Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Errol Morris - Standard Operating Procedure (2008)

I'm not sure what it is about Errol Morris. I'd previously been disappointed in his doco Mr. Death, on US execution technician and Holocaust denier Fred Leuchter, because it was so filmic that it destroyed any sense of reality regarding some very serious events - execution in the United States, and the Shoah. I had the same disappointment with SOP, his documentary on the American torturers at Abu Ghraib. It's very slickly made, but it doesn't really tell us very much in the end, while the technique distances us from the reality of events. As an audience, we're so used to slick filmmaking that, to my mind, in order to have some impact a different technique is necessary. At one point, when one of the soldiers involved was telling of the way in which Iraqi prisoners hated pop music more than hiphop or metal (blasted at deafening volume continuously into their cells) the audience started laughing. And this is an audience who presumably were already sensitive enough to the issue of torture and prisoner abuse to come and see the film in the first place.

There are a number of important issues floating around the film, but none of them really got an in-depth exploration.

The film itself consists mainly of interviews with the soldiers who appear in the notorious photos, as well as with Janis Karpinski, the prison commander of Abu Ghraib at the time of the scandals, since demoted. However, there are no interviews with the two men who seem to have been at the very centre of the abuses, Charles Graner and Ivan 'Chip' Frederick; nor any interviews with the Iraqis themselves. Apparently, Morris attempted to, but could not find any to give testimony to their experiences; but this is simply never mentioned in the film, thereby once again 'disappearing' them as people. This means that, rather than the viewer realising that anyone might act this way in such a situation and that it is created purposefully by a system involving much higher powers, it is still possible to think that these two were sadistic monsters, at least to some extent; and to have no sense of the actual suffering involved in such abuses as 'stress positions,' sexual abuse, drowning short of death, and so forth.

The fact that the abuse situation was purposefully created by higher powers, up to the very top level of the US administration, is certainly foregrounded; but despite the title, the structure of the military, and the involvement of non-military bodies including the CIA and private contractors (that is, 'outsourced' civilian torturers) is not explored in any detail. Nor is there any real investigation of the nature of the military as an institution, the dehumanisation that soldiers themselves go through in order to be able to do what is demanded of them, the fact that the US army recruits from the poor and uneducated because it's the only way these people might have an economic chance in the current state of American class affairs.

What the soldiers themselves have to say is initially interesting; in my view, because of the fact that they have been punished, they have been able to create a narrative which ignores the entirety of their culpability and the human impact of their actions on their victims, given that higher-ups have gone unpunished, as if it must be the responsibility of one or the other only, a narrative in which they themselves are pitiable victims. But they are not particularly articulate or reflective, and after half an hour we have essentially heard what they have to say about the events beyond describing particular incidents, leaving an hour and a half or so which becomes quite repetitive.

Finally, there's an interesting issue about photographs themselves which could be explored. The given narrative about photography is that it has an aura of authenticity, but in fact what it shows is not real. This is the line the participants themselves keep putting to the viewer, unconvincingly. But I came out thinking that what I had seen in the Abu Ghraib photos, unlike many photographs, did in fact truly capture the essence of what had happened; there were no imagic illusions here to be disabused of. The point is made, and it's well-taken, that for reality to exist there must be images; if these images had not existed, then the scandal would not necessarily have been such (think of the relatively low profile of the illegal US 'ghost prisons' in Europe and elsewhere), and those involved were being punished, essentially, not for the actions which took place, but for the existence of the photos and particularly for appearing in them.

None of the information is new to anyone who had a passing acquaintance with the case, including the connection of Rumsfeld, the military cover-ups, and other ways in which the scandal was in no way the action of a few 'bad apples at the bottom of the barrel'. The film may demonstrate that the people involved were not sadistic, inhuman monsters as such, but it doesn't get across the vital point (discussed in detail in Philip Zimbardo's book The Lucifer Effect) that almost all of us would behave the same way in the same situation. I tend to think, in any case, that these points are likely accepted by people who choose to see the film in the first case. I can't imagine those who think torture is justified, or who think that the torture was the work of a few psychos with no connection to the military as a system or to the Bush administration, would choose to watch this film. Given all of this, in an overall sense, I'd call this film a massive missed opportunity.

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