01 January 2009

Movielog, Standard Operating Procedure

Standard Operating Procedure, 2008
Directed by Errol Morris
116 minutes

A click of a shutter and maybe a flash of light, and a tiny piece of the universe is captured for a tiny fraction of a second. That's a photograph. Into that tiny little segment of recorded spacetime we the viewer project ourselves, our culture, our own biases and preconceptions. What happened before and after this moment? What was going on right outside the frame? By definition no photo can possibly tell us, which is part of the power and the limitation of photography as a medium.

The most famous photographs of the last few years were the photos of detainee abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison during the early days of the Iraq War. One's opinions of what exactly these photos depict seems to depend largely on factors that are outside the frame -- is what is happening simply a sort of "fraternity hazing?" Is it criminal activity? Crimes of war? All or none of the above? To see these photos now is to delve into a morass of political, legal, and moral gray area; these photos are now documents of recent history, and yet the photos themselves are so devoid of context that it is nearly impossible to gain any sort of factual foothold on what is depicted therein.

It is a mark of the genius of the great documentarian Errol Morris that he avoids many of the political pitfalls that arise from viewing these photos. Standard Operating Procedure is not a political film and does not take sides in the debate over these photos in general, the treatment of Iraqi detainees in general, or the Iraq War in its larger context. (That documentary would be the amazing Taxi to the Dark Side, which deals for most of its length about the details of who, exactly, is responsible for the abuses at Abu Ghraib and at other prison systems used in the War on Terror.) Instead, Morris focuses almost entirely on providing the simple context for the photos -- what was happening outside of the frame? How do the persons depicted in the photos feel about them? What were they thinking, doing? What was going on outside the walls?

Along the way, Morris interviews quite a few of the individuals who participated in or witnessed the photos being taken, including Lynndie England, who claimed that what she did, she did for the love of Specialist Charles Graner. Graner was 34 at the time of the incidents and sleeping with the 20-year-old England, and is the alleged father of England's child. (Graner is currently serving sentence for his crimes and was not allowed to be interviewed by the Army.) Also interviewed is Sabrina Harman, she of the "thumbs-up" gesture, whose moving letters to her girlfriend Kelly figure prominently in the film. In these letters she discusses the abuses that she and those around her perpetrate, and seems to have an injured conscience. Another interviewee for the film, one of the investigators of the abuse, believes that her smiling face and thumbs-up gestures are real, and not faked. It is another of the strengths of Morris's film (like most of his films) that Morris never tips his hand, never tells us which interpretation of these photos that he himself supports. His dispassionate camera merely records -- the judgments are left to the viewer.

This is not the definitive film about Abu Ghraib, or even of the photos themselves. Morris does miraculous things with what he has, but the nearness of the history will doubtless prove that many events portrayed in the film will have more accurate interpretations in the future. In particular, I'd be interested in listening to Graner's interpretation of these events -- in most photos, he seems to be instigating the action. But Standard Operating Procedure is a masterpiece of tone, and in allowing us to understand the larger context of these photos, in succeeds admirably. No one with an interest in this scandal or in the nature of photography in general should miss this film for the "big picture" it helps to provide. In the end, a picture may tell a thousand words, but in most cases its the million words around that that provide the real story.

Rating: A-

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