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 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