Standard Operating Procedure

Standard Operating Procedure

***

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Errol Morris's documentary about the now infamous photos taken by soldiers at the bottom of the ladder in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq all feels rather after the event, considering it explores much the same ground as Rory Kennedy's, in many ways, superior documentary, Ghosts Of Abu Ghraib on the same issue, which premiered at Sundance in 2007, while also touching on the subject of US torture - explored more fully in Alex Gibney's Taxi To The Dark Side.

Kennedy built her film by talking to all those directly involved and couching the whole story within the framework of documentation received from above and the arrival of Geoffrey Miller, reportedly sent to "Gitmo-ize" the prison. Morris, on the other hand, goes down the 're-enactment' road - although in a Q&A after the screening he prefers to refer to this as 'illustration'.

Copy picture

The result feels comparatively overwrought. The sight of cards with the faces of 'wanted' Iraqis cascading in a balletic fashion onto a table top or a drop of blood falling gloopily from the face of a beaten inmate is certainly artistic and deliberately provocative, but it hardly adds anything to a story already told. The testimony of those who speak - from Lynndie England (famous for the photo where a prisoner is held on a dog lead) to Sabrina Harman (who was snapped smiling and giving a thumb's up gesture over a dead body) to the then commander of the prison Janis Karpinski and the investigator who pieced together the timeline of the photographs is compelling but the reconstructions come across as unecessarily sensational, when the cold hard facts of the matter - that young, impressionable and, in many respects, not very bright troops have been hung out to dry as scapegoats - stand up perfectly well on their own as Kennedy's investigation proved.

Danny Elfman's score - which sounds as though it has just escaped from a Tim Burton film - is also overpowering, its tone trying to ramp up the ante, when, in fact, the maximum stake has already been reached thanks to the candid testimony of those involved.

Morris asks questions, but in a gentle manner. Those who have seen other documentaries on the subject will know that there are broader issues regarding orders from above which are barely touched on here. Much is alluded to but by confining himself strictly to the photos and the situations in which they were taken, Morris's examination feels like a missed opportunity. It may be difficult to get the chain of command to come forward and go on the record, but some indication that attempts were made to do this would not go amiss.

Morris says his documentary was being shot before Kennedy's and I have no reason to doubt that work had begun, but here the interviewees seem more polished, more practiced in the telling of their stories, than the still shell-shocked testimony which appeared in Ghosts. Morris has certainly achieved a gloss that Kennedy's previous work lacked but at a cost to the factual content.

Reviewed on: 27 Apr 2008
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Errol Morris' documentary on the infamous photographs at Abu Ghraib prison.
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Festivals:

EIFF 2008
Tribeca 2008

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