In Other Words: Standard Operating Procedure

Staff April 30, 2008

SF360 has asked Bay Area writers and fans to comment on the films of SFIFF51. Stephen Elliott reports from the Tuesday night Persistence of Vision screening of Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure, opening May 9. The screening was preceded by an onstage conversation between B. Ruby Rich and Morris.

He calls it the "Interrotron." The way Errol Morris interviews a subject is to speak into a camera. His image is then projected on a screen and the interviewee responds into the camera. It’s like a teleprompter that allows the game show host or newscaster to speak directly to you while reading her lines. And that’s the feeling of Morris’ films of the last 15 years, particularly Fog Of War, featuring former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara: that the subject is speaking directly to the audience. And that’s the feeling of Standard Operating Procedure. The interviewees, primarily the low level military police on duty at Abu Ghraib prison who participated in and photographed the torture of Iraqi prisoners deep inside the war zone, are talking to you.

Standard Operating Procedure is divided into three elements, the talking heads inside a well-lit, cold blue room, the photographs from Abu Ghraib along with some cell-phone movies taken by the soldiers, and recreations of the events the interviewees are talking about. The recreations are left redundant by the real pictures of events. And that’s unfortunate because they slow down the movie considerably, turning what could have been a great film into merely a very good film. For example, when the soldiers are talking about a person smuggling a gun inside and shooting a guard and the guards surround his cell and shoot him with a shotgun, the actual pictures of the cell smeared in blood, the long trail of blood from the cell into the corridor, is more than enough.

There are more photos in this movie than were printed in the paper, and the stories behind them, the iconic images of our time, are fascinating. One gets a particular sense of the sexual frustration at the root of so much violence in the world- the naked prisoners chained with women’s underwear covering their faces, lines of men wearing hoods forced to masturbate in a long row, men placed in position inimical of intercourse, Lynndie England holding a prisoner on a leash, walking him like a dog. Occasionally the viewer longs for more context, but the benefit of receiving the commentary directly from the participants outweighs whatever good the outside commentary may provide.

The story of Abu Ghraib is an old story at this point. A story told and retold in different versions all over the world. The most famous picture, of course, is the man on a box holding two electrical wires. The wires aren’t connected to anything, the man is not in danger. But that picture, with so much unknown, attaches to your imagination, challenges you to create a narrative. It’s terrifying and full of tension and one can’t help but wonder what will happen next.

Joan Didion famously said, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." Most of us have internalized the American narrative of Abu Ghraib and learned to accept its implications. Standard Operating Procedure might push against that deliberate subconcious at the core of John McCain’s and Hilary Clinton’s voting base. Those that cling to slogans like, "They’re trying to kill us" and "Fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here." These are stories a person would have to believe in order to convince themselves that going into Iraq was a somehow forgivable offense, something a person could vote for as a member of the Senate and still be elected president. But I think people those who don’t need to be swayed, who have already decided against that narrative and see the war in Iraq as the greatest mistake of our generation and the events at Abu Ghraib a turning point in our collective soul, will actually get more from this film. They will connect with the film’s deeper statements on the nature of photography, what is, and isn’t, in an image.

The most chilling scene in the film is the soldiers taking photographs next to an Iraqi man who has clearly been tortured to death. The prison guard is smiling, giving the thumbs up. The body is bruised, bloody, broken. But there are no pictures of that man being tortured. He was too valuable a suspect, and the people who tortured him were Americans of a much higher rank and pay grade than the ones who snuck in at night to take picture, the clowns making pyramids from naked prisoners. The heavy stuff wasn’t photographed. The people doing it, the ones who are still doing it, know better than to leave evidence. They disappear their prisoners, hide them from the Red Cross, move them from cell to cell off the books, and do whatever they think is necessary with the full blessing of their superiors. And we know they’re doing it, and they’re doing it in our name.

I was talking to Nick Flynn about this movie and the accompanying New Yorker article. Nick’s been working on a book about torture for the past four years, an excerpt of which titled "The Ticking Is The Bomb" was published a few months ago in Esquire in the issue with four naked Victoria’s Secret models on the cover. I asked Nick how did we wake up in a country where torture was OK?

"You want to know how it happens?" he said. "I can tell you."

"Tell me then," I said. "How does it happen?"

"It happens slowly," he replied.

Stephen Elliott is the author of six books including the novel Happy Baby. His memoir, The Adderall Diaries, is forthcoming from Graywolf.