Academy Award-winning documentarian Errol Morris spent nearly two years pursuing interviews with soldiers involved in the Abu Ghraib scandal to bring life to the notorious photos of abuse from the U.S.-run prison in Iraq.
The resulting movie, “Standard Operating Procedure,” which made its debut Tuesday at the Berlin film festival, is a combination of interviews with some of the soldiers involved and re-enacted scenes. It also makes extensive use of the still photos that shocked the world in 2004.
Morris said making the movie entailed “close to two years of actually cajoling people, convincing them to be interviewed in front of a camera.”
He said he wondered whether the photos “show us everything we needed to know about Abu Ghraib.” He also said at a news conference that he was moved by “my horror at current American foreign policy and the feeling that I should be doing something rather than nothing.”
Morris won the feature-length documentary Oscar for 2003’s “The Fog of War,” a portrait of Robert McNamara, U.S. defense secretary for much of the Vietnam war.
In the Abu Ghraib case, he echoed complaints by human-rights advocates and others who have complained that not enough military and civilian leaders were held accountable for the abuse of Iraqi prisoners.
The investigation led to the conviction of 11 soldiers, none with a rank higher than staff sergeant.
‘This was a story about these soldiers who took the blame’In the film, Morris said, viewers “are told that much of what you see in the photographs was policy instituted by military intelligence and not created by these soldiers.”
Morris said he had spent a long time trying to track down some of the prisoners in the photos — including, unsuccessfully, one who was pictured naked and hooded while standing on a box with wires fastened to his hands and genitals.
In the end, though, the documentary concentrates on the soldiers’ stories. (It’s one of 21 films competing for the top Golden Bear award, and the first documentary ever to run for the main prize at the annual festival, now in its 58th year.)
“People ask me, ‘Why didn’t you try to interview the higher-ups? Why didn’t you try to interview the prisoners?”’ Morris said. “For me, this was a story about these soldiers who took the blame and a story about these photographs that revealed to the world part of Abu Ghraib — and I confined myself to that story.”
Among those interviewed are Pfc. Lynndie England, a military police reservist who appeared in photos showing her holding a naked prisoner on a leash, and was sentenced to three years in prison; and Spc. Sabrina Harman, who both shot and appeared in photos and was sentenced to six months.
Former Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, who was in charge of all U.S.-run prisons in Iraq and was demoted to colonel for dereliction of duty, also appears.
“Each of these stories is complex,” Morris said.
He said Harman, whose letters home also are featured in the film’s narrative, “puzzles me perhaps more than anybody.”
“At times she describes herself as crime scene reporter, forensic photographer and at other times she’s participant,” he said. “It’s a mass of contradictions.”
Morris said he also was intrigued that “all of them had a compass about what was right and wrong, all of them reflected on these things; and yet all of them became inextricably mired in the crimes of this place.”