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Errol Morris on “Standard Operating Procedure”

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04222008_errolmorris.jpgBy Nick Schager

Since his masterful 1980 debut “Gates of Heaven” — and, more specifically, after 1988’s “The Thin Blue Line” — documentarian Errol Morris has boldly expanded the notion of documentary filmmaking, pushing the boundaries set by his cinema vérité forefathers in an effort to discover, if not kindred spirit (and admirer) Werner Herzog’s “ecstatic truth,” then at least an essential truth. Whether examining the life of Stephen Hawking, the ruminations of Robert S. McNamara, or the study of eccentrics like those featured in his “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control,” Morris has sought to explore fundamental questions about life through a combination of traditional nonfiction interviews and fictionalized reenactments. That hybridized aesthetic design is at the forefront of his latest, “Standard Operating Procedure,” an in-depth look into the infamous photos taken by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib in which, amidst stylized reenactments of the controversial pics, the director affords a platform for the thoughts of the soldiers-turned-amateur-photographers at the heart of the story. Meticulously crafted and methodically argued, it’s an inquiry into what actually happened at the prison, but also into the nature of images, both topics that Morris took time to discuss with me.

“Standard Operating Procedure” is a film about images — how they’re constructed, and what they tell us. As your film is itself a collection of still and moving images, did it require a more conscious or careful approach?

I’m always conscious about how I’m making the film. This time around, more or less, I don’t think so. I’m well aware of the fact that I’m making a movie about photographs, and there’s something inherently different about doing that, than anything I’ve really done before. But careful? You want to put it together in a way that makes sense, that conveys some sort of idea of what you’re trying to say. I was interested in how pictures can often mislead us, they can reveal things and also conceal things at the same time. And that irony is something which I believe is the heart of the movie.

How did you decide upon the style used for the reenactments, given their stark aesthetic dissimilarity from the photos themselves?

The photographs are always clearly identified as photographs. You see white borders on them, and they’re all presented without zooming in or zooming out. Occasionally, I think there are one or two repositions when I’m calling attention to the fact that something has been cropped or reframed, or I’m identifying a character in the frame or trying, as in the case of Roman Krol, to match his point of view as he’s looking into the prompter at himself in a photograph. But it’s the do-nothing approach, it’s the anti-Ken Burns approach to photographs. There’s very little movement on them, and the reenactments are really quite different. I mean, they’re different in so many, many, many, many ways. It’s the first film that I’ve shot in scope, 2.40:1, and the photographs are, if anything, much closer to square-shaped. They’re very different in aspect ratio from the frame. And they’re still images. The reenactments, no matter how much slo-mo I use, it’s still motion picture film. It’s not a still, although at places, it may approach still photography.

04222008_standardoperatingprocedure1.jpgWhy create such a heightened contrast — glossy and professional vs. grimy and amateurish — between the photos and reenactments?

I wanted a contrast. I think it is heightened contrast. It’s deliberate, and they look completely different. They’re not meant to blend together in the same kind of thing. It’s a different ingredient, if you like. Think, for a minute, of the ingredients of the movie. The movie has these retrospective interviews and people reenacting, in words, things that occurred in the years previously. Then there are photographs, which are the real pieces of evidence from Abu Ghraib. They’re digital photographs, I didn’t alter them in any way — I didn’t frame them, crop them. Those are the photographs themselves. And there are the reenacted elements, which are designed to set up a scene around the photograph. They are designed to take you into that moment that the photograph was taken. Often, I’ll design a reenactment around a phrase, someone will say something and I’ll think of an image. So you add all those ingredients.

Just to go back, I was talking about Roman Krol looking into the prompter at himself. He tells you this story about how he was just throwing this Nerf ball, and how he was really, really angry, and they [the soldiers] were doing this because they wanted to show the people in the cells, the prisoners, their disapproval regarding the inmates possibly raping a young boy (and, in fact, they were found innocent). I have the hands coming through the bars, and it’s a way to bring the audience into the moment that those photographs were taken, and into what he’s saying. The idea that they [the soldiers] are creating these scenes [i.e. throwing the Nerf ball] for people watching in the cells. I think all of that is really, really interesting.

Why, out of all the stories and images from Iraq, did you choose this story and these images?

That was not the intention. The thing is, I made a movie about photographs. Actually, some of the most famous, or if you prefer, infamous photographs taken in the last 10 years. They happen to be perhaps the central photographs of the Iraq war, and photographs that we know little or nothing about, heavily politicized, people with lots and lots of opinions about them, but very few people having asked any questions about them at all.

04222008_standardoperatingprocedure2.jpgLike all of your work, the film is quite journalistic in nature. Was “Standard Operating Procedure” an attempt at providing a corrective to the mainstream media’s coverage of the photos?

I would say not correction, in the sense that I knew what the correction was supposed to be. It was curiosity, that people talked about the photographs as though they knew the circumstances under which they were taken, or they knew who had taken them, or why they were taken. It seemed to me they knew very little. No one had bothered to talk to these people about the pictures, no one had bothered to find out why they were taken, what they thought they were doing, what actually was depicted in the photographs. It seems that they just preferred to theorize about them rather than actually investigate them.

Why not choose to investigate — and attempt to uncover the identities of — the higher-ups whom the film argues are the real culprits of the Abu Ghraib crimes?

People think there’s only one thing to say about the Iraq war, and that’s that Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush did it. What I find so very odd about this war — you would hear, while I was making the movie, “Have you found the smoking gun?” The smoking gun is very easy to see. People prefer not to see it. They just released the full document of John Yoo’s OLC [Office of Legal Counsel] torture memo. It’s not substantially different from anything that we knew already. We knew that the administration had relaxed rules and regulations governing the treatment of prisoners and torture. This can’t really come as a surprise to anybody. There isn’t one story to be told about Iraq, about the war, about America, about these pictures, about Abu Ghraib. There’s a myriad of stories, and I chose to tell a story which I believed, and I still believe, is important. If people want to read some kind of screed against Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, they’re easily available, and I’m sure they can find many of them in order to satisfy themselves.

[Photos: Errol Morris; “Standard Operating Procedure,” Sony Pictures Classics, 2008]

“Standard Operating Procedure” opens in limited release on April 25th.

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