Errol Morris is back in detective mode again in his new film, “Standard Operating Procedure,” turning his investigative skills toward a more contemporary crime scene: Iraq’s Abu Ghraib Prison, the setting of a series of photographs depicting American soldiers torturing prisoners.
Once upon a time, Errol Morris worked as a private detective. He gave up that job a long time ago, finding his true calling as one of the preeminent documentary filmmakers of the day. But the same qualities that led him to be a gumshoe — that itch to dig beneath the surface, that compulsion to find the truth — have served him well as a filmmaker. He won an Oscar for “The Fog of War.” And his exhaustive research into the killing of a Texas police officer for his film “The Thin Blue Line” actually got a wrongly convicted man off death row.
He’s back in detective mode again in his new film, “Standard Operating Procedure,” turning his investigative skills toward a more contemporary crime scene: Iraq’s Abu Ghraib Prison, the setting of a series of photographs depicting American soldiers torturing prisoners.
You might assume he got the idea for the film the first time he saw the legendary and deeply disturbing photographs that ran in New Yorker magazine and on “60 Minutes” in 2004.But it took longer than that.
“I do remember seeing the photographs of Gus on the leash and Gilligan on the box for the first time,” he says, referencing two of the infamous shots. “And I remember thinking, ‘This is crazy!’ ”
Coincidentally, around the same time, Morris had been writing about photography, and considering making a movie about war photographs. He had been kicking around a lot of questions: When we look at a photograph, do we know what we’re really looking at? Do we really understand the photo? Can photographs deceive us? Can they conceal things as well as show things?
“Gradually I started to think about the possibility of doing something around the Abu Ghraib photographs,” he says.
Again, coincidence paid a visit. Susan Sontag published a piece about torture in the Sunday Times.
“That was something that I read carefully,” says Morris. “Then I started to think there was possibly a movie.”
Shot in his typical talking-heads method of having interviewees staring directly into the camera lens, the film also features stylized reenactments of some of the reported atrocities that had been caught in still photos. Morris recalls getting into hot water immediately after the film’s world premiere at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, where it was honored with a Silver Bear award.
“There was a press conference, with well over a hundred journalists from around the world,” he says. “And I got all of these reenactment questions, like ‘How dare you?’ ” The complaint: He wasn’t there, so how can he reenact the events?
Morris admits he was taken “a little bit by surprise” by the reaction. But he’s happy to explain why the scenes are in the film.
“I’ll hear a line in an interview, and the line will jump out at me, and I’ll use it” for a reenactment, he says. Morris did not restage events in a clinical way; these reenactments are quick and abstract: a close-up of an eyebrow getting shaved, a man in a shower, a drop of blood falling on a military uniform.
“It’s an expressionistic way of taking you into the idea, the concept, of what someone is saying,” he says. “It abstracts details from what people say. It doesn’t try to paint some broad, literal scene. It takes you — usually with ultra slo-mo — into a detail, or a particular moment.”
As usual with an Errol Morris documentary, it’s the interviews that drive the film. They’re up-close and very personal, and they let you see inside the person who’s talking. According to Morris, he has hundreds of hours of interviews of people who were directly involved in the incidents at Abu Ghraib.
Some of the most fascinating sequences are with former Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, who stares into Morris’ camera with daggers in her eyes. She apparently had presided over much of the abuse at the prison, and was brought to task by higher ups, whose orders she was following.
“She is incredibly angry,” says Morris. “And as the interview proceeded, she got angrier and angrier. Janis Karpinski was fired and was demoted by Bush. That was the easiest of all of the interviews. She wanted to talk.”
There’s also the better-known PFC Lynndie English, who was seen posing with shackled and hooded prisoners in many of the photos. Morris had to wait a year and a half to interview her because she was in prison. In her interviews, there are tears, not daggers, in her eyes. Morris, like many others, changed his preconceived notions of her after talking with her.
“Here’s a person who’s been blamed for almost anything and everything,” he says. “She’s been described as retarded, monstrous, a no-good hillbilly. She walked into the studio and started talking and people couldn’t believe that she was completely articulate. She expresses herself very powerfully.”
Morris isn’t one to go around naming names or assigning blame for what happened at Abu Ghraib to specific people.
“Some of it, to be sure, goes to George Bush,” he says. “But everything has become such a blame game. I feel one thing really strongly. Even if these so-called bad apples are not lily white — which they’re not; it’s not as though they’re not guilty of anything — they nevertheless were scapegoats. They’ve been scapegoated by almost everybody, left and right. But I have a different way of looking at it. I have this old-fashioned populist idea that you don’t punish the little guys and let the big guys walk away. And that’s what’s happening here. That is something that’s really disturbing and wrong.
“The more we examine Abu Ghraib, and the more we understand what actually happened there, the more we can put the story in some kind of perspective, and move on,” he adds. “But denial is not the way to do it.”
“Standard Operating Procedure” opens on May 2.
Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Fast Fact:
Errol Morris has lost money on every film he’s made. “I direct commercials,” he says. “That’s how I make a living. Without the commercials, I would be a dead duck..”