Errol Morris on his new Iraq documentary
”I worry that I don’t know how to talk about my own movie,” says Errol Morris, referring to his new documentary, Standard Operating Procedure (now playing in New York City and opening soon nationwide). Given that the film is a dizzyingly complex look into the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, we can hardly blame the veteran documentarian for febreling a little anxious. Morris’ first feature since 2003’s Academy Award-winning The Fog of War dares us to reconsider what we think we know about the infamous photographs of Iraqi prisoners. With surprising frankness, former M.P.s like Lynndie England and Sabrina Harman — two of the military’s so-called ”Bad Apples” — tell their side of the horror that went down in that dilapidated old jail compound outside of Baghdad in the fall of 2003.
Here’s what Morris has to say about the provocative film. Because yes, he does indeed know how to talk about it.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When the abuse scandal became public, did you immediately think, This is my next documentary?
ERROL MORRIS: No…I had become interested in war photography…. One of the things that fascinated me was how photographs can be misinterpreted — how we can develop false ideas about a photograph. I thought, Why not talk to the people who took the photographs? No one else really has. Yes, there’s a sound bite here and there on various news-magazine shows, but no one has really sat down and talked to the people who are in the photographs or the people who took the photographs. So many theories about what the photographs show, why they were taken, but very little hard evidence in the sense of actually trying to go in there and find out more about them.
Why do you think that is, that no one had done it yet?
I think there’s a whole number of reasons, and part of it has to do with photography itself. We think when we see a photograph that we know everything there is to know about it — the ocular proof. I have pointed out — it’s now becoming a refrain — that the photographs served as both an exposé and as a cover-up. You look at the photographs, a glimpse into Abu Ghraib, but they don’t encourage you necessarily to look further. You think you’ve seen it. You’ve been to the heart of darkness, as it were, and there’s nothing more to see. I would sit in my editing room and have arguments with my editors. One of the arguments we’d have again and again was this picture with Sabrina smiling with her thumb up with the corpse of al-Jamadi behind her. [Editor’s note: Prisoner Manadel al-Jamadi was reportedly killed during an interrogation with C.I.A. personnel.] These are people not unfamiliar with the material, and they would say, ”What a monster, what a monster,” about Sabrina. Look, I don’t think Sabrina is blameless. I don’t think she did nothing wrong. However, she didn’t kill this man. She wasn’t there when the man was killed. She had nothing to do with his murder whatsoever. She took over a dozen photographs of the corpse to illustrate the injuries. They’re very gruesome. If not for these photographs, we would have no real evidence of what happened to al-Jamadi. The person or persons who committed that murder have never been charged, let alone punished, and yet Sabrina spent a year in prison. Why is it that when we look at the picture, we don’t see the murder? We see Sabrina, we see the smile almost like the Cheshire cat, but we don’t see the crime.
NEXT PAGE: How George W. Bush might have actually benefitted from the Abu Ghraib scandal
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Do you see Standard Operating Procedure as a political movie?
ERROL MORRIS: It’s not intended to be a political movie, but having said that, it would be hard for it not to be, at least in the sense that it’s about who we are, how we see ourselves. I have this old-fashioned American belief that it’s wrong to punish the little guys and to let the big guys get off scot-free. But it’s not a film that lectures to anybody about anything. It’s an attempt to take you into a strange world and an opportunity to think about it. In a way, I feel hopeless to address the war as a whole. I don’t know how to do that, even. I do know how to look at individual stories in the hopes that they tell us something about the nature of this war. People may not, ultimately, be outraged by torture, but I think people are outraged by a certain level of unfairness. I even have this theory Bush won the 2004 election because of the ”Bad Apples.”
He can say to us that it’s the worst day of his life, the day these pictures came out, but it gave the administration people to blame. If you want to say, Why is the war going south? Why were all of these beheadings [happening]? Why are the insurgencies growing? Why does the Arab world hate us? These are the people.
It’s amazing how frank and open the interviewees are. Who surprised you the most?
Lynndie, because she had been described as completely inarticulate, perhaps couldn’t even talk, might have been brain damaged. I believe she is articulate. She is endlessly interesting. When I first started to screen some of the material, there might be a stretch of 20 or 30 seconds in the interview where she seemed to manifest seven or eight different characters.
Let’s go back to Sabrina, who continued to haunt me long after the screening. I think a lot of that had to do with her soft voice and the vulnerability she expressed in her letters to her wife, Kelly, which you were able to use in the movie. I felt such a strange mix of emotions.
That’s great, that’s good. I find [Sabrina] unendingly complex. And I also have this need to turn these people back into people, to rescue them, if you like, from how they are currently perceived, which is basically a group of monsters. Whenever I feel that people kind of drop a simplistic interpretation on all of this, I rebel. Speaking about Sabrina, you can’t say that there is no ethical dimension here. She’s constantly wrestling with it, the desire to be tough, even though she is a girl in the army, even though she’s empathetic with people she is supposedly lording over. It’s really interesting. I like to think if I’ve done my job correctly, I’ve captured something of the complexity of what is there. I’ve captured the nightmare and I’ve captured the complexity of that nightmare.
How has winning an Oscar changed your work?
Well, it certainly has opened me up to a wider audience. The importance of an Oscar, aside from the personal satisfaction of winning one, is the fact that you can bring your work to more people. That’s great.
NEXT PAGE: Standard Operating Procedure‘s Clint Eastwood connection
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Feature films about the war have not fared well so far. How do you feel about how this might affect your film?
ERROL MORRIS: I don’t know. I want the movie to be seen by the widest possible audience. And I hope that the movie will be judged on its own merits, rather than as a film in a certain category. I think it’s a movie that does something no other film really has done. The closest to it, oddly enough, is Clint Eastwood’s [Letters from Iwo Jima, which] tried to address the idea of a photograph and its interpretation, taking the famous Rosenthal photograph of raising a flag at Mount Suribachi.
What are you doing next?
I keep thinking that I should make a [dramatic] feature. I have a project I’ve been talking about doing with Participant [Productions]. This would be a hybrid project, part documentary, part [dramatic] feature. I’d like to go on with it. I kinda still like doing this. Go figure. [Laughs] Someone who pounds his head against the wall.
You just need your friend Werner Herzog to say he’ll eat his shoe again, to motivate you [as was chronicled in the 1980 documentary short film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe].
Aww…. [Laughs] He always tells me I’m much, much, much too slow, that I should stop thinking so much and just make more stuff. And he’s probably right.
Well, that’s not really fair, since he’s so super-humanly prolific. Do you have a premise for the hybrid project?
Oh yeah. There was a photograph that I found, and if you could imagine: You walk through the photograph into the reality that it depicts. These photographs are bizarre. They were taken in 1892 on a remote island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, close to 1,000 miles from Honolulu. Think of it this way: The way we normally like to tell historical stories is we set a stage, we make an argument, we show the antecedents, we arrive at the consequence. What if you could do away with all of that and just enter history through something specific, like a photograph? The photographs on this island show this sea of Albatross eggs as far as you could see. [Laughs] The picture is so strange you have to ask yourself, What am I looking at? When was this taken? What is this? There were a couple of people in the photograph and we found out who they were. We found out who took the photograph. And we started to enter into this world, and this world emerged that is so insane and so interesting that I’ve been captivated by it. What can I say?
Hmm…. Okay, I’m trying to wrap my head around this concept…
Likewise! [Laughs] It becomes a story about a number of these characters, in that traditional sense. It’s an excursion into the past that kind of brings us into the present.
When can we expect that, then?
Well let’s see. I hope soon. I’m trying to take Werner’s advice: Work faster.