Standard Operating Procedure
Legendary American documentarian Errol Morris’ films fall into two catagories, political and wacky, and it was with the former that he won an Academy Award in 2003 for his astonishingly candid portrait of Vietnam-era US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, The Fog of War. His follow-up, which won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, is another political film, and it’s without a doubt his most serious – and seriously disturbing – film to date.
Standard Operating Procedure is an unflinching account of the abuses of Iraqi prisoners by their US military captors at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. Drawing not only on his background as a documentary filmmaker, but also on his previous career as a private eye, Morris has built his investigation around the photographs taken of the abuses by the abusers, which were subsequently made public and immediately caused an enormous scandal. Among the most infamous of them is the picture of private Lynndie England holding a leash attached to a naked and prone prisoner.
Using his self-patented ‘Interrotron’ (a device which facilitates the questioning of subjects face-to-face without the questioner coming between them and the camera), Morris allows England and her fellow squadies to tell their side of the story. That they see themselves as victims of and scapegoats for a badly mis-managed war has provoked criticism of Morris for being too sympathetic to his subjects, who have, after all, committed acts of torture. But although Morris confines his investigation to Abu Ghraib (partially recreated with some gruesome dramatic re-enactments), the film clearly makes the point that what went on there was sanctioned, implicitly and explicitly, by military command and by the White House. What’s also apparent – and is perhaps the most disturbing thing about the film – is that the appalling abuses committed by these young soldiers might have been committed by anyone thrown into such an insane warzone.
Morris has made a film many viewers will hate, but it’s an important story of our troubled times. As Morris says, the horrific images seen in the photographs crystalise current American foreign policy. And that’s not something filmmakers should shy away from.
General release from 18 Jul.