Documentarian Errol Morris calls his new film a “nonfiction horror movie.” And from the sounds of it, Standard Operating Procedure doesn’t fail to deliver on gore: A chronicle of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, it focuses on the 270 photos turned over to army investigators and tells its story, as only Morris can, through interviews with guards, contractors and a few military higher-ups.
The film, which premieres at the Walker Art Center on April 15 (followed by a post-screening discussion with Morris) and begins its theatrical run at Minneapolis’ Lagoon Cinema on May 23, takes a familiar topic and tries to offer context. Key to its story, says Morris, is what happens outside the photographic frame — chiefly, how do the low-ranking Lynndie Englands of the military tell us more about those up the chain of command who consider humiliating prisoners “standard operating procedure” (as one government expert testifies)?
Debuted at the Berlin International Film Festival in February, where it took home a Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize, the movie has already been receiving accolades, but The Hollywood Reporter wonders if it’s treading on too-familiar turf (covered well by last year’s HBO film “The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib” by Rory Kennedy) and focusing too narrowly. Citing Morris’ “near-pornographic obsession” with the photos, Kirk Honeycutt writes, “The wider context of the war on terrorism, the Bush administration’s complicity in prisoner abuse, the moral and legal implications and the damage the scandal did to U.S. prestige worldwide is not even mentioned.”
Whether it offers new facts, the film’s strength, if it’s anything like Morris’ past documentaries Mr. Death and The Fog of War, will likely be how he conjures intimate and surprising tales from his subjects. Morris famously uses his invention the Interrotron, a device that allows interviewees to see Morris’ face at the end of a camera lens, as well as extremely long interview sessions to get moving material. (In this week’s New Yorker, an excerpt from Morris’ forthcoming book of the same name, co-written by Philip Gourevitch, introduces us to one of Abu Ghraib photo-taker, Spec. Sabrina Harman, whose morbid fascination with corpses — interested in forensic science, she once filmed the severed head of a cat, leftover from her autopsy of it, balanced on a Fanta can — adds context to shots she took of soldiers posing near the ice-packed body of a detainee beaten to death.)
One aspect of the film, re-enactments of humiliations inflicted by American guards at the prison, has generated some controversy. In reply to a reporter at a Berlin press conference who questioned the practice of injecting fictional clips into a documentary, he answered, “With due respect I think this is nonsense talk. There’s this idea… that if I run around with a handheld camera and I shoot with available light that is somehow more truthful. Truth is a quest… something that I have never lost sight of and never will.”