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.
'The Soldiers Were Reenacting the Essence of the War'
Question: You spoke to almost all the people connected to the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, such as Lynndie England, Sabrina Harman and Javal Davis. How easy was it to get these interviews with these people?
Morris: Difficult. Some more difficult than others, but none of them were easy.
Question: How did you convince them?
Morris: By telling them that this is an important story -- perhaps the major news event of our time -- and that the story behind the photographs was untold. They were the people who could tell that story and it was important that it be heard. You also have to remember that you're talking about a group of people who were scapegoated -- there was suspicion on their part that they would be treated the same way they had been treated by everyone else. But I think on the part of every single one of them there was a desire that the real story of what had happened to them be told and that I might be the one to do that.
Question: How long are the interviews?
Morris: Long. Ten hours, 12 hours, 14 hours, two days. Long.
Question: Can you tell us something about your interview technique?
Morris: It's the "shut the fuck up" school of interviewing. You shut up, you let them talk. And you try to ask stuff which is remotely interesting to them, and to yourself. I try never to have a list of questions. Philip, who has been going through these transcripts, told me something I had never realized. He said: "You know, you say the same thing at the beginning of every single interview. You always say, 'I don't know where to start.'" It's true, I never know where to start. And then they usually say something, thank God.
Question: How could you know if the interviewees were telling the truth, or if they were embellishing their own stories to present themselves in a better light?
Morris: I can't know for sure. We had a screening when I was putting the movie together, and there was a guy in the audience who got really pissed off. He was really annoyed at Lynndie England's explanation of the photograph where she has the prisoner known as Gus on the leash, with Lynndie holding the strap, and the fact that she says that she wasn't pulling him. As if the whole issue comes down to whether she was pulling him or not, and how much tension was on the strap, or whatever you imagine the search for truth is here. Lynndie takes it to a completely different place. She tells you a story behind the photograph, that this wasn't a leash, it was a tie-down strap, that Charles Graner had put it around Gus' neck. That Gus had crawled out on his own and then Graner had asked her to stand there so a picture could be taken. Do I buy that? I actually do.
Question: You had the photographs and the videos they shot, and you decided to add another level by recreating images. Why did you decide to do that?
Morris: This is now the third film where I have used reenactments. I remember someone asked me during the making of "The Thin Blue Line" -- I had terrible trouble getting the money to shoot the reenactments -- if I really needed the reenactments. The answer is yes, I really need them. I'm very protective of my reenactments.
There's this mistaken idea about reenactments in general that you're showing somebody what really happened. I've never used reenactments that way, nor do I ever imagine myself using reenactments that way. What you're doing is you're creating a little world where people can think about a problem or a set of questions. I'm trying to get the audience to think about certain questions about who was where, when, and what did they see. It forces you into a position where you are asked to think about something or to think about something the way I am thinking about it.
In "Standard Operating Procedure," if the idea is entering history through a photograph, if you're somehow going through the surface of that photograph and going beyond, the reenactments help you to do that. They slow everything down, almost, but not quite, to that instant of photography and ask you to reflect, to listen to what people are saying about that moment when the photograph was taken and the circumstances under which it was taken. It's creating a kind of strange abstract world around a photograph.
I think there's this crazy idea, which is simply wrong, that you can only talk about the real world in one way, that journalism has to be conducted according to a certain set of styles. There's only one style here, and that is the pursuit of truth, the underlying reality of what happened, and anything which is in service of that is fair game.
Question: Do you see your filmmaking as journalism?
Morris: I think it is in part journalism, proudly so. When I was making "The Thin Blue Line," I said: I want to make a film noir, and I want to get this guy out of prison. I want to create movie and a piece of journalism. Can I have my cake and eat it too? And I think the answer is, at least in this instance, that you can.
With "Standard Operating Procedure," I made a movie that artistically I'm proud of, and those interviews are the real McCoy. It's not somebody playing Lynndie England, that's Lynndie England in a studio talking to camera, in her own words, telling us what happened in these various scenes. It's the real deal. In the case of "The Thin Blue Line," my interviews went into evidence and stayed in federal court.
With "Standard Operating Procedure," I've collected an enormous amount of evidence in this story. This is one of the best investigations I've ever done. I'm really proud of it. Also in this case I kept saying I want to make a non-fiction horror movie. I wanted to make something that looked like a horror movie.
Question: Does Abu Ghraib serve as a microcosm of US policy in Iraq?
Morris: I'm afraid it does. It reveals something of our underlying attitudes and beliefs. I am a connoisseur of irony, and there were many ironies in this story. One of them was the following: If this was a war of humiliation, as I believe it was, and we prosecuted the war by humiliating Iraqis, often by using American female military police to humiliate them, how odd then, that the photographs of these acts humiliate the American government and the American people, and then cause the government to further humiliate the soldiers who took them by putting them in prison.
The photographs that fascinate me the most are the photographs that were posed, where they created some odd tableau vivant for the camera. It's almost as if in some strange way the soldiers were reenacting the essence of the war on a very private level. I guess that's the sick reading of it.
David Gordon Smith talked to Errol Morris as part of a group interview.