”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