BluRay/DVD Reviews

STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE

By • Dec 1st, 2008 •

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I was 13 when the Abu Ghraib scandal terrified and enraged the world. I still remember sitting at my kitchen table, looking down at four or five newspapers, all with horrific images on the cover. I recall not quite understanding what was going on. I just knew that prisoners were being tortured and now everybody knew. As the story faded, so did my interest. Every once in a while something would pop up that would rekindle everyone’s attention, but, like so many other events in history, people became immune to the images and the facts became an unfortunate story no one liked talking about. In the new DVD release of Errol Morris’s STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE, we are all taken back through interviews, reenactments and, of course, the infamous photographs, to the horrific days at Abu Ghraib. The film manages to slowly answer the numerous questions that surround the incidents, exposing a much larger truth about corruption that appears to reach far beyond the handful of soldiers that took the fall.

The words of the MPs, including Megan Ambuhl, Javal Davis, and Jeremy Sivitz, as well as, most notably in this context, the two women amateur photographers, Lynndie England and Sabrina Harman, are prominent for their lack of affect. There is no drama about them. Apart for one or two shaky expressions of doubt, awareness that all this wasn’t right, especially on the part of Sabrina Harmon, writing to her wife Katie back home, they tend to speak as people going about what they believed to be their jobs; doing what others did and what everybody knew was being done at Abu Ghraib. The flat expressions make it an even more gut-wrenching experience to watch the familiar faces of England and Harmon as they try to convey their experiences to the camera. All of the soldiers interviewed describe, with remarkable candor, what it was like living in Abu Ghraib prison, their relationships with each other and the prisoners, and the events and tensions surrounding those incidents depicted in the photographs. It all paints a picture of the prison as a dark and stifling environment, one just waiting to bring out the worst in people.

Morris keeps his authorial influence to a minimum, instead allowing his subjects to speak for themselves. He has the interviewee’s stare directly into the camera, as though they are telling you, the viewer, exactly what happened. He takes an interesting stance by constantly asking the viewers “What’s outside the frame?” This question is answered somewhat through testimonies but also quite literally by showing viewers photographs before and after they were cropped. Morris doesn’t take any opportunity to miss a reaction by one of the soldiers. He uses an interesting device called an interotron — a screen, similar to a TelePrompTer that allows the interviewee to look directly into the camera while looking at a picture. It is almost unreal to watch the expressions caused by the photographs; the camera technique allows the audience to completely read their faces. You get to decide who is telling the truth through the fear, anxiousness and dread on their faces.

Along with the interviews are startling reenactments. They are, put simply, beautiful, but like everything else in the movie, disturbing. The effects make it seem as though you are not watching a documentary at all – rather a big budget horror film. While these techniques make for riveting filmmaking, they can be considered controversial by documentary purists, and some might criticize Morris’ detailed recreations of such deeply disturbing events. However, I believe the reenactments are necessary to bring home the reality of what happened. Regardless of his methods, Morris does a masterly job of untangling such a complex, twisted story. He shines a glaring light on one of America’s most shameful moments and, more importantly, exposes how little we truly know about our military’s methods.

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