Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, whose latest feature "Standard Operating Procedure" will open in San Francisco on May 9.  (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)

In American Torture And Terror, Errol Morris Finds Shades Of Black, White And Gray

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

May 1, 2008


Errol Morris sits in a stark boardroom on the second floor of the Hotel Huntington here in the City, just over twelve hours after holding court on an evening in his honor at the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival.  He displays a quick wit during the Tuesday night award night (he received the Festival's Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award).  When a cell phone rings and Mr. Morris's questioner politely admonishes the crowd to turn all cell phones off, Errol Morris jokingly entreats the packed house at the Sundance Kabuki Cinema theater to keep the phones on.  After a screening of "Standard Operating Procedure" (which opens in San Francisco and elsewhere on May 9) he challenges the audience to respond to one question: did Sabrina Harman commit a crime?  It is thought-provoking theater which enraptures the capacity crowd in attendance.  Most stay quiet, agreeing that she didn't.   In the immediate vicinity two or three people raise their hands to disagree.

Moments later Mr. Morris theorizes succinctly -- although brevity isn't his strongest feature -- that the photos of dead Iraqi men and of the sexually humiliating nature of naked men in stress positions with women's underwear on their heads, photos seen in his new documentary, a number of which are taken by Sergeant Charles Graner -- "are photographs of American foreign policy", he says with more than a hint of outrage.  Mr. Graner is currently in prison serving a ten-year sentence for his role in the abuse, beating and torture of several Iraqis who were detained.  Mr. Morris is more than satisfied with the evening, and when encountering him at the Hotel Huntington he is wearing a crisp white shirt and green khakis.  Blue plimsoles shoes with white trim are the footwear of choice.  Needless to say, it has been a whirlwind for the Academy Award-winning director of "The Fog Of War" and he and the producer of his new film "Standard Operating Procedure", Julie Bilson Ahlberg are in the midst of an engaging conversation.  Ms. Ahlberg is talking to Mr. Morris about some of the most recent headlines she has come across that have been written about his film in various publications.  She is not happy about what she calls the "irrelevant" questions put to the filmmaker about payments for some of those who testify in the film, and advises him to change to subject and talk about something relevant whenever the question comes up.

When Ms. Ahlberg is told that irrelevant questions aren't in a certain interviewer's repertoire she appears relieved.  "I wasn't trying to set you up," she says with a smile.  You see, Ms. Ahlberg's concern is grounded in a story that Mr. Morris has told the Kabuki audience the night before about the conclusion of a speaking event with "Jarhead" author Anthony Swofford at a screening of his film at the current Tribeca Film Festival.  "A (New York) Times reporter comes forward and stuck a tape recorder in my face and says, 'you knew it was wrong to pay them.  Could you comment on that?'  I asked him, 'did you see the movie or read the book?'  He said, 'I don't have time to do that.'" 

Fortunately on this day before the fifth anniversary of U.S. president George W. Bush's famous (or infamous) declaration of "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq (May 1, 2003), Mr. Morris himself has time to talk about "Standard Operating Procedure", a Rorschach test of the most challenging kind.  (The filmmaker will say that he thinks that the Rorschach characterization is "an amazingly accurate way of describing it.")  Grim, gritty, cringe-inducing and oddly humorous, "S.O.P." delves deeply into the Abu Ghraib prison abuse that occurred in 2003, with Iraqis in detention being killed or sexually humiliated by American military personnel.  At the table of the boardroom at the Huntington are large movie posters of Mr. Morris's latest work.  He is asked about whether the American public sees the very worst of the painful and humiliating photographs in his film.  "I don' t think there are worse pictures out there.  I think it's a different kind of story.  I think the worst things out there were never photographed.  And that we don't see them at all.  And that in many instances what we think we see in these photographs is misleading."  To hear Mr. Morris say this, and the way in which he says it, strongly suggests that to him it is not the viewing of the photos themselves or their gravity that is really the issue.  "The central question of course is, to what extent are we looking at policy?  To what extent are we looking at stuff that was directed from above, from captains, majors, lieutenant-colonels, colonels, generals and then all the way up to the State Department, the Defense Department and the White House.  Those are the questions of course." 

Mr. Morris has a deliberate and relaxed tone as he settles back more comfortably in his seat.  At heart he is an impassioned investigator, and would be inclined to agree with the notion that he was one long before he first picked up a film camera.  He also is replete with philosophical discourses, which can hardly be seen as a bad thing.  Mr. Morris, who at the Kabuki the other night referred to himself as "just a Jewish boy from Long Island" during a comment he made about the idea of him being a rich person as a result of acclaimed and successful documentaries -- an idea he torpedoed resolutely -- plied his trade at the graduate schools of Princeton University and the University of California at Berkeley, from which he was kicked out of.  (When accepting the P.O.V. Award at the Kabuki the other night he cheekily thanked the film department at Berkeley for showing him the door.)  He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Mr. Morris had directed hundreds of television commercials.  He also directed the introductory short film featuring personalities ranging from Reverend Al Sharpton to Mikhail Gorbachev that opened the Academy Awards Oscar telecast in 2002.  Among all of his documentary films is his groundbreaking work "The Thin Blue Line" (1988), which intricately and through reconstruction investigated the murder of a police officer.  Mr. Morris's film was single-handedly responsible for freeing an innocent man, Randall Evans, from a long prison sentence for a crime he did not commit.

Mr. Morris, who lives with his wife and son in Massachusetts, accompanies his latest film with a book he wrote with journalist Philip Gourevitch, which is also entitled Standard Operating Procedure, and is filled with interviews with the U.S. military soldiers seen in the film, along with evidence, commentary and timelines.  "My feeling is that you could learn a lot by just looking at the stories of these lowly soldiers and the photographs that they took.  You could learn something about our country, you could learn something about scapegoating.  You could learn something about our refusal to ever truly investigate what went on there, and that somehow we can just be satisfied with looking at the pictures and looking no further." 

He mentions that he has seen "literally thousands of photographs" from Abu Ghraib.

Of all the players in "S.O.P.", Sabrina Harman is the person that most troubles the director.  Ms. Harman, one of the specialists in the 372nd Military Police Company, is photographed smiling with a "thumbs up" gesture as she is crouched down next to an Iraqi man who is dead, with bags of ice on his body.  Mr. Morris wrestles with Ms. Harman's culpability and argues that her spending a year in prison while CIA male interrogators whom actually killed an Iraqi man in detention while at Abu Ghraib, escaping punishment for that crime, was reprehensible.  When a less than artful analogy about someone cheerleading a rape but not directly involved in it would be guilty of rape under American law is likened to Ms. Harman's infamous pose for the camera; ergo she is arguably as guilty in her approval of the death as the actual perpetrator of the killing is -- a lengthy answer and deliberation from Mr. Morris takes place.  "I think the question is an important question.  It's interesting that you should mention rape because I was actually thinking, 'it's not an exact analogy' but of course situations where you're asking a victim to testify are clearly an invasion of privacy and yet you would argue that the necessity of prosecuting somebody who has committed such a crime outweighs privacy issues in such a case.  It's complex.  I'm not going to argue otherwise.  I myself -- Sabrina Harman is the interesting example.  I think we could make a different case for each one of these soldiers."

He pauses several times during this response, and then continues:

"Sabrina Harman.  There are three things that are troubling.  One of course is her account of the prisoner known as "Gilligan".  Telling him that if he stepped off the box he'd be electrocuted.  Her saying, 'well it's just words.'  Well, that doesn't entirely satisfy me.  Nor should it.   The two other things -- of course her presence during that night, the night of the Pyramid (the stacking of naked men on top of each other), the smiling "thumbs up" photograph with Graner, and the photograph of Sabrina smiling "thumbs up" with the corpse of Al-Jamadi.   Now, we didn't talk about it last night at all -- an essay that I've actually finished it . . . it should go up on the (New York) Times online page today or tomorrow (May 1).  But I myself kept going back to the smile and the thumbs up.  Now I know that she wasn't involved in this man's murder.  She just was not.  She was lied to by her commanding officer, Captain Brindsen, who said (the cause of death) was a heart attack.  This is according to Sabrina, and I have independent confirmation of this.  She gets in there.  She and Graner trade pictures, thumbs up pictures. 

Scared?  Sinful?  Or sanguine?  Sabrina Harman smiles next to the corpse of Al-Jamadi in this macabre image taken by Charles Graner.  This image is one of many that has troubled Errol Morris, director of the new documentary "Standard Operating Procedure", to no end.  The film is currently playing in New York City and will open on May 2 in Los Angeles.

"Graner's other pictures are just kind of -- what (Special Agent for the U.S. military's Criminal Investigations Division) Brent Pack would call 'happy snaps', tourist pictures.  And Sabrina's pictures, I can't describe them any other way than to say that they are pictures of a forensic photographer taking pictures of the damages to the body."  Mr. Morris provides further background to Ms. Harman, who is married to her girlfriend, whom she writes to.  The writings are a prominent part of Mr. Morris's film, and they were written at the time she was in Iraq and not after the fact.  "Now Sabrina wanted to be a forensic photographer.  Her father was a cop.  Her brother was a cop.  She wanted to be a cop.  She leaves, she comes back -- a little over an hour and a half later this time with Ivan Frederick (who was convicted) they take more pictures.  Nothing really interesting about Ivan Frederick's pictures.  Sabrina's pictures go into even closer and closer detail about the damage to the body.  The last picture, the picture that really got her into trouble, was peeling off the bandage from Al-Jamadi's eye and looking at the damages underneath.  And her realization that this is not a heart attack victim.  This is a man that has been beaten to death."

It has been excruciating for Mr. Morris to ponder the variables regarding Ms. Harman.  The film itself also makes this clear.  Sometimes uncomfortably so.  The film is an examination not only of the American monstrosities of Abu Ghraib but also about the faint sliver of humanity harbored within the persons who committed or participated in and around them appear to regain years later as they look back in hindsight at the shameful and despicable events.  As they, the testifiers look back at us -- through Mr. Morris's Interrotron device, a teleprompter-type device (just like those that news anchors use on television news broadcasts) except that Mr. Morris's image is looked at by the soldiers and other testifiers being interviewed, instead of lines of a written script. 

Sabrina Harman is, to quote Joe Pesci's character almost exactly in Oliver Stone's "JFK", "a riddle wrapped up in a mystery wrapped up in an enigma".  Or at least her actions at Abu Ghraib are.

Mr. Morris has more to say on this after taking a deep sigh.  "She, I believe -- and I don't think there are simple answers, because I don't think there are simple questions, I don't think there are simple situations -- she took the photographs in part as an act of civil disobedience.  To expose the military in her own words, and her letter as, quote-unquote, nothing but lies.  Okay.  But why the smiles?  You can read the essay." 

Realizing that time is of the essence, Mr. Morris apologizes. 

"I'm sorry to go on at such length.  I called this guy named Paul Eckman, he's a professor emeritus from San Francisco State.  He's written on facial expressions, interpreting facial expressions.  And I sent him all these pictures of Sabrina.  And I asked him to analyze them for me.  He said, 'well of course I can tell you that that's not a smile of enjoyment.  That's a social smile.'  And he explained in detail why that was the case.  Then he said something that I find unendingly interesting.  He said, 'you know that when someone smiles at you it's programmed, it's wired into your brain, you have a desire to smile back.  And people see the smile and the picture.  They instinctively feel like smiling back.  They see the corpse and they're disgusted with themselves for that desire to smile.  And they blame Sabrina for it.'  I think it's very, very, very powerful, whatever that smile means.  It has been on my mind for what it's worth, ever since I saw the picture for the first time.  I liken it to the Cheshire cat where everything fades but the smile in the end.  You don't see the war, we don't see Abu Ghraib.  All we see is the smile on Sabrina's face.  I know the CIA interrogator in the room (who murdered Al-Jamadi.)  I know who he is.  I know he's never been charged.  I know that the officers who participated in the cover-up have never been charged.  And Sabrina spent a year in prison."

Some may feel that Mr. Morris is justifying the behavior of Sabrina Harman, but he made it clear that he was doing anything but that. 

"I think this is answering your question -- you can yell at me if you feel I'm being non-responsive.  I don't think she's lilywhite.  I don't think she's a completely uncompromised character in this story.  But if you compare what her crimes are compared to the guy who murdered Al-Jamadi?  Compared to the people who relaxed torture policies, interrogation policies that essentially gave permission for all of this to happen.  Encouragement for all of this to happen.  The people who sent an ill-equipped, under-trained army to Iraq and essentially set the stage for a disastrous misuse of our military -- Sabrina Harman has effectively been blamed for a lot of things, but you're just not going to convince me that this young woman in the military is the culprit."

Errol Morris sits back again, folds his arms and smiles.  Case closed. 

"I'm terribly sorry", he adds laughing.

Audio excerpts of  the Popcorn Reel conversation with documentary filmmaker Errol Morris will appear here tomorrow (May 2). 

"Standard Operating Procedure" is playing now in New York City and opens tomorrow in Los Angeles.  The film opens in San Francisco and other additional select cities in the U.S. on May 9 and beyond.  The film is released by Sony Pictures Classics and a review of the film will appear here next weekend.

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  2008.  All Rights Reserved.


Home   Features   News   Movie Reviews  Audio Lounge  Awards Season  The Blog Reel  YouTube Reel  Extra Butter  The Dailies