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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Errol Morris' Standard Operating Procedure

Poster of Standard Operating Procedure by Errol Morris

Managed to catch another film at the Refugee Film Fest last night, this one's a documentary about the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse called STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE, by Errol Morris, director of the seminal documentary THE THIN BLUE LINE. I watched the latter two years ago when I sneaked into the lecture sessions of the documentary class while studying in Perth.

Being the only other film by Morris I've watched, I still notice that he retained his style for STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE, which is driven entirely by the interviews of his subjects and some reenacted scenes. With a budget of 5 million USD, and a score by Danny Elfman, this is a documentary that features 'production values' of what you normally see in its Hollywood fictional counterparts, shots of playing cards showing Saddam and his sons faces falling slow-mo onto the ground etc. Along with some really beautiful filmmaking flourishes that you don't see often in a documentary, like the scene which shows the assembling of a forensic timeline using hundreds of Abu Ghraib photos taken by three different cameras.

A friend of mine whom I saw this with voiced out a complaint that's mentioned in most negative reviews of the documentary, like how it's excessively 'slick' that it distanced him from the subjects, which I partially agree. Could it have been better if it were more 'raw' and free of its 'Hollywood production' trappings? Although, ultimately, I do find it a very illuminating documentary because of its interviews with the people in the famous photographs, like Lynndie England and Sabrina Harman (the other one who was considered the ringleader of the incident, Charles Graner, wasn't allowed to be interviewed), These US soldiers who smiled, posing, giving thumbs-up signs next to the naked and tortured victims (there was also a series of photos where they posed over a dead prisoner).

Long have they been demonized by the media and public since the photos came out few years ago. Aside from the aforementioned two, almost everyone involved in the situation were interviewed, along with those investigating in the case. And that's where different perspectives of the incident are brought in. Another friend I saw this with said that the film felt long, and directionless, there's no resolution towards the end, what was Morris trying to say? I think there's not supposed to be a clear one, just like real life. This documentary merely tries to let us understand what was going on when those photos were taken. Why? Sabrina Harman said that she was taking photos as evidence, Lynddie England explained that it was all because she was young then (20 when the incidents occurred, she's actually only 2 years older than I am) and blindly in love with Charles Graner (she is now raising a son fathered by him, he subsequently married another Abu Ghraib colleague Megan Ambuhl)

Errol Morris
Errol Morris

The others said that circumstances have been so messed up that it was impossible to get out of it. Are they just giving excuses to justify what they've done? Not all the time, we know the consequences, I can imagine that none of them can really lead normal lives anymore after the occurrence. For years they have been condemned for their deeds, but it is also interesting when the documentary is seemingly suggesting to audiences to think what was lurking beyond the frames of the photos. What happened between the space of two photos. Have they been thrown under the bus? Taking the fall for the higher-ups? Some photos that are published were the cropped versions. There are still many stories to tell. This film is only to shed some light into the context of these photos.

Later in the film, Brent Pack, special agent for the Criminal Investigations Division, discusses how he analyzed the countless photos from Abu Ghraib. The snapshots the world saw are stamped as either "Criminal Act" or "S.O.P." (standard operating procedures) And while no line is drawn, no judgments are made, one cannot help but ponder the problems in the procedures that lead to separating one from another. Errol Morris is too experienced a documentarian to shove his message down our throats, it's better to just let us draw our own conclusions. That's something I appreciate, it doesn't demonize nor glorify their subjects.

I tend to avoid most politically-themed documentaries because I can't help but feel that certain filmmakers seem to feel that they are on this moral high ground because they are oh-so-selflessly revealing the negative light of some issues. There's like lack of perspective, just black and white. If only life is that simple. (My political indifference stemmed mostly from this belief of mine. The government of my country is flawed, no one denies that, not even those working within, yet there are times when I can't see much about the other end of the spectrum to sympathize with.)

Check out Errol Morris' March 2008 New Yorker article about the Abu Ghraib incident. It can be viewed as a companion piece of this documentary. (Although numerous negative reviews of the documentary pointed out that it's better to just read the article... I'll leave you all to make your own judgments)

Standard Operating Procedure trailer

Interview with Errol Morris

Deleted Col. Janis Karpinski scenes from the documentary