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Standard Operating Procedure

By Adam Thomas

Friday May 9, 2008

If there is one unifying theme that binds Errol Morris’s films together, it would be “how we see.” In fact, this question is almost as important to his work as the stories he chooses to document. His distinctive style, while seemingly at odds with the perceived integrity traditionally expected in the genre has proven to be a powerful tool in his ability to reconstruct and redefine the form of documentary filmmaking. With the traditional view that documentaries should be without bias or interference from the documentarian, Morris abandons such lofty ideals and daringly employs and mixes dramatic re-enactments, candid interviews and extreme close-ups that create tone and mood in his effort to explore the truth. While he’s been charged with manipulating the truth, his aestheticizing of the documentary is merely the acceptance of the myth of the allusion of unobstructed truth.

For him, the point could be made that by simply interviewing a subject the truth is compromised immediately because they are aware they are being interviewed so they might dress better, be careful what they say; they may even lie. Even things such as simple camera placement imperceptibly change the possible perception of a subject. “What is truth?” and “how do we see it?” are tightly wound and inescapable questions for the man who has coined his own techniques and uses a device named the “Interrotron” (a type of teleprompter positioned within the camera lens that allows the subject to maintain eye contact with a video screen image of Morris while at the same time making eye contact with the viewer). And this is the fundamental thesis for a director who, as far back as The Thin Blue Line (1988), combined multiple-perspective reenactments in order to expose the inconsistencies in a murder case that ultimately led to a convicted man being set free. With Mr. Death (1999), his almost irrelevant cutaways of Dr. Leucther only enhanced the idea, supported by interviews with Leuchter himself that he was nowhere as erudite as he saw himself. With Fog of War (2003), Morris’s intimate interviews with Robert McNamara served to uncover the dark truth hidden behind the failings and covert operations in the early part of the Vietnam War. Again, it is the form that allows us to “see” what was previously hidden, an inescapable truth in Errol Morris’s movies.

All these questions concerning “truth” and “perception” may be perfect fodder for academics, but the reality exists whether we see it or not. So it comes as an almost perfect culmination of both thesis and technique, that Morris’s latest film, Standard Operating Procedure, delves into the deep, dark heart of the Iraq war – the political and metaphysical quagmire that burden a country and is ruining it’s people. SOP is the investigation into the cause and consequences of a series of photographs depicting detainee abuse at the hands of U.S. military personnel that came out of the infamous Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib in 2003. Originally the site of Saddam Hussein’s personal torture chambers and execution hall, Abu Ghraib was taken over by the US military in early 2003 to be used as a prison for those accused of being members of the Iraqi insurgency. The premise was to hold them, “soften them up” and prepare them for interrogation.

We’re all familiar with the photographs of Iraqi prisoners, strung up, naked, piled one on top of each other with hoods over their faces behind the cold concrete walls of Abu Ghraib. We all remember the short lived media frenzy that accompanied the pictures of female Military Police officers holding leashes as naked prisoners crawled on all fours out of a cell. The political fallout from these pictures has been a diplomatic black eye for the Bush administration, and the result has been prison sentences and dishonorable discharges for many of the participating officers. But this is not the story that concerns Morris. Far from being a political attack on a failed presidency, SOP investigates why these photos were taken and how they functioned as a depiction of the truth. And how we, as a public, interpret and buy the truth being sold to us.

Philosophically, the notion that pictures capture reality is one that Morris seems to find both fascinating and misleading. Filled with cropped frames and treated footage, the film examines the fundamental fallacy in this premise. Continuously Morris asks us to consider the nagging question, “what exists outside of the frame?” What we do see runs into direct conflict with what we don’t. While these photos are shocking, they unavoidably only function to capture a moment, devoid of context. They are frozen instances, when time, in reality, is fluid. Through dramatic on set re-enactments, haunting images replay the events seen around the world, but the story, sold to the world media as a few bad apples acting on their own, is in reality an majestic effort in damage control. As the subjects are interviewed, a timeline develops – one that offers important context into how low ranking Military Police officers, some as young as 20-years-old, were simply following orders and the lead of other high ranking military personnel. The systematic humiliation of Iraqi prisoners in disturbing, but this sanctioned treatment is made even more shocking when it is revealed that a number of prisoners are killed during interrogation at the hands of superior officers.

And perhaps this is the most unusual aspect. The photographs that seemed to detail systematic abuse were often staged and then snapped in what could be seen as a fucked-up fraternity-like effort at levity. To deny the humiliation would be negligent, but the actual violence largely occurred when there were no cameras, outside of the frame, and out of sight. Regardless, when the pictures surfaced the scandal was immediate, leaving the US’s image devastatingly tarnished. In what was already becoming an unpopular war, the idea that “kids” were running prisons and playing mental games with prisoners for little more than a funny photo sent chills through the public consciousness. For the US military, it wasn’t that these events took place, it was that they were captured in pictures, frozen in time. The result was that those on the ground took the fall for what was condoned from above. It wasn’t a question of innocence, rather a question of optics. It is a devious misdirection that inverts the old adage “what you see is what you get,” and in the case of Standard Operating Procedure, a picture may be worth a thousand words, but the truth is that it’s up to you to decide how to read them.