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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Errol Morris: Standard Operating Procedure

Standard Operating Procedure, directed by Errol Morris. (Film review)
This deep and gripping documentary film investigates the context of the infamous photographs taken at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2003-2004 that show the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers. It is an  important film about human nature under extreme conditions. The film is more about psychology than politics. Errol Morris does not try to assign blame to any one person or any specific group. He is answering questions such as: Why were these photographs taken at all? What was their context?

The film is the result of more than 200 hours of interviews with the soldiers who were either present in the photos or took them. The photographs both expose and conceal facts. And, oddly, these iconic photographs conceal more than they expose. The young soldiers who abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib appear quite normal, not some sort of cruel monsters as one is tempted to conclude from the horrific photographs (although Charles Graner, whom the Army refused to let interviewed, does appear to be more sinister than average). Most of them were very young and inexperienced people who have been thrust into Abu Ghraib, under frequent mortar attacks of Iraqis. They have feelings just like everyone else, and their little dramas intertwine in a surreal way with the prisoner abuse. The viewer of the film can sympathize with these soldiers, even though what they had done is so absolutely wrong and inexcusable.

The torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was going on already when these soldiers got assigned there. The photos documenting the abuse were taken because the abuse was the norm - the soldiers probably did not imagine that one day the photos would be used against them. The infamous photo of the hooded man with the wires attached to his hands (probably the most iconic picture from the war in Iraq) depicted the kind of behavior that was not considered criminal, but was considered standard operating procedure. The torture was encouraged from the higher ups, none of whom were either charged or sent to jail. In fact, no one above the level of staff sergeant went to jail. The female soldier who posed in one of the infamous photos with her thumbs up next to a prisoner who was tortured to death was sent to jail, but the known CIA operative who beat that prisoner to death was never charged. One is tempted to ask: was the crime killing the prisoner, or taking the photos? We see the threads of the chain of command going up, up, up - but Errol Morris does not investigate where the threads go. I guess if you are interested in that, you have to watch some other film about Iraq.

The root causes of torture appear so complex, so intertwined, so much part of the human nature, that one can understand why it takes centuries to reduce the stream of torture, and to slowly get us more civilized, bit by bit. It is a sad film, as it shows a dark age of an advanced Western democracy (you can only imagine what happens in Russian or Chinese prisons). But the very fact that films like this exist, and that we can freely watch them makes me think that we did make some progress since the real Dark Ages. As long as we do not turn away, as long as we are able to take a good look at ourselves, there is hope for us ahead.

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