Some time ago, the Oscar-winning documentary-maker Errol Morris came across a series of photographs taken by the SS of the selections of Hungarian Jews for the gas chambers at Birkenau in 1944. “They are among some of the most extraordinary pictures in the history of photography, and they deeply fascinate me,” Morris says.
“I wondered if you could recover the identity of those people, and I thought of making a movie about them. Of course, it’s over 60 years after the fact now. But you look at these photographs and they are still so unbelievably disturbing and powerful.”
Morris, whose Polish mother lost relatives in the Holocaust, never did make the movie. However, the idea that one can somehow “walk into history” through a photograph stuck with him, and now informs his chilling new film, Standard Operating Procedure, which is released today. At the documentary’s heart is another collection of shocking images — the photographs that blew the lid on abuses by US military personnel on Iraqi prisoners of war at Abu Ghraib prison in 2003.
Every picture is said to tell a story — but Morris wondered just how much of the Abu Ghraib story the images were giving us. Can a photograph reveal and conceal at the same time? Morris, a former private detective, believes it can. The Abu Ghraib photographs “serve as exposé and cover-up”, he says. “They expose something but they don’t encourage you to look beyond the photograph. They tell you that you have what you need to know and no more.”
He decided to investigate what went on outside the frame. Through a long process of cajolement and negotiation, he managed to secure interviews with some of the principal characters — mainly low-ranking soldiers — in the Abu Ghraib story as we know it. These included Lynndie England, the petite private first-class notoriously snapped trailing a naked Iraqi male on a leash, in a photograph staged by Charles Graner, her boyfriend at the time; and Sabrina Harman, who photographed the battered corpse of Manadel al-Jamadi, who had been killed by the CIA.
Unlike the extermination-camp guards, who were largely invisible until Claude Lanzmann made his groundbreaking documentary Shoah, the soldiers from Abu Ghraib were “incredibly visible to journalists, to the public at large, but no one really wanted to look at them”, says Morris. “It was just assumed that they were the worst of the worst.”
Not that he wishes to draw too many parallels between the Holocaust and Iraq. “Abu Ghraib is not Auschwitz or Birkenau, as bad as it might be,” he says. Yet the young Americans — presumably because of their visibility and because of new technology — have become trapped in a “kind of digital prison created by the media and the government from which there is really no escape”, he suggests. “So you have these soldiers that have been tarred with responsibility for destroying the war effort.”
However, without Harman’s photographs, al-Jamadi’s murder might have remained hidden, says Morris. “Sabrina was not involved in the crime. She really just took a photograph of it and was prosecuted, in essence, for taking photographs that embarrassed the US government and the US military, not for any of the things that she specifically did at Abu Ghraib.”
Even so, the seven so-called “bad apples” — the seven military police officers who were indicted — became hate figures on both sides of the political divide. “For the left they’re the worst of the worst,” claims Morris. “For the right they represent some rogue element in the military and are in no way representative of policy. But no one questions whether they’re really the worst of the worst. No one asks: ‘Who are these people?’ No one asked: ‘What do these photographs really represent?’”
This is where Morris hopes his film, and an accompanying book co-authored with Philip Gourevitch, will come in. Through interviews and disturbing reconstructions, he creates a nightmarish picture of conditions at Abu Ghraib.
Some of the practices for which the “bad apples” took the blame were already in place when Harman arrived. In letters sent back to her lesbian lover, Kelly, in America, and which Morris cites in the film, she describes how, upon her arrival at the prison, she was confronted by the sight of men who had been stripped naked and forced to stand in stress positions for long periods of time, with cement bags over their heads.
“She didn’t create any of that,” says Morris. “She took pictures of it.” The images look like torture to him, yet they were defined by the US military as standard operating procedure. “You’re talking about a world that has gone mad,” he says. “That is much closer to bedlam than what I envision the world of a democracy to be.” Sabrina cuts an ambiguous figure in the film. At times she describes herself as crime-scene reporter/forensic photographer, and at other times she is a participant (we see her next to a corpse with her thumbs up and smiling). Sometimes she empathises with the prisoners; at other times she seems inured to their suffering.
This is typical of Morris’s film-making, which never tells the viewer how to think. It is an approach that got him into trouble, however, when he made a film about Holocaust-denier Fred Leuchter. The original version included only a lengthy interview with Leuchter, and when Morris showed it to students at Harvard University, some said afterwards that they believed his subject’s theories, while others regarded Morris “as a Nazi, albeit a Jewish Nazi”. Shaken, the director added other interviews to refute Leuchter.
When Standard Operating Procedure screened at the Berlin Film Festival in February, a journalist
remarked that it was not clear whether any of Morris’s subjects took responsibility for their actions. That was not the point, says the director. “I did not interview people for the purpose of getting them to confess or to express sorrow or remorse. I wanted to tell a story about pictures.” Answering a similar question in America recently, Morris quipped: “I’m a Jewish boy from Long Island, I’m not a Catholic priest.”
The people he considers to be really guilty for what happened at Abu Ghraib have so far gone unpunished. Problematically, according to another of the convicted soldiers, Javal Davis, huge amounts of evidence — including pictures, files and tapes — was destroyed. “It’s that save-your-ass phenomenon at whatever the cost,” says Morris sardonically.
He suggests that there are echoes of the destruction of evidence at Birkenau in 1945, as the Russians approached. “One of the ironies of history is that the place was so huge, they created a second archive for the construction of Birkenau, and that remained untouched and in pristine condition.”
Until now, though, Morris claims, no one knew about the “wholesale destruction” of evidence at Abu Ghraib. “I would like to see that made public and discussed,” he says.
“It’s not that I think these soldiers did nothing wrong, I don’t think that. But I think that the people who are really responsible for what happened there are those who are responsible for covering it up and attempting to cover it up. It’s a terrible miscarriage of justice.”