has offered a fine analysis of connections between the depiction of homosexuality within the photos and the hypermasculinity promoted within military culture, all of which are part of the photos' "scene." We know that taking photos was part of the mandated "softening up" of detainees with the threat that pictures would be shown to family and friends. Rather than continue this kind of analysis, I would like to look further at how these images work to provoke a certain spectatorial response.
In doing so, I turn to the use of psychoanalytic references, which have provided an invaluable tool to film scholars looking at potential viewer spectator positions and at genres which provoke a bodily response. However, these very references must come with a caveat, for I do not know what elements in a picture might provoke what responses in cultures dissimilar to my own. In this case, the cultural bias of using psychoanalysis as a reference may distance even further those who feel that the pictures themselves, and the dissemination of them—as Morris does in Standard Operating Procedure and as we do here in Jump Cut—are a mark of cultural disrespect. As a writer, and editor, I take responsibility for this and can only hope that the analysis that I offer is useful and taken as provisional, to be modified by others working in this vein.
Torture, sexuality, and theatricality
It does not take Freud to make clear that the nascent torturer exists in every child. It only takes child rearing or extensive babysitting to see children beating up their dolls, enjoying bondage play, playing doctor (i.e., giving injections to or taking the rectal temperature of their dolls), and wanting to see siblings being punished, especially spanked. Not everyone remembers this aspect of their own life clearly, and certainly it is not widely discussed in literature on abuse. Personally, in a family with a Jewish mother, I remember seeing the Life magazine photos of the liberation of German concentration camps and hearing hushed stories between women about the Holocaust. At the same time, my siblings and I used to play with worms on the sidewalk, cutting them in half to see both parts continue to squirm. I understood explicitly the relation between what we were doing and what went on in the camps, but also knew very well that no adult I knew would acknowledge any parallel between us children and torturers. It was something that could not be said. However, in my mind, the same insight persists. Whatever social circumstances bring out or encourage human brutality, its origins may lie in our own ontology as we grew from child to adult.
My play with worms as as a child combined a child's preoccupation with body boundaries, pleasure in the impunity to inflict pain, and a forensic interest in dying and dead animals. A story about Sabrina Harman's pet kitten suggests that she too had a child's interest in forensics. When her kitten at al-Hillah died, she "autopsied" it and then took photos of its detached head, which she decorated in unusual ways and placed in various locations. This seems like a childish—or childlike—form of physical curiosity, which may have set the stage for the later blend of abuse and documentation indicated in her photos from Abu Ghraib.[55a]
It is equally clear that torture often has a sexual component. Imprisonment and interrogation usually involve disorienting, controlling, and reducing resistance. To that end captors may seek to break down prisoners' personal autonomy, self-sufficiency and connection to others. The prisoner is thrown into special, abjected, hidden place, a cell, a darkened—often pitch black—room, historically a dungeon, where his/her body and mind are broken. In the Abu Ghraib photos he's seen as constrainable, destitute, and abject. (I use "he" here because that's what the Abu Ghraib photos show us; many women and children were in the prison, and tortured and raped. Their story is not visible in the published photos and has yet to be told. We imagine it.) By stripping male prisoners and putting women's underpants over their face, even before other acts of more painful physical torture or even more degrading sexual humiliation, the guards objectify and "other" them, setting them off as less than human, demarcating them as clearly "not like me," and using authority to negate their bodily integrity.
To a certain extent, prisons involve theater, with sets, roles, costumes, actors and scripts. This theater affects both jailers and detainees. It's an interminable script that the jailers enact to insure their power, reaffirm the validity of their often insecure identity, set clear boundaries between prisoner and jailer, deal with or suppress their knowledge of prisoners' rage, and establish their workday routine as sanctioned by authority. For the prisoner, prison immediately deprives him of his former social role. In this new place, someone else's script imposes control over the conditions of his life; the jailor sets his new reality. The script orchestrates a set of strategies or techniques, the aim of which is to induce in the prisoner fear and terror, disorientation and total dependency. With taunting and yelling, hooding and manhandling, the guards strive to induce feelings of worthlessness. One of the goals of such a theater is to induce psychic disintegration or allow personhood that only to the degree that it follows the script.
In this sense, the Abu Ghraib photos are echoed in mass culture in torture porn, which began with Eli Roth's Hostel in 2005. This genre focuses on captivity and performances of torture; it emphasizes torture's staging and the captives' anticipation of it. Gabrielle Murray has written on torture porn drawing on Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain, and describes it as follows:
"Although interrogation is a feature in both war and thriller genres, films that fit within the 'torture porn' trend never represent it. Instead these films bring us face to face with what is routinely denied in the process of military, state and government sanctioned 'torture': the event is reduced to a cruel, clear dynamic of power relations. The victim’s power is stolen from them through imprisonment. Then the victim’s agency is annihilated by the process of torture—not just through the infliction of excruciating pain, but its anticipation and duration. In these films there is no attempt to suggest legitimization for the torturer’s actions. They clearly display the fact that the torturer’s pleasure is his or her absolute power over the victim, events and situation. This sadistic pleasure is intimately bound to the torturer’s omnipotent and omniscient power."[55b]
We know such scripts come not just from fiction film but from our government, where they are enacted into social reality. We see this kind of scripting, for example, in the CIA's Kubark manual (1963) that scripts scenarios such as "fear up" or "fear down," the orchestration of al-Qahtani's torture at Guantanamo and Abu Zubayda's at CIA black sites, or the more ubiquitous use of behavioral psychology to gain desired behavior in high security prisons in the United States. The SERE program used in U.S. military training is theatrical, instructing soldiers in torture dramaturgy, their to-be-expected roles as prisoners facing abusive captors, and potential scripts of resistance that they can rehearse to develop strategies for maintaining personal identity and surviving capture honorably. An additional script enacted in Iraq comes from a much older theater of imperialism, in which the colonizers—who have authority, powers of definition, and proper names—script roles for the unnamed, racially marked masses of Others in an orientalist way. Thus current prisons for "enemy combatants" utilize carefully crafted techniques to "handle them" and "soften them up," and these tactics assume certain Muslim proscriptions around nudity, sexuality, gender, cleanliness, and prayer. In the Abu Ghraib photographs, the torture is sexualized with these inflections. In the images of "stress positions," such an orientalist script stages the body before inflicting on it further pain.
In the section that follow, as I speak of the potential psychic structures and fantasies that viewing the Abu Ghraib photographs might resonate with or call upon, I do not wish to negate a primary moral response of repudiation and outrage. Rather I suggest that other layers of response are potentiated both by our media culture and possibly by our own psychic development from infant to adult. In particular, for those whose lives have been shaped by trauma, the reality of the pain inflicted on them shadows them for years after, as well as a sense of the irrationality and unpredictability of the social world. When someone has been treated as an object that's been manipulated, reduced, and forced—with the constant fear of death and dismemberment—they have a relation to the torture narrative and images, especially documentary ones, of torture that is far different from my own. Yet I also do not presume that their own narrations or response would simply articulate protest against abuse. Those writing or making films about the aftermath of terror outline layers of feeling and complex responses, especially one generation removed. And they analyze the ambivalent, often contradictory responses to the images, narratives, and fantasies that real social violence engenders.
Inflicting violence upon another's body may have several foundational causes. On the one hand, we all have anxieties about body boundaries, penetration of orifices, bodily fluids, and loss of organs, limbs, and capacities. Our very origins of a sense of self come with sensing and understanding our demarcation from the mother, a process explored by psychoanalysts Melanie Klein and Susan Isaacs, and more recently by cultural theorists Julia Kristeva and Judith Butler. Kristeva and Butler, in particular, posit a link between ideology and identity: that which we reject from our self-concept (as the masculine self-concept rejects the internalized feminine) is still part of us. As a consequence, we may react negatively to and against a whole class of "abjected" beings to keep them safely Outside.
In the case of war and prisons, subjection is scripted in a particular way, especially for those who need to maintain a privileged voice of authority. When someone in authority, however, maintains power by abusing the body of the Other, such a treatment of the conquered, the already vanquished, has an excessive force that reveals the abuser's fears about the precariousness of his own identity and the validity of his role. In particular, and this reaffirms Kristeva's thesis, the abuser-guard reduces the prisoner's personhood by exposing and penetrating skin and orifices to abject this Other as a specifically feminized not-me. In this way, in the "pyramid" scene of the Abu Ghraib photographs, not only do we have evidence of the soldiers' masculine self-concept, but also the images reveal how Charles Graner staged the prisoners in a "homosexualized" way. Directing this kind of grotesque theater confirmed his adhering to his military role as well as carrying out the superior officers' presuppositions about what the MPs were supposed to do. In fact, shortly after this dark night of terror, Graner received written commendation for his work supporting military intelligence operations at Abu Ghraib. The very staging and enacting of torture establishes and re-affirms the captors' identity as U.S. military personnel, the role they need to justify their acts.
In her essay, "Torture and the Ethics of Photography," Judith Butler addresses the framing and staging of the Abu Ghraib photos, saying that larger frame, outside the image, is the ever increasing effort of the United States to control the representation of its actions abroad, especially in the Iraq war. I would expand this "frame" to include the "shock doctrine" articulating the procedures and rationale for a corporatized security state, as analyzed by Naomi Klein. Butler's example of such framing is embedded reporting, to which the press has readily acceded. This orchestrating of access to the war exemplifies state power to impose its perspective on vision, delimiting what must not be seen or shown. Butler sees in such a practice
"…the performative power of the state to orchestrate and ratify what will be called reality or, more philosophically, the reach and extent of the ontological field….Currently the state operates on the field of reception and more generally the field of representability, in order to control affect, and in anticipation of the way that affect informs and galvanizes the field of war." (952-53)
In this light, the witnesses whom Errol Morris interviews in Standard Operating Procedure were not punished for abusing prisoners, for fulfilling the role the military expected of them, but for taking pictures "outside the ontological field." The real crime lay not in taking snapshots, which were in fact an integral part of the torture scene, but in the pictures' mass publication, their appearance on another stage, to be reinterpreted by numerous new viewers, who would bring to those pictures emotional and ethical responses of their own.
A scene, a vision, a fantasy—elements of viewer response
When I first saw the Abu Ghraib photographs I was struck not only by the documentation of bodily abuse, including forced nakedness and simulated sexual acts, but by my speculation on the kinds of images these were and the kinds of image culture they could have emerged from. Rush Limbaugh saw in them fraternity-type hazing photographs and others called them trophy photos, comparing them to the postcards accompanying lynching of Blacks in the United States. The photographs also use tropes from pornography and torture porn and splatter films, subgenres of horror. And they elicit memories of the concentration camp photos from the end of World War 2.
Because of their consistent depiction of forced nakedness, the images stage a scenario of sexuality and power, a seemingly sadomasochistic scenario. It is easy to repudiate one's own emotional response to that scenario in the Abu Ghraib photos by seeing them as merely documenting abuse, but the images may also resonate with an archaic fantasy structure common in psychosexual development. Sigmund Freud's essay, "A Child Is Being Beaten," outlines how his patients create and use a spanking fantasy that has erotic force. For media theorists, this essay has been of interest because within the fantasy, narrator/viewer can identify with different spectator positions and in later life the fantasy is almost always articulated in the third person, as with actors on a stage. Freud mentions that the fantasy's origins lie in the common childhood perceptions that parents and teachers are physically stronger, that to see another child beaten is to be glad "it's not me," and that one might be the victim in the scene, with accompanying shame and eroticism. What makes the essay of interest in terms of media reception is that it posits an archaic triangulation of an image that offers a fantasy manipulation of being out of control and pain; gives both masochistic and sadistic pleasure; and elaborates a third-person narrative that can be embroidered, proliferated, and repeatedly consumed. What's often not discussed about media reception but which Freud's essay reminds us of is that images of torture often carry a frisson or emotional charge. However, in this case, because the photographs are also documents and evidence with the denotation, "this has been," they are not supposed to carry such an eroticized resonance. They are part of a dreadful reality. However, prison or "capture" imagery is often part of ordinary sexual fantasy, scripted in what Linda Williams would call "numbers" in pornography, or used in s/m consensual reworking of such scenes. The sexual imagination often draws on stereotypical cultural scenes, and in the case of s/m it's within a theatrical, temporally bound scenario, from which its participants return to their customary social roles.
I am not saying that the Abu Ghraib photos are pornography, as some critics would say, since pornography's goal is erotic excitement, and it seems unlikely that many people use these photos for that. I am saying that the images of abuse, particularly those with naked prisoners, elicit the frisson of the sex-power connection that is part of an archaic fantasy structure and that they draw on some of the tropes of pornography that probably guided Charles Graner in orchestrating his grand scene, enacted in part for the camera's eye. A pornographic orgy may portray a serial accumulation of bodies, buttocks, penises, bondage, and sexual activity. The sexual part metonymically and mutely stands in for an interpersonal, human act. In the same way pornographic imagery often revels in genitalia and butts, as if these alone led to the whole. In addition, in Standard Operating Procedure, the prison is a dungeon where power relations are racially coded and work themselves out in a sexualized way on the bodies of naked, abjected men. To consider how important muteness or very reduced dialogue and narrative are within pornography's conventions, consider how we would reinterpret some of the worst of the Abu Ghraib photos when the prisoners have a history, friends, a story, and a voice.
"Haider Sabbar Abed al-Abbadi kept his shame to himself until the world saw him stripped naked, his head in a hood, a nude fellow prisoner kneeling before him simulating oral sex. 'That is me…I felt a mouth close around my penis. It was only when they took the bag off my head that I saw it was my friend.' In the nine months he spent in detention, al-Abbadi says he was never charged and never interrogated. On that awful November night, four months after his arrest, he thought he and six other prisoners were being punished for a petty scuffle. They were herded into Cellblock 1A. The guards cut off their clothes, and then the degrading demands began. Through it all, al-Abbadi knew the Americans were taking photos, he says, "because I saw the flashbulbs go off through the bag over my head." He says he is the hooded man in the picture in which a petite, dark-haired woman in camouflage pants and an Army T-shirt gives a thumbs-up as she points to a prisoner's genitals. He says he was in the pileup of naked men ordered to lie on the backs of other detainees as a smiling soldier in glasses looks on. And al-Abbadi says he was told to masturbate, though he was too scared to do more than pretend, as a female soldier flaunted her bare breasts."
If a pornographic imagination shapes prisoner abuse, viewers may recognize that convention, repudiate it, and still have other reasons for a bodily response. An important way that that photography and film generate affect in the viewer is by their depiction of human action. To see human action is to have a kinesthetic response, an aesthetic possibility early noted by Suzanne Langer in Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite and Art (1941). In particular, the stress positions in the Abu Ghraib photos evoke anxiety as a viewer imagines not only muscular pain and fatigue, but the suggested duration seemingly lasting far beyond the instant seen. In that regard, the extension of an interminable anguish beyond the image, felt in the viewer's own kinesthetic response to the strained postures, gives the images what Barthes would call their punctum, that arresting quality that invests the image with a particular fascination that "pierces" and overwhelms the one who sees. Vivian Sobchack writes about this sense of temporality and mortality in documentary imagery by indicating that such images do, in fact, suggest death, especially images that depict violence or show people taken close to death. Unlike photographing a corpse, no longer a person, filming and photographing violence, she says, has become for contemporary audiences "the active inscription of mortification":
"The inactive and unresponsive corpse, then, does not necessarily quicken us in our own lived bodies to an apprehension of dying and death so much as does the active inscription of mortification on another human body."
I would add that in looking at the photos of bodies in enforced stasis and stretch, because of the fear they induce about interminable duration, they have an ever-greater chance to implicate us in an arresting but unwelcome consideration of mortality. However, Sobchack continues in a way that lets us understand the very different function the photos had when they were taken and have now, circulated as part of a worldwide protest against a torture regime. Now, when a documentary film like Standard Operating Procedure, highlights the photographs, it orchestrates them to give them renewed meaning and affective charge. As Sobchack puts it, the documentary filmmaker's involvement in the social world shapes the film's framing and here its persistent gaze at mortification suggesting death:
"The contemplation of death in these films is ritually formalized as a moral consideration of the mortal conditions of the body, of the fragility of life, of the end of representation that death represents." (257).
If Sobchack speaks to the higher purpose of a documentary that deals with torture, the viewer of the Abu Ghraib photographs or of forensic photographs in general may see in them a fascination ordinarily conveyed by a much "lower" pop culture genre, the splatter film. It too deals with death, but not with the ethical gaze of the documentary film. In the splatter film, the very act of torture involves maneuvering to keep the victim alive while reducing his/her capacity for action, reducing personhood. Manipulating and tending the captive's body preoccupies the captor, binding both together in a sick, intimate relation. Death ends the relation and any "use" the captive has. Rather than frighten the spectator, the splatter film mortifies him or her as a witness to the vulnerability of the body. In viewing mutilation, spectators may oscillate between enthralled, victimized viewing positions and distanced, numbed ones. Writing about The Passion of the Christ, Robert Smart describes the hold this kind of representation has over many spectators. To me, this kind of spectatorship is elicited at well by the photos taken at Abu Ghraib:
"Splatter films dwell on the moment that the human being is reduced to mere inanimate—and in some cases—completely disorganized matter. This genre functions psychologically as a kind of cinematic Fort/Da game. The chief cause of anxiety gets rehearsed again and again, obsessively hoping for an eventual mastery of the fear that’s engendered by a realization that the body and its functions are all there is. ….The body, in both its sexual aspect and as our intimate, fragile, physical manifestation of life vulnerable to death—especially death of the premature and violent variety—has become the chief object of gore and porno filmmaking, with their admixture of pleasure, dread and ambivalence."
Torture documentaries and well as the original photographs of torture and abuse thus partake of what Linda Williams calls body genres in cinema: pornography, horror and melodrama:
"…what may especially mark these body genres as low is the perception that the body of the spectator is caught up in an almost involuntary mimicry of the emotion or sensation of the body on the screen."
For all these reasons, rather than simply rejecting the actions that the Abu Ghraib photographs document, it is important to keep in mind the bodily responses that the photos elicit, the fantasy substructures the images resonate with, and the relation of codifications/representations of power and abjection to our own viewer response.
The power of docudrama in The Road to Guantanamo
In the next section, I turn from considering a theatricalized documentary, Standard Operating Procedure, to a film that uses more of the conventions of dramatic fiction, the docudrama The Road to Guantanamo. Standard Operating Procedure focuses on a close study of the Abu Ghraib snapshots and video. These images, presented large in a theatrical setting, are overflowing with an excess of signification that calls out for an emotional spectatorial response, a possiblility that the film pushes with its extreme-close-up, "detail" reeenactments and its sustained development of musical themes. In contrast, The Road to Guantanamo uses reeenactments to add "realism" and elicit a political response. Director Michael Winterbottom draws on both low-budget, small-camera videowork and his own familiarity with Middle-East location shooting to convey a sense of what the locales of Pakistan and Afghanistan look and feel like. The film's dramatization has a tactile grasp of local details and a sensibilty about local customs that many other torture documentaries or documentaries about the war in Afghanistan and Iraq lack. And the second half of the film, the dramatic reenactments of imprisonment at Kandahar and Guantanamo, shows the "ordinary" treatment of detainess in U.S. custody, not the "extraordinary," as seen in the photos from Abu Ghraib. In that way, the film suggests the need for activism around all detainee imprisonment, beyond combatting extreme torture techniques. The film indicates that the larger structures behind a prison like Guantanamo need to be politically addressed.
The Road to Guantanamo has a particular importance in the United Kingdom since far less information about British-intelligence collaboration with U.S.-sponsored torture has been released than documentation of torture in the United States. The 2004 release of three young British citizens from Guantanamo, largely through efforts of human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce, initiated human rights protests over British collaboration with U.S. secret detention policies and practices. Even today the UK enjoys less openness around such issues as does the public in the United States, where much more testimony about detainee abuse and "whistleblowing" has allowed journalists to publish ongoing fact-filled reports. After the three young men, known as the Tipton Three, returned home to their working-class, immigrant, Birmingham suburb, they worked with Peirce to create a 115-page document of sworn testimony narrating what they'd undergone in U.S. custody. The deposition's introduction lays out its form as a combined account:
"This statement jointly made by them constitutes an attempt to set out details of their treatment at the hands of UK and US military personnel and civilian authorities during the time of their detention in Kandahar in Afghanistan in late December 2001 and throughout their time in American custody in Guantanamo Bay Cuba. This statement is a composite of the experiences of all 3. They are referred to throughout by their first names for brevity."
In the document, the three describe many of the things that the International Red Cross also listed as happening against inmates in other secret sites—beatings, forcible drugging, prolonged shackling and squatting, extreme temperature manipulation, sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, death threats to the prisoner and/or his family—often at gunpoint, forced shaving, keeping the inmates from prayer, and desecrating the Koran. The youth say many inmates have been driven insane and there have been "several hundred" suicide attempts. However, they and Michael Winterbottom, director of The Road to Guantanamo, say their treatment was ordinary, since they were not high-value detainees. But what they do say about their treatment significantly coincides with what others have to say. In his ground-breaking article analyzing the leaked International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) secret 2007 report to the U.S. government, "The Treatment of Fourteen 'High Value Detainees' in CIA Custody," Mark Danner indicates one of the most compelling reason to accept the youths reports as fact:
"In virtually all such cases, the allegations made are echoed by other, named detainees; indeed, since the detainees were kept 'in continuous solitary confinement and incommunicado detention' throughout their time in 'the black sites,' and were kept strictly separated as well when they reached Guantánamo, the striking similarity in their stories, even down to small details, would seem to make fabrication extremely unlikely, if not impossible. 'The ICRC wishes to underscore,' as the writers tell us in the introduction, 'that the consistency of the detailed allegations provided separately by each of the fourteen adds particular weight to the information provided below.'"
Because of the consistency of the Tipton Three's allegation, in publishing their depositions their lawyer condensed what they had in common to a third person narrative, organized chronologically, with first person voices entering in boldface in the text, adding the texture of memory, feeling, and experience. Both the third person and first person segments are replete with concrete imagery, but in the first person sections, the men remember past feelings and emotions, especially the sense of despair they felt as if whirling in an interminable downward spiral with no way out. Because of its particular organization, chronologically moving the reader along in a third person narrative, with personal perspectives expressed by an "I" adding another kind of tone, the structure of the sworn testimony reads like a novel. It has the rhetorical force of evidence combined with the familiar realist aesthetic of classic literary form, thus carrying the reader along in what it has to say. Also, for that reason, it also suggests a fiction film, which has characters (speaking as "I") and also the more objective view of the camera, documenting the world in which they move.
In fact, Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross did choose to make a fiction film, or rather a docudrama, about these three men, but not in the way I just mentioned. They used the deposition and did many more interviews with these young men before writing The Road to Guantanamo's script, but then also used the three men, as they are today, as witnesses in the film, telling their story to the viewer alongside an acted version of what they went through. In addition, The Road to Guantanamo (2006, UK Channel 4) is a low budget film, with much shot in digital video. The directors had a budget of 1.4 million pounds, and could film efficiently because of Winterbottom's familiarity with Pakistan, having made the feature, In This World, there in 2003. In addition, as Winterbottom put it, he could shoot the Afghanistan and Guantanamo prison scenes cheaply and safely in Iran. There he constructed a Guantanamo set, consisting of a few rooms, later using news footage to show the prison's exteriors and also to show the Afghan war.
As it uses filmed witness testimony from the original Tipton Three and dramatic reenactments from young actors, who do not look like their now-older counterparts, The Road to Guantanamo narrates in chronological order what happened to the friends. In a style which relies heavily on narrative ellipsis, often omitting causal links, the film shows three young immigrant men, of Pakistani and Bengali origin and living in the UK, traveling from their home in the English Midlands to Pakistan and then to Afghanistan in September 2001, shortly after 9/11. Nineteen-year-old Asif Iqbal, (portrayed in the drama by Arfan Usman) flies to Pakistan to meet the woman his mother has chosen for him to marry. He calls back to England to invite three friends to join him: Monir Ali (Waqar Siddiqui), Shafiq Rasul (Riz Ahmed) and Ruhel (the depostion spells it Rhuhel) Ahmed (Farhad Harun). The four meet up in Karachi, Pakistan, where they stay at a mosque to save money and generally move about the city like tourists.
After about a week in Karachi, with Asif's cousin Zahid they go to Friday prayers at a mosque, where they hear an imam call for solidarity with the Afghan people who are now invaded and bombed by the United States. Setting off to Afghanistan to provide humanitarian aid, but with naiveté and a spirit of wanderlust, the fellows take a bus to Kandahar. Their mood changes when they arrive and see bombed-out buildings lining the road; in addition, there they face the consequences of eating fly-infested food and drinking the water. Arriving in Kabul, they wander about with nothing to do and are demoralized by sickness and no way to achieve any kind of humanitarian goal.
They arrange for a ride back to Pakistan on a minibus but board the wrong vehicle; their van goes north to Kunduz, a stronghold of the Taliban holding out against the Northern Alliance. There they are isolated, shown sitting by the side of a house in rocky, barren terrain; bombs from the front light up the night. Suddenly they evacuate the area, herded onto trucks with Taliban fighters. At this point, Monir disappears, his truck undoubtedly bombed. Along with many other men rounded up by Northern Alliance forces, Asif and Shafiq are handed over to U.S. soldiers and transported to Shebargan Prison. Briefly feeling relief when they can speak English to a U.S. military interrogator, they soon find themselves prisoners of the United States and treated ("packaged" in U.S. military jargon) in a way that has become familiar from many detainee reports. They are hooded, shackled with zipties, repeatedly subjected to anal searches, and airlifted to Cuba, where they are placed first in open-air cells at Camp X-Ray and then in interrogation cells at Camp Delta. The last third of the film gives a visual picture of what ordinary treatment Guantanamo consists of, with sensory deprivation, lack of exercise, forced shaving, no way to maintain cleanliness, and even more extreme abuse. Later, because of independent UK legal actions on their behalf and because they can prove they could not have been at Taliban rallies the CIA taped (according to their documented work history and juvenile criminal records), they are finally released.
Broadly speaking, the witness scenes present the three men speaking to the camera in a seriousness and matter-of-fact way, and the fictional scenes present the young men's impetuousness, confusion, and peril. In addition, constructed news reportage, accompanied by visual clips of the war, the Middle East, and Guantanamo is woven into the fictional part. This news material both provides needed background information and narrative glue, and to an untrained eye it is integrated seamlessly into the story's flow. Winterbottom says he uses archival news footage because it incorporate many viewers' ordinary perspective on the Middle East; that is, viewers in the United States and Europe see the Afghan war via embedded reporting from an outsider's view. However, he never mentions in interviews that he scripted the newscasters' lines so as to advance the fiction economically. I myself did not recognize the scripted narration over the news footage on first viewing, but had my attention drawn to it by Stuart Klawans:
"…. the film's third type of narration: clips of news footage, and studio-produced voiceovers made to sound like a reporter's off-camera commentary. This material is the glue of the movie, sticking scenes together with a layer of information or a gloss of authenticity. The reportage, both fake and real, thickens the emotion…It also adds a weight of objectivity to whatever you're seeing, no matter how subjective the underlying source."
The combination of news footage, witness explanations, and acted scenes leads to a seemingly uninterrupted chronological accounting of the young men's trip. The various kinds of footage meld together with the use of match cutting and with flawless continuity editing. However, the dramatic economy achieved by smooth narrative ellipses also masks what for many viewers remains a vexing question: why would these fellows travel into a war zone and risk their lives? Mat Whitecross, who spent a month living with the three and interviewing them, said they mostly talked about the misfortunes that befall backpacker tourists, such as getting sick on the food, not knowing the language, or getting confused about which bus to take. On re-viewing the film, I see more clearly how Winterbottom presents the youths' trajectory in Pakistan to allow for the viewer's layered interpretation of what they experienced and perhaps felt. At this point, I would like to take a close look at that section to analyze the film's style and its effect.
Asif's friends' plane trip to Karachi takes just a few shots, ending on a close-up of the in-flight map showing how far the plane has gone. Here a diegetic insert provides a way to compensate for viewers' vague geographic knowledge in a discreet way, and indeed the openings of many documentaries often include a map. With the first indication of how the film will show us just what urban Pakistani life is like, we see the actors with their rolling suitcases moving through the crowed Karachi airport. The real-life Shafiq explains their destination: "We didn't want to stay in the hostel because we thought it would be expensive, so we went to a mosque." Periodically, the film imposes the dates of the action over a location shot, particularly important in this section because we want to understand the boys' timing and motivation, so here the date 5 October 2001 (read in relation to 9/11) appears over filmed footage of a modern bus going by a mosque, angle up toward the minarets. We then see the actors wheeling their bags through a busy commercial street, being welcomed at the mosque, and sleeping on the floor. The framing moves closer to show them wash before prayers, with numerous close-ups of their ablutions as we hear the call to prayer. Such shots emphasize not only the relation of cleanliness to Muslim religious observance, but also these close-ups of washing face, hands, and legs also resonate with the fact that after capture, the men especially suffered because they could not get clean. For example, when in U.S. custody, even when they did get a chance to shower, they did not have enough time for a quick soap and rinse, and so one of their strongest memories of prison is the stink.
A shot of them praying at the mosque segues into grainy news footage of a very large crowd with sounds of a street gathering. A (scripted) UK newscaster's voice gives the viewer needed background about popular political sentiment in Pakistan at that time:
"Crowds marching in Karachi today, organized by Pakistan Islamic parties that are supporters of the Taliban. It's one side of the political turmoil that seems certain to follow American military intervention in Afghanistan."
A number of elements are at work here. First, the newscaster has a very different accent than do either the adult men or the young actors, indicating the class nature and privileged observer-eye of news reportage. Second, in the news footage that Winterbottom uses over this voice, he edits from massive crowd footage to medium shots of men and boys raising their arms and chanting, and then to a close-up of two boys doing the same. This footage will echo with a later series of news-shots where an imam speaks to a crowd expressing similar widely held views.
The demonstration footage seamlessly segues into a long shots of the busy Karachi streets, with cabs and trucks heading toward the camera. We then see a variety of images showing the young actors doing tourist things in the city, such as shopping and taking rides at a theme park. Asif comes from his village to join them, as does a cousin. As the actors are shown sitting together in a restaurant, the older men's voices-over discuss their long-time friendships. One of the actors in the restaurant says he's been spending most of his time shitting. Toilets and food illnesses are repeatedly topics of discussion and are shown visually, as part of the film's gritty realism, including shots of fly-infested food. The fellows were there for about a week, and without planning, as Asif describes it,
"It was Friday prayers and we were walking past the mosque. A lot of people were going in, so we went in with them."
We then see news footage of an imam addressing a crowd. Not all of his words are translated, but subtitles give this: "The bombing of Afghanistan. This can only lead to chaos and terror." A close-up of the older Ruhel follows: "We were hyped and he was shouting slogans that…" His words are continued by news footage, including close-ups and long shots of men with boys raising their arms and chanting.
The older Asif continues: "The preacher was saying you should help Afghani people in whatever way you can, and also we was thinking of going over to see what Afghanistan is really like." After than, the actors sit in a crowded restaurant open to the street and continue their discussion of the upcoming trip: "…we're going, one, for the experience and, two, to help. And the food there, you know the nan (a flatbread), big nan." They all gesture with ever-broader spreads of their arms to indicate the size of the Afghan nans, and then wonder what languages might be spoken there. The older Asif says, "So we jumped on a bus then and off we went." His image segues into a close-up of the young men on the bus, one vomiting into a plastic bag.
In presenting the young men's experiences, the film uses this kind of dramatic ellipsis throughout. I describe this introductory section of the film at length because it seems so important to know what motivated the youth to take their ill-fated trip, yet there is a limit to what we can know. For example, they spent about six weeks in Afghanistan before capture and we really do not know what they did there. Because of his work in the Middle East, Winterbottom understand the differences in U.S. and European sentiments about "terrorism" and views expressed widely in the Middle East in the months following 9/11:
"You can never prove motive… They were teenagers, incredibly young, naïve teenagers. Maybe they were thinking, this will be exciting, it will be an adventure. What they say is that they went there to do charity work. They went to help out people who were being bombed, or were about to be bombed. … I was in Pakistan at the time [the U.S. invaded Afghanistan]. I was in Peshawar, which is near the border, and everyone there at the time would have had that opinion, that it was your duty to help the people in whatever way you could. And I think that there's quite a racist assumption going on, which says, 'That's preposterous.' If you think about it, during the Bosnian War, a lot of British people went over there to do charity work."
Much of the first half of the film is shot with digital video, providing the sensory imagery and contextual knowledge that location shooting can provide. As Winterbottom puts it, the film gives visceral evidence for the men's account. The film shows different kinds of transport common in poor countries—busses, minivans, and trucks. It also includes longer sequences showing the terrifying transportation of prisoners: First it shows one of the men being trucked in a shipping container to an Afghan prison; at one point, the Northern Alliance machine-guns holes into the container to give the men air, but many are killed and only twenty survive. Later, we see the film's version of the captives' plane ride to Guantanamo, as hooded and sensory-deprived, hands ziptied behind their backs, they are strapped into at an unendurable position, neither able to sit upright or lie down. The video captures the specific locales of Karachi, Kandahar, Kabul, Kunduz, and the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, where the cameraperson walked through the streets or filmed from within a bus. Winterbottom said video let him constantly improvise with the actors to take advantage of the location, and the film benefits from his familiarity with local customs and how to get around. In addition to the film's rapid cutting, then, the image track gains in kinetic effect from capturing details of daily life, in particular, the jostling of people on the street with the camera often positioned for low or waist level shots to be even more unobtrusive in their presence.
The sequences in Guantanamo have a different visual style, being shot on set. Winterbottom originally wanted the young actors to stay "imprisoned" in cells for a while to experience what captivity in Guantanamo was like. However, the actors themselves could not stand shackling and demanded padding for their legs. The older men showed the younger ones the scars they still bore and said they often had to wear leg shackles for hours at a time. The worst of Guantanamo practices entailed being beaten while short shackled, which led all of the three men to confess. As shown in the film, short shackling usually consists of having the legs cuffed to a bolt in the floor with the prisoner bent over and his hands cuffed to the same bolt. In a torture sequence with strobe lights, the exhausted prisoner falls into various position, all of which produce more pain. In this way, the film uses staging and the tableaux vivantes that result from the strobe lights to show some of the worst moments the prisoners endured. In this instance, the staging has a powerful kinesthetic effect.
Finally, I think the effectiveness of the docudrama as a genre is that it does not flatten out individual experience as much as the documentary usually flattens out a witness' voice, especially when that voice is edited into a short statement in the service of an argument. The Road to Guantanamo is filled with many peculiar moments. The boys want to travel to eat those big nan, one misses a bus because he's shitting, one just disappears forever. The very title, The Road to Guantanamo, alludes to the Bing Crosby-Dorothy Lamour-Bob Hope "road" films, most famous being Road to Rio (1947), which has scripts filled with the characters' misadventures in an exotic locale. In the film and perhaps also in practice, interrogation procedures are illogical and inefficient, as if records or transcripts are not even kept. The young men are asked the same questions over and over, and at one point are told their images in photos and videos place them at rallies with bin Laden himself. After their parole and work records prove they were in England at the time, they are eventually moved into better quarters to hang out together, watch videos, drink sodas, and eat McDonalds and pizza. Before they leave, they are asked to work for U.S. intelligence and to sign a paper saying they've been detained there because they were linked to Al-Quaeda and the Taliban, which they refuse to do. On leaving to go to their plane, they hear admonitions such as, "Make sure you say that you were treated properly" and "Don't look out the bus window."
Such idiosyncratic moments return the witness testimony from the realm of evidence to the realm of experience. The film moves along with the unpredictability of daily life, as we observe it, with all its irrationality and discontinuities. In this way, Winterbottom's docudrama stylistically develops a kind of "realism" that the documentary often has to do without. Docudrama is not wedded to realism, however, since it can draw on any genre for its fictional aspect. Many docudramas are melodramas, a genre with a long history of capitalizing on social issues in the news, which it reformulates in moral terms often in a story about victimization. Furthermore, low-budget location shooting like Winterbottom's may have led him to shape the first half of his "real-life" narrative in a neo-realist mode, with more of an emphasis on documenting social milieux. Traditionally neo-realist cinema, following from literary naturalism, also tells a pessimistic story about victimization, and in some ways, we would expect a docudrama about men imprisoned in Guantanamo to proceed in this way. However, Winterbottom deliberately eschews such a narrative line, and his emphasis on the haphazardness and gratuitousness of what the men experience saves the film from melodrama or neo-realism's predictable tropes, emotions, and closure.
When people hear "waterboarding" in the news, a very common, institutionalized rhetorical process has already shaped, indeed pre-digested, the concept for them. This one word summarizes a human experience, suffered by many across history, and now refers to policy decisions; the word's sensual residue provides a slight, but just a slight frisson. In the news, torture discourse, like war discourse, takes an issue of great magnitude, universalizes it—stripping it of context, and explains its course and processes with a gravitas and objectivity that's related to newscasters' and viewers' mutual assumptions about our collective right to know. Words like "waterboarding" or "stress positions" suggest a larger story, not explaining concrete instances but leaving it to the listeners' imagination to fill in the details.
Clearly it is important, and perhaps unusual, that we have all this documentation of torture—no such documentation is available for activists, lawyers, and former detainees in the UK. But using those documents to speak for the oppressed still assumes a political agency denied to those so easily rounded up, detained and abused. As information about torture circulates within institutions that will publish it—more or less fully—news reportage, survivor testimony, and government documents all run the risk of being received in a way that reassures listener/viewer/readers of their safe distance from the "problem." For example, academics, lawyers, and medical people who deal with the topic of abuse have learned role distancing as part of their profession, which in any case places them securely in the middle class and authenticates a right to know, to examine with an objective eye. In daily life, most news viewers in the United States can absorb the story of torture within a flow of stories and not have to think about it later.
In addition, as the news or political leaders proffer such summary words like "waterboarding" or brief narratives about torture, the public discussion is rendered with deceptive temporal finitude and assurance. In this way, the torture "story" serves as a common, socially distributed narrative, which functions as all narratives do to give us a sense of closure and protection, a brief mastery over a distressing situation. Even current and potential legal procedures that could provide more definitive social closure—administrative decisions, legislation, commissions, and court cases—of necessity filter out much of what those who experience torture have gone through and the context in which such violence occurs. We cling to the possibility of a redemption narrative for both ourselves and for those who have suffered terrible abuse. We crave some kind of temporal progress, as if we could so easily, just by increasing knowledge, "put the past behind."
Even this socially reduced knowledge of torture is still too much for many media viewers to absorb. With the excess of images that surround us, many viewers think there's too much violence in the media and they flee from it to safer fare. For others, the violence of our ubiquitous primetime police dramas or action-adventure and horror films processes death and dismemberment through the reassuring tropes and genre predictability of fiction. Understanding torture, or not understanding it but trying to decipher something like the Abu Ghraib photos, means gaining painful knowledge and acting on it.
Gaining such knowledge, having it "stick," often means absorbing information accompanied by personal narrative and visual proof. This is how anti-slavery activists taught about slavery and rallied people to their cause within the Abolition Movement, where abolition meetings often included the visual, tactile demonstration of shackling and the testimony of a former slave, who would expose part of his/her body to show corporeal proof of past abuse. Flinch or not, the meetings elicited a kind of pleasure and epistephilia both ways, with shame and shock at being a voyeur, and also not wanting to look but willing to do so within the context of gaining knowledge and acting on it. The torture documentary circulates within a similar field of reception, among activists or potential activists, many of whom really do not want to see torture. In writing about viewers who would turn away from the Abu Ghraib photographs, Susan Sontag chastised them in an unusually frank way:
"Someone who is perennially surprised that depravity exists, who continues to feel disillusioned (even incredulous) when confronted with evidence of what humans are capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hands-on cruelties upon other humans, has not reached moral or psychological adulthood. No one after a certain age has the right to this kind of innocence, of superficiality, to this degree of ignorance, or amnesia. There now exists a vast repository of images that make it harder to maintain this kind of moral defectiveness. Let the atrocious images haunt us. Even if they are only tokens, and cannon possibly encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function. The images say: this is what human beings are capable of doing—may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously. Don’t forget."
What is going to happen around torture in the United States? I follow the news almost obsessively and the story drags on. As of the time of this writing, President Obama gave a speech at the National Archives—which houses the U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence—to affirm that he will close Guantanamo Prison in spite of legislative balking. It is a progressive move. However, as Michael Ratner, President of the Center for Constitutional Rights, summarized Obama's characteristic way of handling these policy decisions around illegal detention and torture,
“The President wrapped himself in the Constitution and then proceeded to violate it by announcing he would send people before irredeemably flawed military commissions and seek to create a preventive detention scheme that only serves to move Guantanamo to a new location and give it a new name.”
Like Michael Ratner and many other activists, I cannot tolerate the ways in which my country abrogates the Rule of Law. I am repelled by the outrages upon the human mind and body that torture, by definition, enacts. But my sense of engagement needs to be tied to something greater than fighting to right my country's wrongs and thus securing my identity as a privileged middle-class U.S. citizen within a more ethical public sphere. At this moment in history, two things have happened with the eruption of the torture narrative as a story about U.S. acts. First, it's an impassible story, just at the Abu Ghraib photos are impassible evidence; we cannot "get on with" or "settle back into" American identity until we deal with what the story entails. And it may not be an identity that should remain unchanged. That is, the torture narrative de-centers the traditional hegemonic view of the United States has of itself as a model for other nations, a beacon on a hill.
Second, the story to which we need to pay attention is larger than torture. It's about the United States going to war unjustly and fighting indefinitely. It's about the liaisons between catastrophes, international capital, privatization of the U.S. commons, and U.S. military intervention, including the use of torture. We need to conceptualize and work against torture within a global structural framework, beyond just the discourse of human rights. Judith Butler, writing about 9/11, advocates shifting our perspective in this way and its potential benefits:
""[I]f we are to come to understand ourselves as global actors, and acting within a historically established field, and one that has other actions in play, we will need to emerge from the narrative perspective of U.S. unilateralism and, as it were, its defensive structures, to consider the ways in which our lives are profoundly implicated in the lives of others. … The ability to narrate ourselves not from the first person alone, but from, say, the position of the third, or to receive an account delivered in the second, can actually work to expand our understanding of the forms that global power has taken. ….Do we not imagine that the invasion of a sovereign country with a substantial Muslim population, supporting the military regime in Pakistan that actively and violently suppresses free speech, obliterating lives and villages and homes and hospitals, will not foster more adamant and widely disseminated anti-American sentiment and political organizing? Are we not, strategically speaking, interested in ameliorating this violence? Are we not, ethically speaking, obligated to stop its further dissemination, to consider our role in instigating it, and to foment and cultivate another sense of a culturally and religiously diverse global political culture?"
As I consider the dis-ease which the Abu Graib photos engender in viewers, it seems to me that the shredded body may also stand as a metaphor for the physical and social obliteration we potentially face. Both right and left come up with different metaphors and different political solutions to deal with fragile boundaries and borders, including paranoia about impending "attack." Speaking from the Left, my fears come as I witness the world reeling from but not dealing with irrational global capital, nuclear proliferation, ecological degradation, and planet-wide warming. On the right, I see religious fundamentalisms desperately trying to establish enclaves to protect the faithful from the world's moral pollution. Many of my friends react to diffuse political insecurities by wondering what kind of world their children will inherit and by indicating on a personal level they have little sense of either bodily or social integrity: it could all be taken away. Anecdotally, I have found that such a sensibility is widespread. For example, after 9/11 a number of my Indian, Pakistani, and Korean friends indicated to me that as they watched television that day, they said among themselves something like, "Now you know what we feel."
Although my fears, and our need for collective action, will not end when U.S. involvement in torture is resolved, in this historical moment we can and must deal specifically with this issue. As I mentioned at the beginning, all of us must write the "torture story" now, even if only provisionally. Meanings remain highly contested, and only some will be adjudicated in courts. We have at hand a tool both to communicate knowledge and reshape it. That is, the Internet provides an opportunity for many people to evaluate, refine, and generate information and analyses of torture. Most of the Internet sites that amplify the films or provide documentation about torture also have taken the lead in activism around this issue. These include organizations' sites such as the Center for Constitutional Rights, Physicians for Human Rights, American Civil Liberties Union, and International Justice Network. There are many progressive left/liberal sites and blogs such as scotusblog, the Huffington Post, Salon, and The Nation. Also mainstream news sites offer substantial coverage on the issue, such as the New York Times, New Yorker, Washington Post, and Guardian newspaper (UK). The documentation and analysis of torture now consists of an ever-expanding archive, constantly reinterpreted and feeding into activism in a variety of ways. The torture documentaries I have described here provide a way into this archive. To see a ninety-minute film adds to our knowledge but more importantly offers a pathway for understanding the concepts needed to struggle against torture and for the world in which we want to live.
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