Saturday, May 31, 2008

Beyond the Frame: Standard Operating Procedure

Janis Karpinski looks into the camera and speaks quickly yet not hurriedly, forcefully yet not belligerently. Her voice is filled with passion. Her stare suggests conviction. Her testimony is dotted with dates, names and ranks. Laying out a case of government duplicity in Standard Operating Procedure, Karpinski sounds a lot like Kevin Costner’s Jim Garrison making his breathless closing arguments in JFK. How fitting. Because while the subject under the microscope is different in Errol Morris’ documentary about the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, the underlying discussion is the same. Like JFK (unintentionally), Morris’ film (intentionally) demonstrates how our emotions, biases and prejudices influence the meaning of unemotional, unbiased, unprejudiced historical documentation. Simply put: Standard Operating Procedure is about how our perceptions distort reality.

It all starts with the images. Just like John F Kennedy’s assassination is remembered through a famous amateur film (shot by Abraham Zapruder), the Abu Ghraib scandal is imprinted on our common historical record through notorious snapshots (taken by members of the U.S. military). In actual reality, these images are just what they are: pictorial representations of a specific place in time, as captured from a specific point of observation. But in practical reality, the images are what we perceive them to be. The first reality never changes. The latter reality never goes away. Our perceptions give the images context, filling in the picture outside the frame, thus giving the images the only meaning that counts, flawed though it sometimes may be.

If a picture speaks 1,000 words, some of those words lie. In JFK, Garrison argues that the back-and-to-the-left motion of the president’s head, in reaction to the shot that killed Kennedy, eliminates from consideration the possibility that the shot was fired from Lee Harvey Oswald’s supposed perch in the Texas School Book Depository. Recent computer simulations, however, indicate that the kill shot came from precisely that location. Thus, we have two mutually exclusive interpretations of the same event, based on the same unchanged visual evidence: One film. Two theories. One truth. And that brings us to Abu Ghraib.

If you haven’t yet seen Standard Operating Procedure, I suggest that before you do you take another look at those unpleasant photos from 2003. Snapshot: There’s a hooded man standing on a box with his arms outstretched and wires wrapped around his fingers. Snapshot: There’s a woman and man in military garb smiling and flashing thumbs-up poses from behind a heap of naked men. Snapshot: There’s that woman from before, a cigarette in her mouth, flashing that same right thumb while pointing with her left hand at the exposed genitals of a hooded man. Snapshot: There’s that man from before, his right arm cocked as if poised to strike the hooded head of the figure cradled in his left arm. These are just some of the pictures from Abu Ghraib, and this is what they show. But look at them. What do you see?

Perhaps you see torture. Perhaps you see abuse. Perhaps you see appropriate prisoner treatment. Perhaps you see sadists. Perhaps you see victims. Perhaps you see people getting what was coming to them. Perhaps you see “emotional release,” as Rush Limbaugh put it. Perhaps you see, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld put it, a few “rogue” soldiers. Perhaps you see the representative tip of a despicable iceberg. Perhaps you don’t know what you see. In any case, you only really see what the photos show. Exactly that. Nothing more. Yet it’s essentially impossible to keep our brains from classifying those photos by one of those above definitions, or others.

So no matter what you see in those photos now, your interpretation is sure to change after watching Standard Operating Procedure. Morris’ film expands the margins of the photos via talking-head interviews with the people who were there (and in some cases in the photos), providing factual context to better inform our emotional responses to the images. Yet even then we don’t have the whole story, and the photos may continue to mislead. If you’re looking for illumination, you won’t find it. This documentary is sharply focused, but it is understandably incomplete: There are witnesses Morris would have liked to talk to but couldn’t. There are key players Morris might have talked to but didn’t. Like the Abu Ghraib photos themselves, Standard Operating Procedure is nothing more than a snapshot. It just happens to be 2 hours long.

Thus there’s a degree of irony to Morris’ film. Megan Ambuhl, one of the soldiers from the photos, might as well have been outlining the director’s thesis when she says of the famous images: “You don’t see forward. You don’t see backward. You don’t see outside the frame.” This is equally true of Morris’ film. Using the same interviewing technique as recently seen in The Fog Of War, Morris leaves his subjects alone to look straight into the camera, where Morris’ face looks back at them, posing questions. His voice-of-God presence is limited in the finished film, and that’s the problem, because as refreshing as it is that Morris doesn’t mug for the spotlight like Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock, cutting his questions from the film leaves his subjects’ answers as vulnerable to misinterpretation as the photos they are discussing.

As anyone who has ever interviewed someone knows, an interviewer’s questions – in their phrasing, delivery, sequence, etc. – influence the subject’s answers. Without knowing the questions, it’s difficult to put the answers in proper context. We don’t know which statements were made voluntarily or which came after considerable badgering from Morris. For example: When Lynndie England speaks with anger and bitterness, is her anger directed at the events at Abu Ghraib or at Morris for making her discuss them? When Javal Davis speaks with levity about “conditioning” prisoners with loud music, is that a result of a friendly rapport with Morris or is it indicative of a lack of remorse over what happened in 2003? When Sabrina Harman pauses at the end of an answer, is she contemplating the actions she just described or is she simply waiting for the next question? How you read such moments will determine how you read these people, which will determine how you read those photos. It’s possible that you’ll come out of Standard Operating Procedure further from the truth than you were going in.

In my mind, that’s what makes the film so fascinating. As much as Standard Operating Procedure tries to resolve some misinterpretations, it also invites us to play armchair psychologist. Take, for example, England and Harman, who in one way or another suggest that they wouldn’t or couldn’t change the events that have marred their service careers and their reputations. Do such statements reflect the heartlessness of evil people, or do they reflect the helplessness of low-ranking soldiers who got caught up in a situation they lacked the power to resolve? Are we hearing what England and Harman actually believe, or are we hearing what they try to convince themselves they believe, as a matter of moving on with their lives? As we try to understand how England and Harman could do some of the things they are caught on camera doing, it’s only natural that we try and understand them.

For Morris, that human element is the primary focus. Still, his documentary isn’t without sobering analysis of the prisoner mistreatment itself, with Brent Pack, the man who first investigated the photos, pointing out the very fine line between criminal behavior and “standard operating procedure,” which might look criminal but isn’t (at least as far as our government is concerned). Then again, if you want to watch a documentary that explores torture in depth, rent Oscar-winner Taxi To The Dark Side, which makes for a natural companion piece. Standard Operating Procedure isn’t quite as ambitious as Taxi, but that doesn’t prevent Morris from his typical overproduction, as evidenced by his unnecessary B-roll reenactments (in slow motion, of course). Like too many documentary filmmakers these days, sometimes Morris can’t get out of the way of his story.

Yet in the end, Standard Operating Procedure makes its point, because when I look at the photos from Abu Ghraib I see them differently now than before. Where I once saw arrogance I now see insecurity. Where I once saw callousness I now see naiveté. Other things remain the same. I still see a horrific disregard for mankind. I see abuse. I see what I consider torture. I see racism. I see the seeds of retaliatory terrorism. But that’s me and that’s now. My perception might change again over time and repeated viewings of this documentary. But forever the photos will remain, unchanged and undeniable.

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