Friday, July 10, 2009

Has Anyone Seen "Standard Operating Procedure"?

Has Anyone Seen "Standard Operating Procedure"? I just read THE BALLAD OF ABU GHRAIB, by Errol Morris and Philip Gourevitch, based on the interviews that comprise the film. It's exhaustively researched, compellingly told, and historically important. Still, I am stunned that the Iraqis themselves have almost no voice in the story at all, with the exception of Shit Boy and a couple other cartoon characters; they, the objects of our torture, become a great silent mirror against which we play ourselves to death.

This reminds me of the move in the recent film, "Waltz with Bashir," when the narrator/director Ari Folman is set to talk to someone "who was there" at the massacre of Sabra and Shatila decides to talk to an Israeli journalist, and not a single Palestinian or Lebanese. It's as if only "we" can confirm the truth. And while I understand and admire the existence of such figures as investigative journalists and dissenting intellectuals "from within," I find it beyond depressing that only "we" can confirm the truth.


California Writer said...

I've seen "Standard Operating Procedure." It was a disturbing, upsetting not-very-good film. The filmmaker interviewed all 5 of 7 soldiers convicted for abusing prisoners at Abu Graib and all 5 of them sounded off like victims. The filmmaker never challenges their versions that they were the victims. It was extremely upsetting to hear them whine like they were the victims. But I did learn some things about Abu Graib I hadn't known before such as the soldiers took multiple photos of the same torture scenes, and these photos were used later used to convict them. The filmmaker also only looked at these soldiers and the female general who got reprimanded but no one else--a major flaw in the film. The filmmaker also has some terribly idiotic meditations on how "accurate" are photos? Actually, this film is terribly flawed, awful to watch, but I learned stuff I hadn't known before. The film upset me a lot, so I started to research Abu Graib and wrote a bunch of poems in criticism of the film.

Philip Metres said...


that's disappointing to hear, because Morris' work in the past has been interesting (cf. "The Fog of War," his portrait of Robert McNamara). But the book's limitations are clearly the film's then, insofar as they both focus on the MPs as characters, without representing either Iraqis or, perhaps, the wider structure of abuse. Still, something has to be said for trying to allow these demonized figures, these soldiers, a chance to try to make sense of their stories, even if they seem to be "whiny" or lacking in self-distance. These soldiers were in part what Dylan calls "a pawn in their game," both perpetrators and victims of wider schemes.

California Writer said...

I would suggest everyone see this film despite its many deep flaws.

Regarding the soldiers, yes the demonized soldiers have the right to tell their side. That is the major value of the film.

But the person the filmmaker Morris should have also interviewed but didn't was another soldier Joe Darby, the whistleblower at Abu Graib who was friends with many of the 7 convicted soldiers. Darby after he turned in the CD with the photos of torture was promised by the army that they would keep his identity anonymous but Rumsfield outed him on TV while Darby was still in Iraq. Darby was the only one with a clear ethics and once he saw the photos knew what he had to do. Compare Darby with the soldiers in the film. Also, Darby was from a very pro-war small town in Western Pennsylvania and after townspeople issued death threats Darby was effectively exiled from his hometown--punished. Actually Darby has been punished for years in exile while England served one year in jail.

But go see the film. In its odd but awful way it says a lot. Iraqis, Afghanis, Pakistanis, Palestinians are never given voice in Morris' film or similar big mainstream films. They are still the voiceless "other." Whistleblowers like Darby or war opponents never get interviewed in mainstream documentary or portrayed in mainstream feature films. The exception is one--"Taxi to the Dark Side" which is a much better film.

Philip Metres said...

Thanks, JS! Darby comes off as an interesting character--and, differently--in each thing I've read about him; in an interview with GQ (where I heard the stories of exile), in TORTURE AND TRUTH by Mark Danner, and in the BALLAD OF ABU GHRAIB. Interesting because he's not a saint (and his story changes), and therefore important as a whistleblower. We need fewer martyrs and more regular people. Strange that the film excises him, even though they clearly must have interviewed him (or at least tried).