Interview with Abu Ghraib Documentary Director Errol Morris 'I'd Like to See a Lot of People in the Administration Indicted'

SPIEGEL ONLINE talks to Academy Award-winning director Errol Morris about his new film "Standard Operating Procedure," which seeks to find the truth behind the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.


The Berlin International Film Festival has always put a focus on political movies, with recent prize winners including Jasmila Zbanic's 2006 film "Grbavica" about the rape of Bosnian woman by Serbian troops during the 1990s Yugoslav wars and Michael Winterbottom's 2006 docudrama "The Road To Guantanamo" which told the story of three British citizens incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay.

In terms of politics, the highlight of this year's festival is undoubtedly Errol Morris' "Standard Operating Procedure," which tells the story behind the famous photographs taken of US military personnel apparently abusing Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. When the photographs were published in the spring of 2004 it caused an international outcry. They are widely considered to have damaged the reputation of the US government and to have hampered reconstruction efforts in Iraq.

Several military personnel were removed from duty and court-martialed as a result of the scandal. The most famous was Lynndie England, a fresh-faced military police specialist who is seen in several photos, including one in which she holds a prisoner on a leash and another in which she points at the genitals of a naked prisoner.

Errol Morris tries to get at the truth behind the scandal by interviewing almost all of the military personnel involved in the incident, including England herself, Javal Davis, Jeremy Sivits, Megan Ambuhl Graner, Sabrina Harman and Janis Karpinski, who was in charge of Abu Ghraib at the time. The US military refused to allow Morris to interview Charles Graner, who is currently serving a 10-year prison term for his role in the incident.

The interviews provide fascinating context to the photographs, revealing that some of the incidents depicted are not what they seem. However, they also raise disturbing questions about what else went on in the prison. The military police specialists interviewed talk about "ghost" prisoners who did not officially exist and who were allegedly tortured by shadowy interrogators from unidentified government agencies.

In Berlin for the world premiere of "Standard Operating Procedure," Errol Morris spoke about the difficulties of getting the film made, his belief that the convicted personnel were scapegoats and his wish that the real culprits, those higher up in the military and government hierarchies, are punished.

Question: Did you encounter any kind of censorship for this film, at any stage?

Errol Morris: No, not yet, because the film hasn't been distributed. This is the first screening of the film for the public.

Question: Are you expecting any?

Morris: (laughs)  Do you know something I don't know? I have no idea. I make these things, and the effect that they have is not so predictable. I hope it has some effect, but I'm not sure what it will be.

Question: What do you hope that  effect will be?

Morris: I don't know. I guess the dream is that people would look into this more closely and the people who are the real guilty parties would be punished, rather than the scapegoats.

Question: And who are those guilty parties?

Morris: I think there are so many of them. I don't really want to say what I think. I'd like to see a whole lot of these people in the administration indicted.

Question: Did you try to interview those people?

Morris: No. It's not about them. I would get these comments repeatedly when I was working on the movie, "Have you found the smoking gun yet? Did you pin it on Rumsfeld?" etc etc -- as if that would be the only purpose for making such a movie, that I couldn't possibly be interested in anything other than that. It's not the only question. My co-writer Philip Gourevitch and I are putting out a book on this, and he has a line early on which goes: "The smoking gun? Abu Ghraib, if you just bother to look at it, is the smoking gun." You don't have to look any further. There's a comment that my wife made that I particularly like. She's a Joseph Conrad fan, and she pointed out that at the beginning of "Heart of Darkness" you don't hear (megalomaniac ivory trader) Kurtz making a call to King Leopold and Leopold saying you have to treat the natives like dogs. It's not the point. It's an important point, but it's not the point.

Question: Why did you want to make a movie about this incident, which you, like us, experienced through the media?

Morris: The question is: What did I learn by looking at the photographs? What do the photographs show me? Is this a story which has already been told, or is this a story which nobody has told, because no one has really looked beyond the surface of the photographs? My strong feeling was that there was an untold story about Abu Ghraib and that I was in a position to investigate something that had not been investigated before.

Question: How did you proceed?

Morris: The way I always proceed -- by interviewing people and collecting documents. It's really no different from the way an investigator proceeds.

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