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Standard Operating Procedure

Film Three Stars
Standard Operating Procedure is a film that really needed no publicity, especially for me to get interested. I am fascinated by strong documentaries about real people, and particularly documentaries that delve into such important events as the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison and looking into who may really be to blame.

Then there was the fact that Errol Morris put the documentary together, he's a leading light in documentary making, particularly investigative documentaries, and so the desire to see Standard Operating Procedure was high. I hoped that the film could shed some light on the truth, and perhaps show me who was really to blame.

Plot.png/StandardOperatingProcedures.jpgThe Errol Morris documentary Standard Operating Procedure looks into the cases of abuse at Abu Ghraib made famous by those photographs that just about everyone has seen through today's multiple media channels. The film interviews the people inside those photographs and looks to see what's outside the frame and what the real circumstances were behind the abuse.

TheFilm.pngWhat is perhaps the most notable thing about the entire film is that it doesn't really lay the blame at anyone's feet, and this is perhaps the most surprising aspect of the documentary that made me give it a lower score than most.

I did expect that it would thoroughly investigate the incident and look wider than the soldiers in the photographs, perhaps tracing it's way up the chain of command to find out who had ordered or taught these soldiers to do what they did, however it doesn't. It does look a little up the chain by a couple of steps, and it does look at the powerful people that came to the prison and toured the site, but it never goes further than those in the photographs.

While that makes for an interesting film in itself, I just didn't understand what I was supposed to be getting from this film, other than a look at the real people behind those images.

Perhaps this would have been a more successful film to me personally had I been an American at the time of the scandal. Perhaps if I'd been caught up more in the events that followed the initial showing of the photographs for years after that I'd feel the film had more to offer. However as it stands I didn't feel that it took me to any real conclusion other than to introduce me to the human side of the people in these photos and to give a sense that the leader of the prison team perhaps carried more blame than the others, and that he could be the key to passing his blame up the tree.

From the opening of the film we see that the visuals are going to be good, something you don't necessarily expect from a documentary, but the titles are strong with the cut scenes of explanation throughout the film well filmed and giving a sense of urgency and weight to their sequences.

The interviews are expertly gathered and edited together. Here Morris really does show a different class of documentary as he captures some pretty key moments for the people in the film both emotionally and politically.

He elicits some very powerful moments and words from some of the interviewees, and really does manage to get them to come across as real human beings who have been put in very difficult situations. That said, some of the people involved don't come across very well and aren't utterly convincing in their blamelessness.

It really was difficult to gauge who was wrong and right from these interviews, and in particular what they were really feeling. Listening to some of the soldiers talk about their appearance in the photos and they things that they did to the prisoners, you do wonder at what point they started to feel something was wrong, if at all, and where their own morality was at the time.

When you see some of the more horrendous photographs and hear their defence, or rather explanation, you are surprised by their words, the offhand delivery, and their detached mannerisms. It was a surprise to see this and to see that none of the characters really managed to attain my sympathies because, to some degree, they all seemed guilty, or at least complicit.

The best example of this is of Sabrina, a woman who was pictured with her thumb up in the air as she posed in front of a dead prisoner. Her explanations of why she held up her thumb and posed were particularly weak; she just does that in all the photos of her, and while she talks of the incident we see letters that she sent home which show a much more concerned and upset side, and yet her manner during the interview is detached and offhand.

It became really difficult to reconcile which side of her was the real side, and it was further confused by a Q&A with Errol Morris himself after the film where he talked about how she had taken a huge amount of photographs of the corpse in a very analytical way, seemingly gathering forensic evidence.

His presentation of her was of someone very much playing the game to get through and at the same time taking evidence for such a time as this. However that just doesn't come through in the film, and I just found myself confused and doubting about her personality and intentions.

Indeed this is a feeling I ended up with for many of the speakers in the film, they definitely have a mixed morality themselves, and this is never fully explored or explained.

Although the film never makes it totally clear, you do get the feeling that these events were instigated from somewhere else and not just made up by these soldiers, a group that seem to have just made some very dumb decisions.

It does seem as though there's a strong chain of command and that someone much higher up is responsible for these events, but it's just a feeling and any chance of persuading the audience of that seems missed as those in the photographs remain the primary focus.

While you do get the impression that some of them feel some guilt, there is an overall lack of remorse and accountability for it all, and instead we end up feeling that they are filled with rage and bitterness at what has happened, and these feelings don't work well in winning over or convincing the audience of anything.

I would have liked to have heard much more from the civilian interrogator who seems as though he had a lot of stories to tell and had a very grounded and real world view of the events, as did the female head of prisons in Iraq. Their time on screen was much more engaging and they both seemed much more poignant and it felt as though they had much more to say.

Overall.pngThe film is a very interesting commentary on the events behind the photographs and the people within them, however I think it really did miss the possibility of looking further into them and finding out who really was to blame, or at least whether they truly were.

Afterwards I felt as though Standard Operating Procedure had much more to say about humanity, the American Government and Army than anything else. It also suggests some interesting things about the way we apportion blame and feel the need to blame and find accountability no matter what the human consequence.

There are some great visuals throughout the film, mixing head shot interviews that really do engage the eye with small recreations that are very cinematic and do drive home the point being made by the interviewee.

Errol Morris has made a great film, but it just doesn't go far enough into these people or the events, and neither does it look for any sort of resolution or outcome. Instead the audience is left hanging and walks away wondering what the conclusion should have been.

Q&A with Errol Morris:
Following the screening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, Errol Morris arrived for a short Q&A, and one that was a lot more dynamic than most, and perhaps the most fascinating I've heard.

Morris did seem to get a tough time from a couple of audience members, both American and one having served in the navy, but it did seem as though he enjoyed the entire Q&A, despite the heated moments of debate.

The guy who had served in the navy said that they didn't have to follow orders blindly although there was punishment if they did refuse.

He does believe that Lynndie has been destroyed by the events, and that is why she appears so void of emotion and remorse, and indeed he believes that they have all been affected in some way by what has happened both at the prison and since returning home.

He said that there's an enormous cultural pressure to hate these people. People in the U.S. argued about the meaning behind these photos but they all agreed that the people in them were evil.

Morris tried to show them as real people and that they believe they were not to blame, that they weren't angry or bitter.

He has been constantly asked why he didn't shoot more about those higher up in the chain of command, and more about the Iraqi's and so on. He feels that he's constantly asked questions about what he failed to do, not what he achieved.

He does believe that by focussing on the small stories it reveals much ore about those higher up the chain of command.

An audience member asked if any of the interviewees broke down or opened up more than we saw on screen, anything to make them more human. Morris said that it was all pretty much on screen and discussed the humanity of how they behaved, particularly Lynndie and how he felt she had been destroyed by the events.

There was a specific question about Sabrina, the one photographed with the dead body, and if she really was as cold as she seemed. Morris responded with some of the most revealing information about her character. He said that she took over thirty photographs after the one we were shown as detailed forensic photographs and without these the Army would have been able to cover up the murder.

Interestingly he went on to say that the film has actually made people angry at him for not humanising the interviewees.

An interesting point that he came out with was that they have the name of the CIA interrogator who was in with the prisoner when he was murdered, and his name is known to the authorities but he was never prosecuted.

Morris said that it is easy to theorise about people but much more difficult to look at them, an interesting thought about why documentaries such as these can be so powerful.

The photographs didn't provoke people to look into what was happening, and he doesn't believe that the photographs really tell us what was going on in the prison.

The guy from the navy also asked ultimately, what the point of the film was, and Morris said that it was to show the human story from the photographs and to show normal people in an extraordinary situation and what they do and don't do. These people are like you and me and are dealing with an appalling situation, it's a despairing story.

Morris said that this story isn't unique, neither are these people. This is a small piece of something much bigger and far more ugly.

He revealed that there was a much longer interview with the sacked Brigadier who was just getting angrier and angrier. She gave one interesting quote which was removed which was after the army publicly saved Jessica Lynch they wanted to find a darker and more evil female soldier like Lynndie.

During the Q&A he asked the rhetorical question around the US foreign policy - has it been to kill one person and humiliate his people?

He talked about the cinematic element of his films and the recreations that he always seems to use when asked if there was too much of a stylistic element in his films.

He said films should be cinematical, and he uses soundtrack, images and re-enactments, although he doesn't like to think of them as such, and he's heard this said about a lot of his films. The interview itself is a verbal re-enactment!

He used an extremely slow camera as this was as close to photography as he could get and he really liked that feel.

These visual shots are to illustrate or focus what people are saying or thinking, to bring forward something for the audience to think about and to keep them engaged throughout.

Someone once said that it's just that he likes unusual images and gets fixated on them, and that's true of the scene of Sadam and the one egg, which is a very strange vision in itself and he wanted to re-enact this.

Errol Morris recommends that we read book by Philip Gravavich.

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UK IMDB Film Details
Filmstalker's Edinburgh International Film Festival 2008 page



Sounds like a good movie and is another one Im seeing at the NZ International Film Festival.


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