A conversation with Errol Morris about the Abu Ghraib atrocities

| June 06, 2008
Errol Morris on the Abu Ghraib set of Standard Operating Procedure - PHOTO BY NUBAR ALEXANIAN/ SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

Errol Morris, the Oscar-winning director of The Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line, Mr. Death and Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, spoke with the Independent by telephone in late April from Seattle, where he was promoting Standard Operating Procedure, his new film that tackles the definitive scandal of America's war in Iraq. In January 2004, less than a year into the war, hundreds of photographs came to light that depicted American troops humiliating often-naked Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib. Morris, whose filmmaking interests often dovetail with an intense fascination with the elusiveness of documenting "truth," explores the circumstances surrounding the photographs. Using exclusive interviews with several of the most notorious participants, and examining the photographs very carefully, Morris comes to surprising, unsettling and perhaps controversial conclusions about the events at Abu Ghraib—the ones that were staged for the camera and the ones that were not photographed. —David Fellerath

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: You premiered your film in Germany. It seems an interesting place to open this whole can of worms. The Germans are maybe better equipped to deal with this subject matter than the Americans.

ERROL MORRIS: Ha. That's an interesting way of looking at it. The choice was actually by distributors. They did not want to open the movie at Sundance, and it was their call and the next festival down the line was Berlin. And it seemed like a good decision after all—I won a major award at the festival and the film did very well there.

The release of the Abu Ghraib photos marked a turning point in the war: It was the moment the administration lost control over the narrative they were trying to tell—it seemed to all fall away when those photographs shocked and awed everyone.

Well, they got control back in an odd way. Bush, of course, describes the release of the photographs as the worst day of his presidency. But very quickly it gave him and his advisors someone to blame. If the war is going south, if the Arab world hates our guts, the cause is the bad apples: They stabbed America in the back. So the photographs have functioned in a very, very odd way. They have centered the blame on the bad apples and focused the blame away from policy. I think in itself, that's a very interesting phenomenon. Because if you look at the pictures, and someone asks the question who is to blame? Well, THESE GUYS! Look at the photographs!

Do you remember your first reactions to these photographs?

I remember my reaction to various different photographs. And it really wasn't that different from anybody else. It was horror, shame. [pause] And then it was the overwhelming weirdness of them. I remember thinking, What's actually going on here? What's this actually about?

Which is what your film's about. Back to that first idea—

Sabrina Harman at Abu Ghraib, with the body of Manadel al-Jamadi, who was tortured to death in U.S. custody in November 2003. The perpetrators of his death have not been prosecuted. - PUBLIC DOMAIN PHOTO
  • Public domain photo
  • Sabrina Harman at Abu Ghraib, with the body of Manadel al-Jamadi, who was tortured to death in U.S. custody in November 2003. The perpetrators of his death have not been prosecuted.

The idea, by the way, isn't incorrect. I'm not arguing with it. It's interesting. You can certainly describe the release of the photographs as America's loss of innocence, the end of a certain conception that America has about itself. But, for many people, the photographs became politicized in so many, many different ways. I'm not saying everyone looks at them as absolving this administration of responsibility. But many people did. Hence these endless arguments about is it policy or is it the action of a few rogue soldiers—back and forth, back and forth; blog this, blog that. We never stop to ask ourselves, What are we looking at? What's outside the frame, and what's inside the frame? The photograph of Sabrina Harman with her thumb up is the subject of an essay, which I've written for my blog [Morris' blog, Zoom, appears on The New York Times' Web site] and probably goes up in next 24 hours, about how we look at the photograph—I remember seeing that photograph for the first time and thinking "What a monster," but actually we're looking at someone who is trying to expose a crime, not committing a crime. She actually took a whole series of forensic photographs—the only evidence we have of al-Jamdai's murder. And it's Sabrina who spends a year in prison, not, um—

—the murderers!—

—the CIA officers who killed him.

There's been some investigation, but no indictments.

That is correct. It seems like a terrible miscarriage of justice to me when someone tries to expose a crime, they get sent to prison, and the person who committed the crime walks away scot-free. It's as if the crime is photography and not murder.

And specifically, it seems like the crime here is one thumb and one smile—the most damning parts of that photograph. They lead us in a different direction than your film tends to suggest.

Yes. That's the amazing power of visual images. They can influence how we think, how we see the world, but they don't always lead us to the truth. They can lead us, actually, away from the truth.

I've been reading William Vollmann's Rising up and Rising Down, a study on violence—

Sure. The multivolume study.

I'm reading the abridged version. I can't handle the 3,000 pages or whatever.

Someone gave me as a present the whole set.

Is it on the shelf collecting dust, or did you get into it?

I looked around in it. It's impossible to read in its entirety.

The abridgement is pretty quick going so far. Anyway, in it, he gets into whether Adolf Eichmann was inherently evil—whether he would have committed such crimes out of his historical context. And it was something I saw discussed in your First Person series when you were talking with Michael Stone, the forensic psychiatrist.

Right.

One of the notorious photos of Charles Graner in Abu Ghraib; witnesses in Standard Operating Procedure say what appears to be a punch was only posed for the camera - PUBLIC DOMAIN PHOTO
  • Public domain photo
  • One of the notorious photos of Charles Graner in Abu Ghraib; witnesses in Standard Operating Procedure say what appears to be a punch was only posed for the camera

The question went through my mind when I was watching Standard Operating Procedure. And outside of the history that these individuals are in, I don't think that any of them, with the possible exception of [Charles] Graner—who we don't get to hear from—is inherently "evil."

I don't think it's probably true of Graner either, but I've never had the opportunity to talk to him or interview him. So I can't say. I'd certainly like to interview Graner. It's certainly very much on my mind.

Is he completely prohibited from talking to anyone?

Absolutely.

Is this the government trying to protect itself? What do you think?

I think [pause] yes.

During his trial, the judge was cutting him off.

Everybody, essentially, if they were court-martialed, were cut off in different ways. They were cut off from witnesses they were able to call. They were cut off in terms of evidence that they were allowed to introduce. They were cut off in every way imaginable. The only way I know about Sabrina's letters, for example, is because part of one letter was introduced at her trial. And I saw the fragment of her letter and I was so fascinated by it that I asked her if there were more letters, and guess what? There was a whole pile of them. And the letters are of course amazingly interesting.

I screened Standard Operating Procedure with a viewer who really disliked your film. He said it didn't make him "feel good."

Ha. Did he go into greater detail?

He did. We talked about it quite a bit. But I think a lot of viewers unfamiliar with your process are going to have reactions similar to the guy I was talking with. He said that the movie didn't make him feel good, it wasn't uplifting—

Well, it would be hard to make that argument under any circumstance.

I'm not necessarily sure anybody would want to feel good after watching a film about Abu Ghraib, but [the viewer] completely dismissed Harman and thought everyone in the film was lying and trying to pass the buck.

Sabrina Harman, in Standard Operating Procedure - PHOTO BY NUBAR ALEXANIAN/ SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

I think that is part of the problem with this movie as a whole. It's not a problem, for me, with the movie, but a problem with the world, as such, at the present time. People are really invested in seeing these people as evil. And so, when they see this movie—I don't know how many times I've heard this, I heard it several times today—people who saw the movie twice say the second viewing was completely different from the first. One reviewer said that on the first viewing he didn't like Sabrina, but on the second he liked her very, very, very much. I think that all of us have this received view of Abu Ghraib, and the pictures, and what they mean and who the people were. They've been demonized and turned into monsters. Many people—and this is a phenomenon I've seen many, many times—look at it and they don't even see the people in it. They return to this idea that they're all evil and they don't say they're sorry. I think it's a far more complex story than that. And an important story. I don't know how to get behind or around your friend's objection, because, of course, part of the movie is to force us to look at these people as people. And if he won't go there, if he's unwilling to entertain that possibility, than of course the movie's going to be just incredibly annoying.

It seems many people are hungry for propaganda, and your film is almost "anti-propaganda."

It's not almost.

It is anti-propaganda.

Yes.

You're concerned with complex philosophical questions. You haven't made a simple activist film like, say, Taxi to the Dark Side. And I told the guy, who was suggesting things you could have done to make your film "better" (like showing us pictures of Dick Cheney every five minutes), that if he wanted that, a good companion view to see is Taxi to the Dark Side, an "activist film." Do you think Taxi is a good companion film to watch?

I haven't seen it. I've been just too damn busy. I should see it and I will see it. I have been asked so many times why I didn't deal with the higher-ups: Why isn't this about Cheney, Rumsfeld, Bush, Addington, Yoo, etc., etc., etc. And of course it's not the story that I wanted to tell. It's not the story that powerfully grabbed hold of me. It's the story of these young kids who got trapped in a nightmare. I think underneath all this, when you look at very small things, you discover something big.

But I'm sure if some of the "bad apples" higher in the administration were willing to get in front of the Interrotron [Morris' interview apparatus], you'd be willing—

—of course I would be. I tried to get many of the higher-ups and they declined even to decline. I never heard back from them.

Graner's motivation for making the photographs appears to be to take "trophies of war." It made me think of scalping in the frontier wars, or the Nazi dagger that my neighbor has—some American GI brought it back. And Time reports that Bush keeps Saddam's gun "in a small study off the Oval Office" and that he "really liked showing it off." I was thinking of the idea that a lot of photographs originated as trophies.

I think there was a trophy element in some of the things that Graner did. Oddly enough, he was very paranoid, as I understand it, that he was going to get fucked by the Army. He felt that he had been fucked over in Gulf War I and that this time he was going to have evidence to prove the stuff that he had been through—the stuff that had happened to him. Now that seems very, very, very weird, but I think part of it is that these photographs were made as evidence because they stupidly thought that this evidence would protect them.

That seems like a strange idea. A lot of this these things seem contradictory. But I was thinking that these military people, when they're in their pack, they're smiling with thumbs up, but that might not necessarily be the motivation for the photograph.

Yes. I think you will very much like the article I have appearing in the Times this week, "The Most Curious Thing."

Morris (right) and director of photography Robert Richardson on the set of Standard Operating Procedure - PHOTO BY MARK LIPSON/ SONY PICTURES CLASSICS
  • Photo by Mark Lipson/ Sony Pictures Classics
  • Morris (right) and director of photography Robert Richardson on the set of Standard Operating Procedure

I rewatched The Thin Blue Line, and it's a brilliant narrative because it really unfolds like a murder mystery—the pieces come out so perfectly to keep you moving along. But in this film, Standard Operating Procedure, the narrative is very straightforward. I was wondering if the gravity of the subject might have led you to make a more conventional film?

Well, I wouldn't call it a conventional film, per se. The narrative is driven by the timeline of the photographs. I often thought of this film a version of Heart of Darkness. Going down some infernal river, they arrive at Abu Ghraib and the nightmare is already around them. They walk unto the pier and there are naked prisoners with the panties on their heads in the stress positions—the whole nine yards. And then things just get worse. And worse. And worse. It is like a descent into some kind of hell.

Did you talk to Joseph Darby? Did you interview him?

I did indeed. I did a long interview with Darby.

But you didn't use any of the material?

I didn't use any of the material, and it's a long story. I can tell you a little bit about it if you're interested.

I am.

I felt that the story is very confusing—for many reasons. We think we know about the photographs because of Joseph Darby, but we don't. Darby turned the photos over to CID [the Army's Criminal Investigation Division] in January of 2004, and I believe CID was already aware of their existence. But those photographs would have been covered up. They would have never been released to the public. 60 Minutes II and Sy Hersh and The New Yorker got the pictures from a completely different source. It's another wrinkle in this strange, strange story.

Do we know the source?

We do, but I'm not at liberty to say. [In] the way in which the cover-up preceded ... Joseph Darby has been made into the hero of this story. I don't see him as the hero of this story, and I most certainly don't see the "bad apples" as the villains of this story. And by including him, it seemed to turn it into the story that I was trying to steer away from: Bad apples bad, Darby good. I prefer to stay with [the "bad apples"] and the photographs and what they did. My feeling is that there's a lot more to this story. [Darby] was described as the leaker by none other than Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld, of course, didn't apprise the public of the fact that those photographs would have never seen the light of day if he had anything to do with it, and that Darby had nothing to do with the release of the photographs. It served, like the photographs themselves, as a way of creating a false narrative: false villains, false heroes, false everything. Propaganda. I liked your description of the movie as "anti-propaganda." I think that's the best description I've heard to date, by the way.

Anything else?

And maybe you should tell your friend that while watching the movie the next time, what he should do is put a picture of Cheney on the wall next to the TV set and occasionally look at over at it.

I'll tell him that.

Comments (4)

Showing 1-4 of 4

Good news, Cybrary: It looks like Galaxy Cinema is bringing Standard Operating Procedure back for another week, starting Friday, June 20.

report   
Posted by David Fellerath, Indy Culture Editor on 06/16/2008 at 4:29 PM

Thanks for the advice. I will make that request at the Varsity if I can ever get a person to answer the phone! I did see it was playing in Cary. I am saddened to hear it was only here for one week and that it has had poor performance at the box office. It appears to be a deep and contemplative look, not just at Abu Ghraib, but also at photography, especially war photography, in general. I will keep my eyes open for it!

report   
Posted by cybrary on 06/13/2008 at 3:39 PM

Sadly, you've missed the film's week-long Triangle run at Cary's Galaxy Cinema. It closed Thursday, June 12. Like most of the Iraq movies, this film, despite excellent reviews and the importance of its subject matter, has not performed well at the box office. It opens today in Charlotte, but short of that taking that drive or waiting for it to come out on video, the best advice we can offer is to call your local theater and express a desire to see it. It's not unprecedented for theaters to respond to popular demand and re-book a film, although it's also possible that prints will not be available.

report   
Posted by David Fellerath, Indy Culture Editor on 06/13/2008 at 2:31 PM

Fantastic interview. Very helpful to understanding the movie. I have been very much looking forward to this movie and even planned a movie/book discussion group based on it. It was supposed to be at the Varsity but now it has disappeared. Anyone know anything about why? Any clue as to when our area will get to see it?

report   
Posted by cybrary on 06/13/2008 at 1:33 PM
Showing 1-4 of 4

Add a comment

Quantcast