Rory Kennedy and 'The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib'

Michael Fox February 19, 2007

The fantasy that Americans are always the guys in the white hats took a major hit with the 2004 revelation that the U.S. was torturing suspects at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. In the aftermath, those with a more sophisticated knowledge of history and law were outraged by the Bush Administration’s defense of its reinterpretation of the Geneva Convention, which had cleared the way for such practices. In her chilling new documentary, “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib,” filmmaker Rory Kennedy interviews former soldiers and detainees to find out what went on inside the prison walls. But she also talks with historians, journalists and former Justice Dept. attorney John Yoo-an author and defender of the Administration’s post-9/11 view of the Geneva guidelines-to call into question the government’s defense that some renegade MPs were entirely to blame for the scandal. “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib,” which premiered in competition at Sundance last month, received a brief Academy Award-qualifying run at the Roxie in early February and a screening at Fort Mason’s Cowell Theatre cosponsored by HBO and the World Affairs Council of Northern California. I spoke with Kennedy, the youngest child of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, in the Cowell foyer while the film unspooled. “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib” premieres Thurs., Feb. 22 on HBO, and repeats numerous times in the next month.

SF360: Wasn’t this story covered to a certain degree by the national media? What was the impetus for you to take it on?

Rory Kennedy: I think that the national media had covered this issue, but to me there was something about the photos coming out that kind of took the oxygen out of the room. There was the initial response to the images but there wasn’t really thoughtful reflection on exactly what happened. And what we were hearing at the time — and continue to hear today — is that this was “nine bad apples on the night shift” and this was “Animal House,” that this was really about individuals behaving badly. What I found — mind you, when I went into this my intention was to do kind of a psychological portrait of the perpetrators. So I didn’t have the intention of doing more of an investigative piece. But what I found once I was able to get access to a lot of the perpetrators-as well as the victims, and many of the eyewitnesses-is that when I asked them, “Why did you do this?,” they all said the same thing, which is, “I did it because I was told to do it.” It became clear that I needed to change the focus of the film to be more investigative, and look into this issue of were these people told to do this, and if so by whom and when and what were the circumstances. So I think the end result is a film that both deals with the psychology of being involved in this type of abuse but also looks into the policies that were put into place and the people who were in positions of authority who authorized it.

SF360: Do you feel that your job as a documentary filmmaker is to fill in the gaps that TV news once filled?

Kennedy: I do, in part. I do consider myself a journalist, to a certain degree. I think it’s unfortunate that you do have to see my film to get a lot of information that should be on the front pages of the newspaper, and the breaking stories of the local and national news. But unfortunately we’re instead hearing about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and we’re not getting into a lot of the substance. And I think there’s a real hunger, as a result, for that type of information, which is why, in part, documentaries are so popular today. Because there really isn’t that kind of information being offered by the national news.

SF360: Do you have a specific interviewing technique or approach that you’ve developed that encourages people to open up? To the degree they do, because one of the fascinating things about your film is how disconnected some of the MPs are from what they did.

Kennedy: Right. I don’t feel like I have a quote-unquote technique. I try to be present in an interview and listen to people. And also honest with who I am and where I’m sitting, and provide full disclosure so that there’s a trust that’s built up throughout the course of an interview. I mean, it’s not unlike how I deal with people, right? Obviously, the follow-up questions are the most important and insightful. I start general and then follow up. “Well, why do you feel that way?” or “How did this happen exactly?” [or] “What was going on in your head?” You try to get people to paint a picture of what was happening at the time. And in order for them to do that they have to go beyond just the words, ‘cause a lot of them have talked about this before and have narratives in their own head that they’ve rehearsed over and over again. So you try to come up with new angles or new ways to talk about things so that they’re actually thinking about it as they say it.

SF360: Recreating the experience.

Kennedy: As opposed to using rehearsed words.

SF360: Right. Where did you interview the former detainees, and what were those sessions like?

Kennedy: Well, those were very difficult interviews, emotionally. We were originally going to do them in Iraq, but the detainees didn’t feel it was safe in Iraq. So we arranged for them to fly to Jordan, and they were detained at the airport and told they were on a security list and weren’t allowed out of the country. Then we arranged for them to fly to Turkey, and they were able to get into Turkey but they were detained at the airport. I mean, as though these guys haven’t been through enough, right? Anyway, we were able to get them out of the airport and we ended up interviewing them in a hotel in Istanbul.

SF360: What was going on in your head during those interviews?

Kennedy: I’ve done a lot of projects that relate to international human rights. They’re telling these stories and they’re so horrendous, and it makes you feel that the photographs are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what happened to these guys. And then I’m just hit with this sensation of “I can’t believe Americans, and America, did this to these guys.” This is America! We’re not supposed to do this. We’re supposed to fight against dictators who do this kind of thing. It was just sadness about what we’ve done to these individuals, but to think that we came in to liberate these poor souls, who were completely innocent and did nothing! And were taken out of their homes in front of their families and humiliated and then taken into this prison and tortured. It’s just horrific.

SF360: The film focuses on what was done to the men, but not the Iraqi women and children in Abu Ghraib.

Kennedy: With the women and children, there have been rumors that it was taken further and there were cases where people were raped. But I didn’t get any confirmation of that myself, which does not mean it didn’t happen, ‘cause it was not an issue that I explored very deeply. But what happened, as far as I can tell, the women and the children were used in the torture of the male family members. The [MPs] would say, “We’re gonna go rape your wife” or “We’re gonna go torture your child.” A number of people talk about that in the film.

SF360: You employ a straightforward aesthetic approach that lets the material speak for itself. Talk about your approach.

Kennedy: That was very intentional, in part because I felt with this issue there had been so much misinformation out there in the world. And, obviously, I do come from a political family and I really didn’t want this to feel like a partisan film and kind of a lefty film. I wanted it to be experienced as here are the facts of the matter. Everything in this film is absolutely true. There’s nothing sensationalist about it. There’s no narrator telling you what to think. There’s no personal narrative coming from me telling you what to think. It’s really laying down the facts, letting the Administration speak for itself, letting the documents speak for the policies that were put into place and letting the MPs talk from their perspective and the detainees from theirs. And that’s the film. Nobody can go in there and say, “Wait a second, you made this up,” or “This fact isn’t right,” or “This is just your opinion.” Everything in there is absolutely, a hundred percent true. And that’s all you need. Unfortunately, I think [it] presents a pretty sad picture of what’s happened to this country because of, in part, the policies that have been put into place.

SF360: What are your reflections on the film coming out at this point in time, with Rumsfeld gone but an escalation in the works?

Kennedy: I’m more hopeful with the changes in the 2006 election, both the change in the Department of Defense as well as in Congress, because what that does is put a new leadership in place. There’s more promise that something will be done. And there are people within the leadership who have expressed their deep concern about what happened at Abu Ghraib.and that [it] has not been fully investigated. So I’m hopeful that there will be a more thoughtful, 9/11-style commission that comes out of this, and reports on Abu Ghraib. Also, it’s not just about looking backwards at what happened but looking ahead, because I think there were a lot of policies put in place after 9/11 that contributed to Abu Ghraib but are still in place. And I’m deeply concerned that without addressing those policies another Abu Ghraib will happen, and then a lot of the issues that are raised in the film will continue to exist.

SF360: Last question: Have you found that your last name is an advantage or a disadvantage in terms of being a journalist and a documentary filmmaker, and dealing with social issues and human rights?

Kennedy: I think in large part it’s been advantageous. Certainly a lot of people who are the subjects of [my] films are more open to talking to me because they have, perhaps, greater trust. It’s not something I talk about, so there are some people [I interview] who know who I am and some people who don’t. But it probably wasn’t that useful in trying to get the Administration to talk to me in this film. I did approach them and they did say no-people in the Administration as well as higher-ups in the military-[and] they may not have wanted to talk to anybody. Who wants to really talk about Abu Ghraib? But they may also have felt that I was going to do a more partisan film, and they didn’t want to be involved in that. So I think there are probably some cases where it works against me. But in large part I think it’s helpful.