Reenactment of prison corridor, which Morris interpreted as a macabre theatrical stage.
Skewed angles and heightened sound effects are used in the reenactments.
Interviews with the participants: Janice Karpinski
Various ways SOP depicts abuse and murder. Here, a reenactment with a dramatic close up of torture in the shower.
Reenactment of ghost interrogators (CIA) trying to remove al-Zarqawi's body in the cover-up after his being murdered in the shower.
Reenactment of Sabrina Harman going to look at al-Zarqawi's body and take forensic photos.
Photograph that Harman actually took of al-Zarqawi's corpse. She went on trial for tampering with evidence for this act. The murderers are known but were never indicted and tried.
Photographs that shocked the world ...
This was not considered torture.
Graner was particularly proud of this picture. Morris validates Harman, in spite of her appearance in pictures like these. One of the points of the film is that the image never reveals the whole story.
Cellphone video also documents the making of that infamous pyramid.
The film ends with images of agony.
Report by David Andrews
Since its premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in February of 2008, Errol Morris’ documentary Standard Operating Procedure has divided audiences and critics. Though this film about the digital pictures of detainee abuse, torture, and murder that emerged from Abu Ghraib prison in early 2004 won the Jury Grand Prix at Berlin, it immediately sparked passionate debate about its own procedures, [open endnotes in new window] including its stylized reenactments, its framing and editing, and its focus on the perpetrators of abuse (i.e., the “bad apples,” not the U.S. policy-makers or Iraqi victims). Though Morris’ tactics here will be familiar to those who know his other movies, they appeared to some viewers to conflict with the material at the heart of Standard Operating Procedure, which seemed so grave, so uniquely sensitive, as to mandate a wholly different approach—and, perhaps, a wholly different documentarian. These debates continue today, testifying to the ongoing power of the photographs (a durability Susan Sontag predicted) as well as to the ongoing controversies surrounding Morris’ tactics, which have in this case raised uncomfortable questions about truth, style, and ethics in the documentary.
Considering all this, I think we should frame the storm over Standard Operating Procedure as emerging from two larger debates that have different valences, different scopes, and different intensities: the broad controversies over the origin and conduct of the Bush administration’s Iraq war and the more narrowly academic debates regarding the contemporary documentary’s increasingly obvious move away from cinéma vérité ideals and tactics over the past few decades. I do not mean to say that the terms of these debates have been separate in the critical response to Standard Operating Procedure; most discussions of the movie have integrated them. But I do think that imagining these debates in these clearly divided terms can help us understand why certain forms of this debate have more energy than others. My feeling is that if a speaker emphasizes the abuse and torture at the heart of Standard Operating Procedure, the moral passion of his or her argument will tend to be of a higher pitch than if that speaker is emphasizing the formal approaches that Morris adopts in this and other documentaries.
I would also speculate (and this is a bit more tenuous) that the moral urgency of the first kind of argument will be more pointed if it is made by U.S. academics for other U.S. academics. Why is this? For one thing, as the media like to remind us, most academics are liberals—and, as Richard Rorty has argued, liberals are people who define themselves through their antipathy to cruelty. What is more, the Abu Ghraib scandal was a specifically U.S. scandal that disgraced U.S. soldiers and the entire U.S. military; it also disgraced the U.S. government that instituted the military’s “standard operating procedures” and, of course, the U.S. electorate, which was ultimately responsible for all of it. This is an uncomfortable chain for Americans to find themselves in—and one that is even more uncomfortable for U.S. liberals. As symbolic warriors—a term that I use to I refer to the civilian tax-payers who fund actual U.S. soldiers—Americans of all stripes have preferred to think of themselves as liberators, as spreaders of peace and democracy.
They have not, then, preferred to think of themselves as exporters of torture who exploit the people of other nations for pleasure, profit, ornament, or revenge. But the positive ideal of the U.S. war machine has never told the full story, as Morris, Julia Lesage, Chuck Kleinhans, and many historians remind us. The other side is our nation’s near-total extermination of its native peoples, its imperial conquests of countries like Mexico, and its more recent culpability for massacres such as No Gun Ri and My Lai as well as for torture sites like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. However, a positive ideal about our role in spreading democracy has managed to persist in the United States (if nowhere else). Such persistence may be explained by way of U.S. exceptionalism, a loose ideology grounded in the nation’s democratic pride and guaranteed by its global might. It is only logical, then, that the Abu Ghraib pictures have a special power to outrage Americans. For us, these photographs represent a collective failure, a mutual guilt that was rendered immediate, ubiquitous, and permanent by digital production and Internet proliferation. What these pictures did is put actual faces on the contradictions separating our national ideals from our national realities: faces that are flippantly smiling on the U.S. side, faces that are hooded or shattered on the Iraqi side. The discrepancy feels horrible; and it feels especially horrible, I imagine, to U.S. liberals.
But before we decide that Standard Operating Procedure, in activating this highly charged material, represents some special case, we need to see that this documentary is of a piece with the rest of the Morris canon. Morris has been drawing on similar material for some time. Indeed, this documentary may be the culmination of what Bill Nichols has recently labeled an “ideological” trend in Morris’ work that I believe began in The Thin Blue Line (1988) and that has continued through Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999) and especially The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003). In these films, Morris explores morally charged public issues of cruelty, indignity, denial, injustice, and irresponsibility through techniques also present in Standard Operating Procedure—but over the course of this arc, these issues become less narrow, less local, as they assume greater public and national significance. Without the increasing urgency of this ideologically inflected material, the debates over Morris’ work would seem like no more than an academic parsing of the “proper” roles and tactics of documentary in the post-cinéma vérité era—and, if an academic focuses only on this sort of parsing, it can seem like no more than that even in the presence of such material. Luckily, or unluckily, Morris’ use of the Abu Ghraib photographs have made this narrow approach difficult for U.S. academics to practice or endorse. Thus, the response to Standard Operating Procedure in the United States.
Bearing all this out, I think, is the fact that the academic debates now enmeshing Standard Operating Procedure have emerged over the past few years both as an organic part of the academic discussions of war and torture in contemporary documentaries and as an organic part of the academic discussions of the evolution of the documentary as a form. Thus Framework ran a dossier called “War, Documentary, and Iraq” in its fall 2007 issue with essays by Charles Musser, Jane Gaines, and Patricia Zimmermann, among others—and by the time Jump Cut published its own “Documenting Torture” dossier in its spring 2009 issue, Standard Operating Procedure had been released and had become a significant focus of this discussion.
A similar trend is visible in the debates over the trend away from cinéma vérité ideals in recent documentaries, a move that implicitly embraces Morris’ pro-reenactment position. For example, Bill Nichols’ article on documentary reenactment in a 2008 issue of Critical Inquiry (which appeared too early to touch on Morris’ most recent film) has been used by Oyvind Vagnes in his conference piece (see below), which applies Nichols’ ideas to Standard Operating Procedure. The issue of reenactment in Standard Operating Procedure was also discussed in Jonathan Kahana’s introduction to the recent dossier on reenactment in the spring and fall 2009 issue of Framework. The film has, further, been a topic of discussion at other meetings, like last year’s Visible Evidence conference, and has been the topic of countless reviews, articles, and dossiers. It is no surprise, then, that the film was the subject of two different panels at this year’s SCMS conference. And the second of these panels, “Reframing Standard Operating Procedure,” is the focus of this Jump Cut dossier.
But first a few words about the earlier panel, “Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure.” This panel took place from 12:00-1:45pm on Wednesday, March 17, 2010. Chaired by Arild Fetveit, it included three papers: “Explaining Ourselves to the Image: Ethics and Form in Morris, Folman, and Haneke,” by Asbjorn Gronstad (University of Bergen); “Picturing Poses: The Reenactments of S.O.P.,” by Vagnes (University of Bergen); and “The Power of Photography and the Material Aesthetics of Standard Operating Procedure,” by Fetveit (University of Copenhagen). Though I was unable to attend this panel, I did read the papers and abstracts, and afterward I quizzed the panelists on the reception of the event. The generosity of these panelists has imparted a fairly clear, albeit removed, sense of how the two panels compared.
What I find most interesting is the fact that a sense of active moral outrage didn’t seem to orient the first panel—or its discussion—as it so clearly oriented the later panel. This absence was not a defect. Indeed, it seems to have led to a fairly rewarding (albeit narrowly academic) stress on issues important to scholars focusing on Morris as a major documentarian, especially on the aesthetics of documentary truth in the context of Morris’ historical reenactments.
This kind of approach was perhaps most satisfying in the Vagnes piece, which reminds us that “Morris is arguably the preeminent exponent of reenactment in contemporary documentary film” and which consequently chooses to focus its attention on the aesthetics and politics of the film’s reenactments. Drawing on Nichols, Vagnes concludes by asserting that Morris’
Gronstad’s paper divides its attention among three different movies, proposing that films like Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure, Michael Haneke’s Caché (2005), and Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir (2008) “help us to become aware of how different aesthetic forms generate different types of ethical consciousness.” According to Gronstad,
In this manner, Gronstad pursues the idea that images are “impervious to explanations, interpretations and rationalizations that aim to ‘solve’ them,” a position that he contrasts with “Morris’ empiricist fervor,” which is typified by the idea that “if only more data could be added, one would get to the bottom of the case.”
Fetveit’s paper, by contrast, promises to “disentangle the complex weave of causes adding to the power of these images,” like the “discourses portraying the U.S. military as composed of men of honor” and the confusion over “whether the mission in Iraq was one of retribution against terrorists or one of liberating suppressed Iraqis.” These issues are “discussed against the perspective offered by Morris’ film, in which ‘standard operating procedures’ are brought out, suggesting that the scandal was not to blame on ‘the six morons that lost the war,’ as was allegedly said inside the Pentagon,” but was a case of policy run amok. In other words, Fetveit does not propose to focus as squarely on documentary aesthetics and truth as his fellow panelists; instead, he aims to engage the political discourses that have most troubled viewers.
Unfortunately, this appealing panel attracted a crowd of only around eight to ten people—and, partly as a result of this small crowd, the discussion that ensued was, in the eyes of Gronstad, “considerably less heated or polarized” than that of the Saturday panel. Though there were “perspectival differences” among the three papers, as Gronstad puts it, those differences “never crystallized into positions that were then fought over in the discussion period.” In part, this kind of discussion seems due to the fact that only one of the three papers focused on the anxious issues of war, torture, and criminal procedure most likely to incite the panel’s mostly U.S. audience (which was, again, sparse).
The Saturday panel, it seems, could not have been more different. The atmosphere of the San Fernando, i.e., the yellow-and-gold striped room in which the event took place, was charged and overflowing with onlookers—many of whom were well-established scholars in their own right. The panel was clearly set up as a pro-con event, with two panelists critiquing Morris’ film and two others analyzing it in largely neutral or positive ways. All four panelists were experts on the documentary and have spoken extensively on the form. Nichols offered a critique entitled “Feelings of Revulsion and the Limits of Academic Discourse,” which took the form of a letter of despair to the director. Kahana analyzed the film’s documentary procedures, contextualizing its focus on the guards’ oscillation from confession to excuse in “Speech Images: Standard Operating Procedure and the Staging of Interrogation.” Linda Williams, the chair of the panel and an expert on documentary and pornography (an often pejorative term that has haunted discussion of the film due to its images of coerced nakedness, masturbation, and sex acts), offered an analysis titled “Cluster Fuck: The Forcible Frame in Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure.” The panel concluded with Irina Leimbacher's response paper. Leimbacher took immediate issue with Williams so as to take issue with Morris; her response also reviewed the differences among the four approaches.
Of the pieces, the two that seemed to me most diametrically opposed were the Nichols and Williams papers. As noted, Nichols framed his piece as a “Dear Errol” letter. He did this, it seems, to convey the “traumatic effect” of watching Standard Operating Procedure—a trauma that left Nichols with a sense of outrage that Morris had
The heavily moral tone of this letter, which emphasizes the affective quality of a film that the viewer resists and is ultimately traumatized by, is interesting in that Nichols is renowned for his work on documentary, including his recent Critical Inquiry article, “Documentary Reenactment and the Fantasmatic Subject.” Given the success of this comparatively detached published essay, listeners might well have expected Nichols to focus on the issues of reenactment posed by the film somewhat in the manner of Vagnes, who cites Nichols in his own piece. But the subject matter of the movie seems to have forced Nichols to take a more attached approach, a portion of which is given over to a strategic, minute-by-minute, present-tense recreation of his first experience of watching the film in San Francisco. This moral passion is in part a screen for a careful critical denunciation of a film that Nichols does not like—and a denunciation of Morris’ move away from narrowly “idiosyncratic” subjects to broadly “ideological” ones. In the end, Nichols is discomfited by the scenes of torture and exculpatory interrogations because he cannot find “a moral center” in them, a center he thinks should be occupied by the voices of Iraqi victims, not the excuses of U.S. guards.
Williams finds different things in Standard Operating Procedure because she accepts the kind of questions that motivated Morris to create it. How were “images of death and torture” like the Abu Ghraib pictures “framed by the people who take them,” and how, after the fact, were they “received, through this framing, by the publics who [saw] them”? It stands to reason that, if we accept Morris’ goal of answering why these pictures were taken in the first place as a legitimate goal for a documentary, we will be more willing to accept his technique of listening patiently to the guards who took the pictures (the tactic that utterly revolts Nichols). Williams realizes that Morris’ attempt to answer specific questions has dictated his focus on the guards, and this focus is what leads her to discover the movie’s moral center: the idea that guards-cum-prisoners like Lynndie England were not innocent but were scapegoats:
Williams repeats this interpretive move through her slightly more slippery reading of the motives behind guard Charles Graner’s construction and photographic reproduction of the infamous human pyramid of seven naked Iraqi detainees. Williams does not defend these actions in any sense. But she embraces the trajectory of Morris’ movie by explaining such actions
Contra Nichols, Williams reads the film in a way that does lead us outside its hermetic structure, for it causes us to ask who set these policies, who standardized forms of torture by calling them “stress positions”—who instituted procedures that made it so difficult not to engage in criminal acts? This is the truth Morris meant to convey—and in its own subtle, deliberate, discomfiting way, Morris’ truth is a moral one delivered through moral constraints. Williams uncovers this truth in a no-nonsense way that has its own moral appeal.
The discussion that ensued was fraught with hurt and suffering, a trauma that was seen alternatively as both a negative and a positive cinematic effect. The questions were grave and sincere and polite. Indeed, after the event, one participant noted that everyone in the room “cared about the topic as differentiated from mere ‘interest.’” Some questioners asked very specific questions, like whether Sabrina Harman’s letters included dates (they often did), while others focused on tangential issues, such as how the film might be linked to pornography. But the most common thread of the discussion was the attempt to assign blame for what Williams referred to as the “cluster fuck”—and the difficulty of the task, in part because as one participant put it, we are in this chain.
For these reasons, the richest, most compelling vein of the discussion centered on issues of trauma and complicity. For example, Vivian Sobchack questioned Kahana’s linking “trauma and the discourse of trauma to the excuse” because that connection seemed to suggest that the prison guards were “victims,” whom she did not believe viewers could accept as such, given the
Janet Walker, a trauma studies scholar, noted in counterpoint that the discussion might profit if we supplemented trauma studies’ primary focus on victim trauma with a similar focus on “perpetrator trauma”—an expansion that might be linked to the kind of spectator trauma that Nichols touches on in his own paper. Like Sobchack’s comment, Walker’s comment was mainly a response to Kahana’s paper, which posited a tradition of films in which real “soldiers give testimony about their . . . violent actions, carried out in the midst of war,” actions they can never forget. Standard Operating Procedure fits this category, Walker (still alluding to Kahana) noted, in its “presentation of psychologically charged veteran interviews as simultaneously confessional and exculpatory.”
At this point, my own trauma has everything to do with personal experience, not documentary practice. I am a U.S. liberal who lived through the Bush-Cheney era. Like Morris, I feel a great deal of guilt over what happened in those years (and over what may still be happening now, for all we know). It is predictable, then, that after watching Standard Operating Procedure, my own moral center fixed on Morris’ haunting précis: the guards weren’t innocent, but they were scapegoats. No matter how morally superior we feel, the guards had few choices within a machine whose policies standardized abuse and enforced obedience in its ranks. As Kleinhans notes, one “incontrovertibly true” fact of torture is that it is only
The guards may not have been exceptional people (do “the best and brightest” typically end up as enlistees in the U.S. military?) but they were people working in a situation not of their own making. They acted badly and were treated badly: they were perpetrators and victims. This means that the greatest responsibility lies with those who created the situation that ran away from the guards: the military higher-ups, the Bush administration, and the electorate.
And if we, as liberals, fall into the trap of not listening to the guards or to Morris, if we refuse to see the guards as people whose “free will” was constrained by the same machine that constrained us all, we may end up simply repeating the actions of the Bush administration, which protected itself by blaming the scandal on a few bad apples. After all, apart from the extravagant abuses—the human pyramid, the masturbating detainees—the actions of the guards were, practically speaking, unavoidable. If the guards hadn’t put the detainees in stress positions or otherwise “softened” them up, how would the guards have been treated? Would they have been demoted, discharged, court-martialed?
And what about us, the symbolic warriors who were paying for all this and increasingly knew what we were paying for as its elements were repeated at “black sites” or outsourced through rendition—what were our choices? We could have stopped paying our taxes and gone to jail or fled abroad. But how many of us could actually have done this? Haven’t we all had responsibilities that have held us in place as investors in the larger machine of the nation? (Henry David Thoreau, we should remember, was unattached, childless, and jobless when he refused to pay poll taxes so as to resist the expansionist Mexican War.) Many of us probably had the same grim, awful sense that I had during the 9/11 disaster: what was happening to us was just a particle of what the Bush administration would do in our name in retribution. And many of us probably wanted to resist this end. But we did not, mostly could not. This is not to exonerate us or the guards. It is to see ourselves in the guards, whose situation we helplessly helped create.
Jump Cut invites you to consider all these questions, excuses, and heart-rending analyses for yourselves through the thoughtful, passionate, somber papers that run in this section. Enjoy these arguments as you can; their insights can be tonic.
Links to individual presentations: