Errol Morris on Abu Ghraib

An interview with the filmmaker

Errol Morris is widely considered to be one of the best American filmmakers, a reputation that is especially impressive considering that he works in the ghettoized genre of the documentary. The Fog of War (2003) won him an Oscar, and The Thin Blue Line (1988) accomplished an even more notable feat: it got an innocent man off death row. Recently, Morris launched Zoom, an ambitious series of essays for the New York Times Web site that examines the ability of photographs to reveal truths about the world. He explores similar terrain in his upcoming film, Standard Operating Procedure, investigating the notorious Abu Ghraib photographs and the incidents they portray. (The 1.5 million words of interview transcript he amassed from soldiers and the Army Criminal Investigation Division (cid) will also serve as raw material for a book by the same name, which Morris is writing with Philip Gourevitch, the author and Paris Review editor.)

Morris, whether his subject is a former secretary of defense, a lion tamer, or an operator of a pet cemetery, is a master of getting people to listen—so when he enters a reportorial minefield as fraught as Abu Ghraib’s, journalists would do well to pay attention. Michael Meyer sat down with Morris in his Cambridge, Massachusetts, office to discuss photography, journalism, and the strangely overlooked fact that there is a real world out there. (A video clip of the interview is located here.

Michael Meyer: In a very real sense, it was the genre of photography that gave birth to Abu Ghraib, at least as a public scandal. What role did photography play in the way you constructed Standard Operating Procedure?

Errol Morris:

MM: Was the film motivated by frustration at how Abu Ghraib played out in the media? Did you feel that a part of the story was being left out, and the task had somehow fallen to you?

EM: I don’t know that the task fell to me, because I don’t want to be grandiose about it, but I wonder why the ball got dropped here. It interests me that both the left and the right didn’t think it was necessary to look beyond the pictures. The left thinks: “This is the hand of Cheney and Rumsfeld, who created policies and forced these kids to do what they did.” The right thinks: “Animal House on the night shift, high school kids gone crazy.”

MM: So you think that the reason the ball was dropped had a lot to do with the photographs themselves?

EM: I think that the photographs served as a cover-up as well as an exposé. That is one of the things that’s truly fascinating about them. They gull you into thinking that you know everything there is to know. This is the bad stuff—look at it; here’s the ocular proof; here’s the image. I started to think of biography and history, and how they’re most often written. People start at the beginning, they go through the middle, and they come to the end. There’s something truly insufferable about it, because often I feel I’m going through some kind of routine and I don’t know why. Just the mere fact of ordering stuff chronologically is supposed to be good enough, it’s supposed to express causation. But what if you could do history in a completely different way? What if you entered history through something really, really specific, like a moment in time and a specific place, picked almost at random? What if you could enter history through a photograph?

MM: How did you go about employing your film as a remedy for some of the inherent problems with photography, some of which you just mentioned?

EM: It’s taking a photograph and providing context for it any way you can. Talking to the people who took the photograph. There are literally thousands upon thousands of Abu Ghraib photographs; you can just spread them out on a table in a big pile. Then it’s a matter of recovering a narrative from that big pile—ordering the photographs, contextualizing the photographs, trying to understand what they are photographs of.

MM: What role does your use of reenactments play in encouraging an audience to enter into the photographs?

EM: The reenactments are designed to facilitate that process of going back there in the mind. There’s a line that I very much liked years and years ago from the philosopher R.G. Collingwood, who wrote that history was a reenactment of the past in the mind.

MM: If the reenactments are designed to take the audience into the scene, are they striving to be literal?

EM: No, they’re not striving to be literal. In fact, I avoided shooting them in that way. Often they’re fragmentary. Often they show certain details that you want to think about. Were the wires put on [Gilligan] so the photograph could be taken, and then removed? What was the purpose of the wires? I’ve tried to include enough material to give you something to think about, and to include enough material that no one has seen before, or thought about before. It’s a way of adding clarity. Usually visuals are designed to stop us from thinking, not to encourage us to think. I’m very fond of pointing out to people that reality is reenacted inside of our skulls routinely. That’s how we know about the world. We walk around in the world; the world isn’t walking around in us.

MM: I understand that you are also putting together a Web site that presents some of what you uncovered.

EM: The cid investigator Brent Pack, who is in the movie, put together a timeline. He arranged all the photographs chronologically, and identified which cameras they were taken by. I was really captivated by this document. I thought I’d use it as the basis of this Web site. You can click on a photograph and an iris opens up—you go into the photograph, and inside of the photograph is context. Take, just for example, the Gilligan photograph, the one on the box, with the wires. I rubber-band that photograph with the other ones taken at the same time, so that it becomes a group of related photographs. There’s software that allows you to reconstruct the room from the different angles of the photographs. Then I have biographies that you can click on for all the people who were in the room, and their own accounts. Plus you can see stuff that I recorded for this movie. In other words, you can really enter the world of the photograph. Maybe this whole thing works better as a Web site. I don’t know. [laughs]

MM: Are there parts of the film that particularly stand out for you?

EM: Often it’s how the characters describe themselves, or the things that they say. Certainly when Brent Pack talks about [Gilligan’s treatment] as being standard operating procedure, I find that a powerful and odd moment. He’s sincere, he’s not a bad guy, and yet he’s telling us something that is actually surreal and disturbing—even more so because he’s not a bad guy, because he’s being sincere. Or just seeing Lyndie England and how devastated she was by all of this. I’m moved by it. Call me crazy, but I am. She gives this final speech, which to me is so sad, about how maybe the whole world is just backstabbing and lying. You’ve got all of these players caught in this strange drama. The perversity of it all.

MM: None of your films has been particularly concerned with what we might call balanced journalism. In Standard Operating Procedure, the point of view largely belongs to the soldiers who took the photographs and were subsequently indicted. What is your aversion to stories that employ a more traditional weighing of arguments?

EM: I don’t believe that’s journalism. I’m sorry. [laughs] Take a clear example: I made this film, The Thin Blue Line, about a murder case in Dallas. Is the job of a journalist simply to have everybody weigh in on what his or her viewpoint might be? Or should the journalist find out what really happened? Is it a matter of indifference whether [the suspect] is guilty or innocent? Is it just something that we should have a vote on—as if a vote can determine what actually transpired in reality?

That doesn’t mean you don’t interview people with different points of view, different beliefs, different ideas. Of course you do. You interview lots and lots and lots of people, and look at lots of different kinds of evidence. But a journalist’s job—and I do think of myself as a kind of journalist—is to try and ferret out what really happened; to ferret out the truth. Did these soldiers, these “seven bad apples,” create all of this stuff? One of the things that we learn in the movie is that when they arrive at Abu Ghraib, a lot of this stuff is already in place: the stress positions, the cement bags, the hooding, stripping prisoners naked, sleep deprivation. It was there to begin with. It was there when they walked in. I think that is a very, very important detail. People know very little about this place: what happened there, where these policies came from, whether they were in fact policies, what they were hoping to achieve.

MM: Parts of Standard Operating Procedure show outrage and disgust toward a heavily politicized situation. Where do you draw the line between agitprop and what you are trying to do with this film?

EM: Agitprop as I conceive it is not particularly concerned with the truth at all. It’s merely concerned with advancing an agenda of one kind or another, right or wrong. To me, journalism is an attempt to recover reality. We take in evidence, and on the basis of what we learn, what we read, what we see, we try to figure out what is out there. It may sound horribly grandiloquent and pretentious and pompous, but the issue is what is out there—what is true, what is false, what really happened. That is different than agitprop. The desire to uncover the world, to find out what is true and false—well, propaganda does not have that agenda in any way, shape, or form.

MM:Do you think that making an argument in a documentary is at cross-purposes with presenting the truth?

EM: I keep going back to The Thin Blue Line. I go back to it because I’m proud of it, certainly, but I go back to it because it’s simple. People’s intuitions are pretty clear, you know? Somebody comes up to you and says, “I’m a postmodernist; I don’t care about truth; it’s subjective.” My answer is, “So it doesn’t matter who pulled the trigger? It doesn’t matter whether someone committed murder, or whether someone in jail is innocent or not?” I believe that it does matter. What happens in the world matters a great deal. Why did they destroy the Zubaydah tapes? You know, John Yoo can write a thousand memos redefining torture. He can say, “I’m going to define torture in such a way that nothing’s really torture, so everything is okay.” But then people are going to look at the [Zubaydah] tape, and they’re going to say, “Why are you torturing that guy?” Now, maybe the tape’s going to deceive people. Maybe something is going on, and you need to know more about the tape, blah, blah, blah. But they destroyed it because they were afraid people were going to look at it and say, “Why are you torturing him?”

MM: So again, are you confident that journalism can recover reality in this way?

EM: Our vision is incomplete in every respect. We try to find out about the world by collecting evidence, by thinking about things, by looking at things. You use every means at your disposal. We owe a debt of gratitude to those [soldiers at Abu Ghraib] for taking those photographs. In some odd way, they are journalists. They have provided us with evidence, and a picture—literally a picture—of things that we would otherwise not have. We all live in a kind of web of lies, in a world of fantasy. And that’s the role of evidence. It can sometimes shock us out of that world of fantasy and suggest that maybe you have to reconsider what you believe to be true.

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Michael Meyer is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter at @mcm_nm.