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The Photo Op Seen Around the World
By Hilary Hesse
Provoking much controversy, director Errol Morris’ disturbing documentary, “Standard Operating Procedure,” opened to extremely mixed reviews. Though not the first film about Abu Ghraib, it is the first to concentrate so strenuously on the notorious photographs that blew the torture whistle on the prison. In fact, it can be said that the movie focuses almost single-mindedly on trying to understand the images: Why were these photos taken, and what reality do they reflect? What disturbing presence stands behind the camera?
We later identify this force as staff sergeant Charles Graner, who fathered Lynndie England’s child while simultaneously carrying on with his future wife, Megan Ambuhl. In love with Graner, a smiling England poses holding a man on a leash in what has become the scandal’s most infamous shot. Something else we learn is that most of the torture had taken place before the inmates were delivered to the wardens. Again, why were the shots taken? According to Roger Ebert, of the Chicago Sun Times, “the taking of the photos seems to have been the motivation for the moments they reveal.” Was it all done, then, just for the picture?
Some have suggested that Morris’ non-dialectical method made for lackluster interviews of the punished soldiers. Indeed most of them say about what one would expect. However, this banality underscores the film’s unspoken thesis that these “bad apples” (they were thus termed by the military and later, sarcastically, by Morris) were actually just cogs in the military machine. Throughout the piece an invisible finger points upward.
A substantial amount of noise has also been made about the fact that Morris paid several of his interviewees, a practice thought to jeopardize credibility. Others have implied that this is just standard operating procedure when it comes to documentary filmmaking.
Above all, “Standard Operating Procedure” has been questioned on the basis of its blockbuster production techniques, which many see as inappropriate in a film intending to take a grim look at human savagery. An especially put off New York Times concluded that, “Mr. Morris’ epistemological quest has led him to re-imagine Abu Ghraib in the vernacular of a cheap Hollywood horror flick.” If controversy and disagreement are hallmarks of successful filmmaking, then Morris should congratulate himself on the achievement.