Ghraib dig­ger

Er­rol Mor­ris has al­ways made films that are in­volv­ing, un­nerv­ing and im­pact­ful (his first fea­ture led di­rectly to Werner Her­zog eat­ing his own shoe), and the latest, on the scan­dal of Abu Ghraib, shows the Os­car-win­ning doc­u­men­tarist at his un­flinch­ing be

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Cover Story -

‘THE images of war are very pow­er­ful,” Er­rol Mor­ris tells me. “Look at Clint East­wood. He man­aged to make an en­tire film about the pro­pa­ganda sur­round­ing one pho­to­graph of Iwo Jima. Things have changed though.”

In­deed they have. Flags of our Fa­thers, East­wood’s film on Iwo Jima, cer­tainly of­fered some un­com­fort­able truths about that con­flict, but it still al­lowed the viewer to re­tain his or her lin­ger­ing be­lief in old-fash­ioned hero­ism. Joe Rosen­thal’s fa­mous shot of five men erect­ing a flag on Mount Surib­achi is al­most cer­tainly the most fa­mous im­age of the Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence in the sec­ond World War.

The pic­tures that have – rightly or wrongly – come to sym­bol­ise the US cam­paign in Iraq are al­to­gether more sor­did. From 2004, a se­ries of pho­to­graphs de­pict­ing the the­atri­cal hu­mil­i­a­tion of de­tainees in Abu Ghraib prison be­gan to colonise the me­dia. No fu­ture his­tory of the Iraq war and its af­ter­math will be com­plete with­out a snap of that un­for­tu­nate fel­low stand­ing on a box await­ing ap­par­ent elec­tro­cu­tion. The grue­somely ab­surd im­age of a man be­ing led about on a leash by Private Lyn­ndie Eng­land has in­spired car­toon­ists the world over to cre­ate a few thou­sand par­o­dies, pas­tiches and sub­ver­sions.

Er­rol Mor­ris, one of the US’s most revered doc­u­men­tarists, has hunted down the creators of those pho­to­graphs, in­vited them to tell their side of the story, lay­ered the in­ter­views with spook­ily scored recre­ations and pre­sented the re­sult un­der the wry ti­tle Stan­dard Op­er­at­ing Pro­ce­dure.

Now 60 years old, Mor­ris – cur­rently se­dated by jet lag – speaks achingly slowly, but be­comes prop­erly an­i­mated when asked why he felt the need to tackle the Iraq fi­asco. Af­ter all, ev­ery other Amer­i­can doc­u­men­tary ap­pears to have some­thing to say about that con­fla­gra­tion.

“I look at this whole mess – and it is in­deed a mess – and it makes me an­gry,” he says. “Maybe it’s my own moral de­fi­ciency, but I am re­ally an­gry at the peo­ple who ini­ti­ated th­ese poli­cies and this war. And part of that anger comes from the way there has been scape­goat­ing since the be­gin­ning. All the anger has been di­rected at the few bad ap­ples.”

If Stan­dard Op­er­at­ing Pro­ce­dure has a mes­sage, it is to do with the way the top brass have passed all re­spon­si­bil­ity for the Abu Ghraib catas­tro­phe onto the grunts. Af­ter ex­plain­ing how the Pen­tagon cre­ated an at­mos­phere that tac­itly en­cour­aged such abuse, the film ends with a leg­end ex­plain­ing that no sol­dier above the rank of sergeant has been charged for the Abu Ghraib of­fences.

The point is well made. But, in a re­cent in­ter­view with Sight and Sound, the mag­a­zine of the Bri­tish Film In­sti­tute, Mor­ris seemed to go one step fur­ther. In that con­ver­sa­tion, he sug­gested that those who took the pho­to­graphs were “not morally com­pro­mised” in any way. That, surely, is go­ing too far.

“Oh no. Did I say that?” he says with a faint gri­mace. Erm, yes. It’s here in black and white. “Well, I would take it back. I sup­pose the is­sue of moral cul­pa­bil­ity is al­ways a tan­gled one. We’ve all been morally com­pro­mised by this war, and, of course, the sol­diers have. I don't know if I was mis­quoted, but I’ll try and be clearer now. Peo­ple say to me that, af­ter Nurem­burg, say­ing you were ‘just fol­low­ing or­ders’ is no longer a defence. I point out the dif­fer­ence be­tween then and now. Then, un­like now, we didn’t try pri­vates and cor­po­rals and sergeants. We had the high­est of­fi­cials of the Third Re­ich on trial.”

Stan­dard Op­er­at­ing Pro­ce­dure fits very com­fort­ably into Mor­ris’s mighty CV. Like Gates of Heaven, his clas­sic 1978 ex­am­i­na­tion of the pet ceme­tery busi­ness, the film is told ex­clu­sively through in­ter­views. Like The Thin Blue Line, a 1988 in­ves­ti­ga­tion into a no­to­ri­ous mis­car­riage of jus­tice, the film fea­tures in­sis­tent mu­sic – from Philip Glass in the ear­lier film; from Danny Elf­man in the new pic­ture – and shad­owy recre­ations of the events de­scribed.

The son of a sup­port­ive, pre­ma­turely wid­owed mu­sic-teacher, Mor­ris was ed­u­cated in New York and Ver­mont, be­fore grad­u­at­ing in his­tory from the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sinMadi­son in 1969. A long pe­riod of me­an­der­ing un­cer­tainty fol­lowed. He em­barked on grad­u­ate stud­ies pro­grammes at Prince­ton and Berke­ley, and it was at the lat­ter

univer­sity’s Pa­cific Film Ar­chive that he grad­u­ally be­came se­cure in his vo­ca­tion.

Var­i­ous, ul­ti­mately abortive, projects fol­lowed – one on the mur­derer Ed Gein, for ex­am­ple – but it took a meet­ing with Werner Her­zog to pro­pel Mor­ris to­wards his first fea­ture. The great Ger­man di­rec­tor, frus­trated at all this pro­cras­ti­na­tion, promised Er­rol that he would film him­self eat­ing his shoe when his pro­tégé fi­nally got round to mak­ing a fea­ture.

Mor­ris made the mighty Gates of Heaven. Les Blank made Werner Her­zog Eats his Shoe.

“He did eat his shoe fa­mously,” Mor­ris says. “But more sig­nif­i­cant than the shoe was the ex­am­ple he set. I re­mem­ber a quote from Gabriel Gar­cia Mar­quez about read­ing Kafka’s Meta­mor­pho­sis for the first time. Mar­quez said: ‘I didn’t know you were al­lowed to do that.’ That’s how I felt on see­ing Werner’s first doc­u­men­taries: I didn’t know you were al­lowed to do that.”

Mor­ris’s films have al­ways been well re­viewed, but it is only with re­cent re­leases such as the Os­car-win­ning Fog of War and Stan­dard Op­er­at­ing Pro­ce­dure that he has seen his pic­tures make any money. I won­der if he ever felt un­der-ap­pre­ci­ated.

“You have to re­mem­ber that when, 30 years ago, I made Gates of Heaven, it didn’t look like any other doc­u­men­tary. In the very be­gin­ning of film, doc­u­men­taries were ex­per­i­men­tal. They came in all dif­fer­ent forms. Then there was this bot­tle­neck and the form got bro­ken down into ei­ther ex­per­i­men­tal film or film jour­nal­ism. It’s a lit­tle more com­pli­cated than that, of course, but if you weren’t in those cat­e­gories peo­ple did get con­fused.”

We are of­ten told that we are cur­rently liv­ing in a boom time for doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ing.

“There are doc­u­men­taries in cine­mas. Peo­ple are aware of var­i­ous dif­fer­ent kinds of doc­u­men­taries now. They are, for ex­am­ple, aware that some films are driven by per­son­al­i­ties, just as TV news is.” Are we talk­ing about Michael Moore here? “Of course, and that’s fine. But there are also peo­ple mak­ing di­aries and ex­per­i­men­tal films. Au­di­ences are aware of all that variety of ma­te­rial.”

Hav­ing fi­nally been awarded an Academy Award in 2005 for The Fog of War, Mor­ris de­cided to add his own voice to the ca­coph­ony de­nounc­ing the US’s mis­ad­ven­tures in Iraq. Of the last 10 films nom­i­nated for an Os­car in the best doc­u­men­tary fea­ture cat­e­gory, four have con­cerned them­selves with that con­flict. Dozens more failed to make the short­list.

Mor­ris has been crit­i­cised for pay­ing the in­ter­vie­wees in Stan­dard Op­er­at­ing Pro­ce­dure. But, whereas one might not al­to­gether savour the news that the creators of the fa­mous images are re­ceiv­ing a bonus, their bald tes­ti­monies do seem sin­cere and un­com­pro­mised.

The most in­trigu­ing char­ac­ter in the film is, un­sur­pris­ingly, Lyn­ndie Eng­land. Grimly bolted to her seat like a hu­mour­less Roseanne Barr, the for­mer army re­servist, who cre­ated many of the images with her then fi­ance Private Charles Graner, still seems un­con­vinced of the se­ri­ous­ness of her ac­tions. Hav­ing served 521 days in prison, she – un­like the still-in­car­cer­ated Graner – is in a good po­si­tion to put the abuse in con­text.

“I see her as a per­son clearly dam­aged by all this,” Mor­ris says. “I won­der what it would be like if some­one blamed an en­tire war on me. ‘You! It’s your fault!’ In some odd way, that has hap­pened to her. I mean, I feel guilty all the time any­way. Even that thing I ap­par­ently said in Sight and Sound is now wor­ry­ing me. So, I can’t imag­ine how she feels.”

Mor­ris goes on to muse about the way the tak­ing of the pho­to­graphs has come to be viewed as a more se­ri­ous crime than the var­i­ous beat­ings and (pos­si­bly) killings that have oc­curred in mil­i­tary de­ten­tion cen­tres.

“You can talk about civil dis­obe­di­ence. But pho­tog­ra­phy is an odd act of civil dis­obe­di­ence,” he says. “Would I do any­thing dif­fer­ent in her sit­u­a­tion? There is some­thing so raw about her story. She re­ally loved this guy Graner. There she was – she wasn’t even work­ing on the tier where this stuff hap­pened. She was just visit­ing her boyfriend and he asked her to be in th­ese pho­to­graphs.”

There was a dis­turb­ing de­gree of ma­lign cre­ativ­ity in the pho­to­graphs. Pil­ing up bod­ies into pyra­mids, forc­ing de­tainees into cru­ci­fix­ion poses, lead­ing pris­on­ers around on leads: the images of­ten look like some­thing from an avant-garde theatre piece.

“Graner puts his girl­friend in this pho­to­graph hold­ing this strap that is at­tached to a pris­oner,” Mor­ris agrees. “And this be­comes one of the most ap­palling pho­to­graphs from Abu Ghraib. One of the rea­sons why that im­age be­comes so hor­ri­fy­ing is that it works as some crazy rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy."

De­spite this un­happy mes­sage, Er­rol Mor­ris re­mains cau­tiously hope­ful about the fu­ture di­rec­tion of the United States. Hav­ing shot a few well-re­garded pro­mos for the Demo­cratic Party, he is, I sup­pose, obliged to be­lieve that Obama can de­liver all this change he keeps talk­ing about.

“I don’t think all the hope is mis­placed,” he says. “The US has gone through eight years of what I would call a night­mare. I don’t know how to de­scribe it. Obama does of­fer a kind of hope. For a lot of us, the 2000 elec­tion seemed like a coup and 2004 was un­think­able. It was a real night­mare. I don’t think all this is go­ing to van­ish overnight, but we have to start some­where.”

Er­rol Mor­ris (sec­ond from right) on the set of Stan­dard Op­er­at­ing Pro­ce­dure

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