Monday, December 8, 2008

Standard Operating Procedure ***

Director: Errol Morris

When pictures of the inhuman treatment Iraqi citizens were receiving while imprisoned in Abu Ghraib started circling the globe during 2004, the American invasion of Iraq turned into something more than a second Vietnam.
The images depicted American soldiers with huge smiles on their faces as prisoners laid naked on the ground, were forced to engage in sexual positions and in one chilling case wore a leash around their neck.
Torture has sadly been a consistent part of history for as long as there have been ideological or political conflicts and during wartime it has somehow obtained a special category that suddenly makes it un-condemnable.
So what resulted most disturbing about the images wasn't so much the fact that the people kept there were being mistreated, but that the soldiers doing it seemed to be getting pleasure out of it.
Private Lynndie England, who was a mere 21 years old at the time, became infamous for appearing in several of the pictures. When interviewed by Errol Morris for this film her argument is that everything she did was out of love.
With this brutally disturbing confession it becomes obvious that Morris' documentary won't be an extended version of a CNN show, but a deep study about what exactly happened inside that prison and inside these people's minds.
He doesn't point fingers, because even he's unsure of what he will find and this is by no means a film about war (Morris doesn't even make the war itself an issue, which is an interesting point of view worthy of another film on its own) which makes the film a fascinating exploration of human nature open to discussion and further investigation.
Using revealing interviews with many of the soldiers who were discharged after the Abu Ghraib scandal, stylish reenactments (wonderfully shot by Robert Chappell and Robert Richardson) and a surprising, somber score by Danny Elfman the film is aesthetically engaging.
Its power however relies on the ideas explored by Morris who extracts the stories from his interviewees and without recurring to cheap techniques shapes them into intellectual debates.
Great part of the movie is about the power of images; one of the soldiers rightly affirms that without the pictures there never would've been any scandal or controversy.
"All you can do is report what's in the picture" says one of the officers.
What does this tell us about the way history is made? Since the events in society began being recorded, the ones we learn about have become facts while the other side of the same event has remained hidden (not even counting all the events not recorded).
With this Morris isn't justifying the soldiers involved in the pictures (although he often stresses the fact that they might've been scapegoats for high rank officers who not only order torture but allow it to take any form).
Everybody in Abu Ghraib had an alibi for their involvement in the pictures, for England it was her unrequited love for Specialist Charles Graner (often made to sound like the evil mastermind behind it, but perhaps only because he wasn't available for interviews because he's in prison), another soldier says that he participated because he was "a nice guy" and never said no.
Watching the interviewees you often ask yourself if they're justifying themselves or just digging their graves deeper.
The one clear thing about these people is how uneducated most of them are, perhaps the film is actually about what makes them seek out the army (most of them volunteered) and obviously how high are the army's standards.
When one of the soldiers says "we just denigrate them, we don't hit them" you get chills from the way these people underrate the power they're given over other human beings.
"It's just words" says another about the torture technique involving violent screams to get information out of the prisoners. Words however play out a larger part than they want to believe; the title SOP is a tag that differentiates crime from normal army work.
After all it might be a single word that saves them from prison.
It's obvious that the people in the Abu Ghraib pictures have no respect for the power of words and with it they disrespect history and perfectly encompass the Bush administration which was characterized by lack of education and disregard for other cultures.
When one of the soldiers proudly writes "rapeist" on the body of one prisoner, the misspelling resonates as much as the inhumanity.
How can they trust a gun to someone who can't even handle a pen?

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