Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Standard Operating Procedure, Errol Morris, 2008

The latest installment in Errol Morris’ ceaseless quest for the truth investigates the infamous Abu Ghraib prison photos, delving deeper into the story than others might have dared—or even thought—to tread. One of the most severe condemnations of the photographs in question is not simply the torment that the inmates are being subjected to, but the fact that their captors are smiling and giving the cameraman the thumbs-up. But Sabrina Harman, one of the women featured in these photographs, claims that she was trying to document the atrocities being practiced in the prison, fearing no one would believe her if she did not provide some physical evidence. As for the cheery demeanor, she states that she simply didn’t know what else to do with her hands, that she automatically did what you’re supposed to do when being photographed: smile and say cheese.

This seems to me an oversimplified and implausible assertion, especially after noting that in a letter to her wife, Sabrina writes that “The dead guy didn’t bother me, even took a picture with him doing the thumbs-up. But that’s when I realized it wasn’t funny anymore, that this guy had blood in his nose.”—which would imply that she had at one point thought it was funny. In his New York Times blog Zoom, Morris concurs that he’s dubious as to her claim—naturally, he seeks the expertise of Paul Ekman, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, and expert on facial expressions. Upon studying a photograph of Harman leaning over a mangled-looking corpse while grinning for the camera, Ekman upholds that hers is not a true smile of enjoyment, but rather a social smile, the kind of fake grin everyone puts on for the camera. (Apparently this is evident in the movement in the skin right above the eyelid.) Of course, most people, upon casual glance, cannot easily tell the difference between the true enjoyment smile and the fake posed smile, and identify the person in this photograph as a sadistic brute gleefully inflicting torture upon her prisoners, as opposed to a moral crusader trying to reveal the crimes of the military to the world.

This is the sort of intriguing observation brought to light by the consultation of a specialist that I wish had not only been explored in the film, but pushed even further—why do people feel so strangely compelled to smile simply because they’re in front of a camera, even if there’s really nothing to smile about? This could have made for a fascinating examination of the nature of photography, as well as significantly aiding in the viewer’s understanding of these notorious images—I for one came away from the film feeling unsatisfied, still not really comprehending why the photos were taken (yes, to document evidence, but why the bizarre poses?). Perhaps this also lies in the fact that Charles Graner, the person whom everyone claims was responsible for orchestrating the photo shoots (he reportedly distributed prints like collectible trading cards), is incarcerated in a military prison and the army would not allow Morris to interview him.

There has been much debate regarding the film’s use of re-enactments. This is certainly not a new practice for Morris, but I’m unsure I can find a clear purpose in the highly stylized imagery seen in the film—impressionistic shots bathed in gorgeous yellow light, beads of water slowly falling from a shower, settling dust that almost seems to sparkle, an extreme close-up of a bushy eyebrow being shaved. These images strike me as too visually stunning for the subject matter within them—not that they’re necessarily meant to mimic reality. In his blog, Morris explains that his “re-enactments focus our attention on some specific detail or object that helps us look beyond the surface of images to something hidden, something deeper—something that better captures what really happened...[The re-enactments] are not asking us to suspend our disbelief in an artificial world that has been created expressly for our entertainment; they are asking the opposite of us—to study the relationship of an artificial world to the real world.” But what is being conveyed in these particular re-enactments? In Morris’ brilliant The Thin Blue Line, for instance, he focuses on a milkshake dropped at a crime scene in order to question the official report of what transpired that evening. What is Standard Operating Procedure’s falling milkshake? What striking image is depicted in such a way as to question our previous understanding of what happened? I can’t come up with one.

Nor can I say that the film gets too much closer to the reality of what took place, at least not definitively. The commentators suggest, either outright or more implicitly, that those who were actually guilty were never charged, that all of the blame fell upon the low level officers whose ill-advised actions brought about severe embarrassment for not only the military but the whole country. The accused claim they were just following orders, that they were supposed to be preparing the prisoners for interrogation, lowering their morale in order to make them more susceptible to the line of questioning they would soon be subjected to. Officers like Charles Graner only prepared them for the real torture they would undergo at the hands of their interrogators—in other words, the idiots who took pictures were used as scapegoats in order to avoid revealing the crimes of those more powerful than them. As Harman describes it, she was charged with tampering evidence that the military had already tampered with before her.

The title does signify a rather surprising revelation that comes near the film’s conclusion: after analyzing the thousands of photographs taken at Abu Ghraib, Special Agent Brent Pack of the military’s Criminal Investigations Division labels many of them, as one would expect, “criminal acts”—but still more are actually considered to be Standard Operating Procedure. According to Pack, it is unacceptable to sexually molest people by forcing them to masturbate publicly, but it is okay to humiliate them by chaining them to a bedpost and placing ladies’ underwear over their heads. Incredibly, one of the most iconic photographs of the group, of a hooded man standing on a box with wires attached to his outspread arms, is considered run-of-the-mill activity. Pack goes on to say that he doesn’t expect civilians to understand such things, but I’m nonetheless going to contend that there’s nothing to understand—these acts were, plain and simply, inhumane.

In many ways, this story verges upon the pith of Morris’ work—distinguishing the truth from what is simply perceived to be the truth. As he writes in his blog, “Photographic evidence—like all evidence—needs to be seen in context. It needs to be evaluated. If seeing itself is belief-laden, then there is no seeing independent of believing, and the “truism” has to be reversed. Believing is seeing and not the other way around.” I only wish he had employed more investigative work revolving around this idea, in the vein of his close scrutiny of a pair of Roger Fenton photographs taken during the Crimean War, the process of which was documented in his blog. But while Standard Operating Procedure isn’t my favorite of Morris’ films—in fact, it’s probably my least favorite—it’s certainly not without merit.

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