Director: Errol Morris – Genre: Documentary/War – Year: 2008
Logline: A documentary that explores the abuse carried out by American soldiers on Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib.
‘Standard Operating Procedure’ is a hard-hitting doc made by famed non-fiction American filmmaker Errol Morris. Morris has been making documentaries since the late 70s and has since become synonymous with the form of filmmaking. His latest film covers events that occurred in 2003 in Abu Ghraib, Iraq, which saw American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners in a number of humiliating and torturous ways.
Morris’ authorial stamp is made very clear on the film from early on through the use of talking head interviews and reconstructed footage. One of his more famous films, ‘The Thin Blue Line’, was actually rejected from consideration for the Oscar category of non-fiction film because it has too much reconstructed footage in it. The most important facet of the documentary, though, is the inclusion of a great number of photographs that depict all the heinous acts that took place in the prison – all taken by three of the soldiers in the prison of their own free will. In short, the photographs depict naked Iraqi men in sexually humiliating circumstances with the American soldiers smiling with their thumbs up right next to them. Other photographs include a dead Iraqi man in a body bag, a picture of a bloodied prisoner after being attacked by a dog and more.
The photos not only exposed the whole scandal but they were hard evidence that it actually happened. This is something that’s often spoken about in the documentary with people saying that the photographs are an objective representation of what happened and everything you need to know is in the frame. But this logic is then complicated when we discover that some photos have been cropped and manipulated. One interviewee even states that the photographs are taken out of context and you need more information to understand what the photo’s representing. The whole idea of objectivity and representation seems to interestingly reflect the function of a documentary (to re/present ‘reality’) which is undoubtedly a sub-text Morris was going for. The big question, though, is why did these people take these incredibly condemning photographs of themselves?
To be clear, this was a ridiculously stupid thing for the American soldiers to do – it’s like a bank robber taking a picture of themselves robbing a bank. When you’re actually watching the talking head interviews with the people that committed the acts you can’t help but feel they’re confused. They try to justify themselves saying that they were taking the pictures with the intent on exposing the mistreatment of these people, but it certainly didn’t pan out that way. And the limp excuses for the thumbs up and smiles were ‘I never know what to do with my hands in pictures’ and ‘When someone takes a photo, you smile, it’s normal’. It’s as if they don’t understand the grand severity of the ethical injustices they’ve just committed, it’s really incredible. Morris presents their shallow and ignorant defences on a plate, letting the viewer independently judge these people.
There’s quite a spread of interviewees throughout the documentary and it doesn’t take long before you’re able to distinguish who’s smart, who’s reliable, who’s experienced and so on. One that stands out is Brent Pack who was in charge of going through the hundreds of photos and creating a timeline out of them. He is a seasoned, ex-Desert Storm field agent who, from experience, tells us that the ethics and rules during war time become ‘fuzzy’. He explains that these soldiers were being shelled day in and day out whilst they witnessed fellow soldiers come back scarred from the horrors of war. The anxiety and frenzy of war clearly resulted in contempt towards anything Iraqi and Pack puts this forward as a sort of quasi-justification.
But the real shock of this documentary has yet to be revealed. It comes in a short sequence nearing the end when pictures are showed on screen and Pack labels all of them either ‘Criminal Activity’ or ‘Standard Operating Procedure’ (or S.O.P.). Many of the pictures are identified as ‘Criminal Activity’ because they depict a soldier sexually humiliating a prisoner or something similar. However, there was one scenario in particular covered in the film about a prisoner that was told to stand up straight or else the wires that were tied to him would electrocute him. Except the wires had no electric current running through them, so this was deemed ‘S.O.P.’ – in other words ‘legal’ and ‘just’, because it was a means to extract information from a prisoner. This was just one instance of prisoner treatment that was deemed S.O.P. and it’s a truly stunning revelation made by the film. It’s further exacerbated by the fact that some of the prisoners weren’t even terrorists, they were bakers or welders taken from their homes.
The unethical acts committed by these people is the focal point of this film but I feel that Morris wants the headline to be that some of these things are actually permitted by the U.S. military. I can’t help but feel that’s the take-home truth from this documentary. Overall, this film really hits you in the jaw with some excruciatingly heavy subject matter but it’s worth it by how well-crafted, expositional, and informative it is.