Sunday, July 20, 2008

STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE - brutal, brilliant documentary

This is not prisoner abuseSTANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE is a documentary about the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse scandal. It is directed by Errol Morris - the film-maker who brought us a stunningly candid interview with former US Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara. Morris' documentary, THE FOG OF WAR, allowed McNamara to walk us through his decisions to escalate the war in Vietnam. It transformed my rather thin understanding of the period, and my prejudice against McNamara, into empathy and sympathy. Part of the reason why THE FOG OF WAR was such a good documentary was that Morris allowed his documentary subject the room to feel comfortable and be himself. Moreover, in sharp contrast to the high-concept documentaries of Michael Moore, Morris' doesn't loom large over his films. The subject is centre stage and the documentarian is as neutral as possible.

Those sterling qualities are what make STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE a tremendous film. Morris goes straight to the people at the heart of the biggest moral quandries of our time and gives them a comfortable environment in which to explain themselves. There's no hectoring, no crude politics - people are left to damn themselves with their own excuses or gain our sympathy in turn. The subject matter is also similar to THE FOG OF WAR. McNamara is a poster-boy for liberal hate for his involvement in Vietnam. Lynndie England, Charles Graner, Sabrina Harman, Ivan Frederick, Megan Ambuhl et al are even more notorious as the cocky, smiling sadists, posing with Iraqi prisoners in humiliating sexual positions for their own kicks.

Morris interviews many of the key participants, though not Charles Graner, who seems to have been the ringleader, because he's still in jail. Morris wants to get behind the infamous photographs. Photos don't lie, but they are simply a snapshot. You don't see the before and after, the cajoling, the nervousness, the regret or the defiance. So he just turns the camera on the people involved and lets them calmly explain what was going on when the photographs were taken, inter-cutting this with the actual footage, re-enactments, and a subtle score from Danny Elfman.

Lynndie England feels very strongly that she was the victim of the cajoling of her domineering boyfriend. She makes excuses but doesn't seem particularly contrite. She regrets her life being ruined so young, but does she really recognise why people were so horrified? Doesn't seem so. Megan Ambuhl and Javal Davis make exuses too. Then again, they come across as more cogent. You get the feeling that they knew what they were doing wasn't morally correct but that they had reasoned that in "the fog of war" all gloves are off. Sabrina Harman, on the other hand, does seem to regret what happened. She seems to acknowledge that she crossed a line: that at some point, she knew she had done wrong and that she was going to be punished. The only person who I felt genuinely sorry for - apart from the Iraqis, of course, was Janis Karpinski - the commanding officer at the prison. She comes across as a woman of real integrity and honour who was treated very poorly by the hierarchy eager to be seen to react.

Watching STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE is a brutal experience because you are constantly exposed to gruesome footage of people being sadistic and then making excuses. You're seeing humanity at its worst. But what's even more shocking is that, in the final analysis, these US soldiers - some of them very young - some of them clearly under the impression that their behaviour was sanctioned - were hung out to dry. And, after all, aren't they partly right? The photograph shown above wasn't one for which they were prosecuted. No. This wasn't "prisoner abuse". This was Standard Operating Procedure. This was sanctioned. And if we've fallen to the point where this is allowed, who's to judge what isn't?

STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE played Berlin 2008, where it was the first documentary to be nominated for the Golden Bear. It was released in the US, Germany and Belgium earlier this year. It opens this weekend in Australia and on July 18th in the UK.

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