Winner of the Grand Prize of the jury (Silver Bear for second place) Standard Operating Procedures is the first documentary ever to compete at the Berlinale. In a two-year search director Errol Morris found the soldiers who took the famous photographs of torture in the Iraqi Abu Ghraib prison and convinced them to speak out. Their 270 photos shocked the world with the true nature of the war in Iraq and initiated debates about responsibility of the military, torture, and the Geneva Convention. High military personalities put ignorant people in charge and then let them be the fall guys without having a sense of their own accountability. One low-ranking soldier, prosecuted mostly for having embarrassed the U.S. and the military by publishing her photos, was Sabrina Harman. The victims (known as detainees) could not be located for comment.
The Press Conference
Errol Morris very strongly emphasized his deep involvement with the film. He was especially furious about the officers who let the lowest soldiers take the blame and go to jail. He said, “The world has gone mad; we are much closer to bedlam. Obviously, we have learned nothing from history and perhaps these photos will render an important social service, although by exposing the photos, the authorities could cover up other crimes. Imagine America’s poor children who look to the military for opportunity. Sabrina Harman was not the worst offender, but rather a naïve amateur photographer on duty in Iraq. The culprits, these ‘scapegoats of the United States,’ had a strong need to tell their stories and I was in a position to listen. These pictures are probably our most famous forensic evidence in recent history.
“It is a tragedy for Iraq. We have destabilized a country and inflicted suffering. It has removed the U.S.’s innocence about itself.”
Horrified at present United States’ foreign policy, he considers this work a small way of weighing in. He said he, “wanted to give dignity back to the victims, to show that they were not faceless entities. The event was the tip of the iceberg of a non-human behaviour, a political and social tragedy, one of the most important events of our time. The photos were an essential piece of documentary evidence.” Although only a fraction of the photos were published, all are on-line at Harvard University.
Often, in his film he recreates situations (called reenactments) in order to make the facts more understandable. These reenactments contain elements of reality based on the participant’s own words.
Errol Morris is known for his Fog of War about Robert McNamara, which won an Oscar for best documentary in 2004. He is also responsible for another 1988 award-winning documentary, The Thin Blue Line, about an innocent man charged with the murder of a policeman in Texas.
The Panel Discussion
In conjunction with the showing of Standard Operating Procedure, there was a media/social-action panel discussion called “Diplomacy in the Age of Terror: The Impact of Diminished Rule of Law on International Relations.”
Participants were Dr. Allen Keller, associate professor of medicine at the New York University School of Medicine and founder and director of the Bellevue/NYU program for survivors of torture;.
Wolfgang Kaleck, criminal/human rights lawyer and general secretary of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights; Lord Peter Goldsmith, lawyer and Attorney General of Great Britain 2001-2007; Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times; Herta Däubler-Gmelin, chair of the German parliament’s committee for Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid, Moderator was Olivia Schoeller, Washington Bureau chief for the Berliner Zeitung..
The participants said that the media has been less than a glowing example of democracy during the so-called war on terror. In the beginning, photos of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay did not appear on the front pages of the New York Times, but in back sections. There was an extraordinary atmosphere in the U.S. after 9/11 whereby the media bought into the Bush administration and the public image of the U.S. was destroyed.
People used a kind of linguistic acrobatics, trying to square their actions with the Constitution, trying to justify the extraordinary power of the Executive Branch. Linguistic acrobatics make things seem not as they are, e.g., the term “war on terror” is a dangerous concept. Or “enhanced interrogation” instead of torture or “enemy combatant” instead of POW. If you say Guantanamo is not a prison, then the detainees lose no rights.
In the 20th century the US did the right thing. After World War II there were military tribunals where German war criminals were interrogated and treated in a humane manner. (Although the end of the 20th century was nothing to brag about, consider: Viet Nam, Guatemala, and Chile.) The Geneva Convention still is in effect and adherence to international law is not an obstacle to fighting terrorism. Anything else is a bad example to other countries such as Sumbawa, China or Saudi Arabia. If you demonstrate that you believe in freedom, you will win the battle. The movie Standard Operating Procedure will shock people.
What can we do? Every country in the world is currently debating the definition of torture. We need an International Criminal Court. It is not easy to take action against former Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, for example, although the Supreme Court has challenged the practice of ignoring the Geneva Convention. We should restore existing laws and redefine torture. People should protest. Question the Iraq war on political and legal grounds. Invest in legal justification. We must have accountability; there are limits to actions which can be taken in the name of national security.
What would these speakers advise the next U.S. president?
Barker: The high command should be questioned. Drop the “war on terror” phrase and elect a new attorney general.
Lord Goldsmith: I would say, “You are in a hole: stop digging.” Back away from Guantanamo Bay. Give up the offshore prison, go to civilian court and invite people from the outside to help make decisions.
Däubler-Gmelin: Acknowledge the political mistakes and join an International Criminal Court to take consequences for wars.
Keller: Clearly abide by international standards re: torture and abuse, consult the Army Field Manual, close Guantanamo Bay and clear accountability up to the top at Abu Ghraib. There are millions of torture survivors worldwide and we need more money to help them.
Kaleck: The next president won’t change anything.
At the end of the discussion the audience brought up its own concerns. One man announced that he had a petition signed by 300 “important people” saying that 9/11 and Abu Ghraib never happened. Another person wanted to know whether torture in popular movies is becoming more prevalent. The panel agreed that the mood has changed and torture movies are not making any money. There is a ground swell of disgust, a ticking bomb scenario. We were reminded that EU countries cooperated with the rendition flights, secret services in the EU cooperated. The diplomatic process has been diminished; a super power has decided to go it alone, throw its own private party. We need renewed investment in diplomatic practices. Diplomacy has become a neglected tool.
Standard Operating Procedures might also be the film which people discuss without having actually seen. Many film critics at the press conference had not. During the panel I sat next to an Asian girl from Uzbekistan who had a Masters Degree in law; she had not seen the film. The same goes for important members from Amnesty International whom I met at the event.
Luckily, for those shy about facing the awful photos via film, Morris is using his 1.5 million words of transcript, 30 interviews, thousands of pages of documents and one thousand photographs to repeat the story in book form to appear this year. He will collaborate with Philip Gourevitch (staff writer for the New Yorker and editor of The Paris Review). Excerpts have already appeared in the New Yorker. As Morris said, “Under a different set of circumstances, you could imagine Sabrina Harman winning a Pulitzer Prize for photography.”