g The Film Panel Notetaker: Tribeca Film Festival - Conversations in Cinema - "Standard Operating Procedure" - April 24, 2008

Friday, April 25, 2008

Tribeca Film Festival - Conversations in Cinema - "Standard Operating Procedure" - April 24, 2008


Academy-Award-winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (The Fog of War) participated in a discussion lead by Jarhead author Anthony Swofford during the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival after a screening of Standard Operating Procedure, Morris’ latest film where he interviews the American soldiers who took the iconic Abu Ghraib photographs.

Swofford began the discussion by saying how he experienced different emotions watching the film. He also saw that each of the film’s subjects seemed to experience different emotions while discussing their experience at Abu Ghraib, Brent Pack (the Special Agent from the Criminal Investigations Division), who had been devastated by the forensic process of going through the photographs. Swofford asked Morris what was his reaction to this.

Morris responded that since this is a movie about those photographs, it was essential. It was a good interview and he had no idea what he was going to hear. He spoke of “the” iconic photographs of the war, the ones that depict torture and abuse that are classified as Standard Operating Procedure (SOP). Morris found this very surprising and ironic at the time. It made him feel we were in bedlam. The distinctions made perhaps made sense to someone, maybe not him.

Swofford said he felt there was an agitated citizen behind the film, that being Morris. He asked Morris why he made the film and tells it from most of the soldier’s (under the rank of staff sergeant) point of view.

Morris answered that these people were the ones who took the photographs. His motivation was his curiosity about the photos. They are probably the most widely seen pictures in history. The interaction we have is all these ideas of what they depict, without really knowing what happened.

Swofford said that one of the soldiers (Javal Davis) says if it weren’t for the cameras, no one would ever know about this. What if there weren’t photos taken? How much of it was staged?

Morris said he divides the photos into three categories:
  • When Sabrina Harman first walks into prison, she takes pictures of the prisoner known as Taxi Driver who is stripped naked with panties on his head in a horrible stress position. She walked into this. This was not something she created. These are verité/documentary photos.
  • Then Sabrina takes pictures of the American soldiers who are often smiling and giving a thumbs up along with the prisoners.
  • The strongest photos are those that have been created for the camera, the only reason these things occurred, ie. Lynndie England holding the leash strapped to the prisoner Gus, Gilligan standing on the box with wires, and the prisoner pyramid.

Morris said he never got clear answers about what photos were SOP. In creating these photos, they created pictures of American foreign policy in the broadest sense.

In his 17-hour interview with Janice Karpinski, Morris mentions how Janice got angrier as it progressed. The last three hours were the most memorable. She talks about how she identifies with Lynndie. Janice said (not in the movie) they have these representations of women in the military, ie. heroic woman like Jessica Lynch and they needed villains, which were Lynndie and herself. This is a war of sexual humiliation. It’s no accident that American women were used to strip Iraqi males and humiliate them.

Morris said he was truly outraged that the wrong people took the fall for this. The photographs helped in this in a very odd way. For example, the picture of Sabrina with her thumb up over the dead body of the Iraqi prisoner. The first time he saw this picture, he thought she was a monster. It implicates her and makes her look responsible, but he later found out that the man was actually killed by a CIA interrogator. The entire brass of the prison was involved with covering up the murder. It was not just a couple of soldiers who planned this. Everyone was involved. Was Sabrina involved in the murder? No. She took pictures to show that the military is nothing but lies. She wanted to be a forensic photographer. She took 20 pictures of the body, described as forensic photos. The CIA interrogator, whose name Morris knows, has never been brought up on charges. Sabrina spent a year in prison. Morris says loudly and passionately that the people involved with this have NEVER, NEVER been held accountable. It’s deeply wrong. We saw a glimpse of Abu Ghraib. It stopped us dead in our tracks because we thought we had someone to blame.

Swofford asked Morris if it takes narrative to give meaning to these photos.

Morris said he doesn’t think the photos failed. We didn’t pursue the truth. We stopped. The theory is that George W. Bush won the election in 2004 because of the bad apples. The chips fell into place. Morris wanted to know why the war was going south. People blamed the photos. They became scapegoats for a war. They were blamed so the people higher up didn’t have to blame themselves. It’s a sad story.

Swofford asked Morris if there were more interviews that were not included in the film.

Morris said he interviewed a lot more people. He accumulated tens of thousands of documents. He has a fairly long essay coming out in the New York Times blog (see also Eric Kohn’s Wonderland Stream interview with Morris about the NYT blog) about Sabrina’s smile with an interview with an expert on facial expressions. Morris said he is always fascinated when someone from the Administration says we don’t have to follow the Geneva Conventions. Everything that happened at Abu Ghraib was a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

Audience Q&A:

Q: Did you interview any Iraqi prisoners who were at Abu Ghraib?

Morris said he tried to interview the Iraqi men who appeared in the iconic photos. He tried really hard to find Gus and Gilligan. The military was no help whatsoever. He didn’t know if they were dead or alive. One man came forward as Gilligan. He was an imposter, but actually was a prisoner there. Morris interviewed this man on the phone and asked him about Sabrina. The man said he really liked her.

Q: What was your process of editing the film?

Morris said he never has all the footage he wants, but he kept working away. He jokingly said that he knows when to stop when the producers starts threatening to sue him.

Q: Why did you make the choice to use re-creations in the film?

Morris said his hope is that the images take the audience into moments of the photographs. They re-focus your attention on something specific, for example, the drop of blood or water from the shower head. Certain things have a moral ambiguity.

Q: How much of your interviews are pre-planned?

Morris said he never has a list of questions. He never knows where an interview is going. He expects to be surprised.

Q: What is the real purpose of your movie?

Morris said there are many important questions. Can we have this foreign policy and still call us a democracy? He had a crazy idea that these questions could be addressed by looking at small things. There are big questions contained in this about our country and ourselves. If he achieved that, he thinks he’s done his job.

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