(2008) dir. Errol Morris
It surprised me when director Errol Morris’ latest film, Standard Operation Procedure, about the scandal at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, came and went from theaters in a blink of an eye, even here in San Francisco. I mean, Errol Morris is one of the most notable documentary filmmakers in America in the past 25 years, with films like: The Thin Blue Line (1988), Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999), and his previous film, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003), and addressing one of the most shocking images to rise out of the Iraq War, an ongoing and relevant issue still.
I still don’t know why it came and went the way it did, but now it’s available on DVD. I am less impressed by it than I’d hoped to have been. It’s not his greatest film but certainly not bad at all either. I do have to say that I think that Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) tracked some similar territory, and in many ways was much more damning and wider-reaching. But Morris’ film isn’t a pure contemplation on the definition of torture or the use of torture or even polemic to point fingers at those in the government and military whose culpability has never been scrutinized the way that it should.
Standard Operating Procedure is a question of the potency and representation and meaning of the photos, of photos, of evidence, and what the absence of that evidence fails to demonstrate. In a sense, it’s a fairly contemplative and theoretical precept, that a photograph only shows what it shows, that it does not include its context, the world around it, the non-captured pieces outside of the frame (or even cropped out of it). It’s the type of analysis that is very metacritical and quite deep.
And it’s apt here. For this whole crisis was brought to light via photographic images. The outrage and horror at the torture and nightmare of what was happening there is crystallized in some of the shocking images of naked prisoners piled atop one another, posed with smiling American captors, humiliated, and perhaps most strikingly, posed atop a box, hooded, and “wired” in fear of death. The images shocked the world, I think it’s safe to say.
And the people who were caught on film with the exploited detainees are the ones against whom these images were used to prosecute. These low-ranking military staff become the victims of their own photographic documentation.
There is so much going on here, it’s hard to unpack in a short entry. No one ranking about Staff Seargant was ever imprisoned for these events. What happened in these photos was well-known throughout the prison, the photos were widely distributed, but only the ones who were foolish enough to appear in the photos were punished. So, in other words, these things are horrific, but within the context of everything that was happening (actual physical torture leading to death, for instance), this was a situation of those who got “caught” getting punished when far more, far worse, and far further up the military and government foodchain were not only culpable but responsible for worse things, things that didn’t make it into the camera.
One of the things about the film is that the analysis of the idea of the image and the things outside of the image could have been much more potent. The idea is there, but it’s much riper in the directorial commentary that I listened to briefly once the film was over. The film is focused on the individuals involved and their specific images that became iconic representations of abuse, telling their stories, contextualizing them, young people put into a situation where this behavior was possible, excused, and allowed. That the image of them is also bigger than that in the images.
The image of the abuses there is far larger. But I think the most potent critics and thinkers who could add to film’s concepts are also not necessarily in front of Morris’ camera, including Morris himself. Morris has a military forensic technician who deconstructed the mass of photographic data and helped the prosecution devise what constituted criminal action versus “standard operating procedure”, but his analysis is colored too.
This film could have been much more. There is much more to it, to the issues, to the ideas, to the story. Morris digs, but like his own metaphor of the context and the missing information that exists outside of the frame can clearly be applied here. So much more exists in this concept and in this material. That said, there is a lot here, too, in understanding the history of the images, the narrative of their construction, from the people who made them, who were punished for them, while the rest of the situations kept moving and moving, outside of the digital camera’s ever-more ubiquitous eye.