042508ErrolMorris.jpgErrol Morris in a conversation with Anthony Swofford after the screening of Standard Operating Procedure at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Academy Award-winning director Errol Morris was on hand last night for a Tribeca Film Festival screening of his new documentary Standard Operating Procedure, a nuanced exploration of the detainee abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Those familiar with Morris’s innovative oeuvre won’t be surprised to hear that, far from a tendentious indictment of the perpetrators, his film is a circumspect consideration of some of the factors that contributed to those infamous photographs of humiliation. [Today, the NY Times' movie critic Manohla Dargis calls it a "blockbuster of a documentary."]

042508standardoperatingprocedure.jpgUsing his signature, visually arresting cinematography, a dramatic score by Danny Elfman, and intimate interviews with almost all the soldiers involved in the scandal – including an embittered Lynndie England, a grossly misunderstood Sabrina Harman, and an outraged Janis Karpinski – Morris is able to artfully step back beyond the frame of the photographs to show us the context in which they were taken: a ruined, overpopulated prison on the front lines, an untrained crew of grunts with the shittiest of assignments, and a shadowy group of military intelligence interrogators and private contractors who vaguely ordered them to “soften up” the detainees for interrogation.

These circumstances don’t excuse the abuse, but Morris’s achievement is in showing how the photographs point to far greater war crimes – including murder – that occurred during the interrogations. Any documentation in those rooms has presumably been destroyed, and so forgotten. One walks away from Standard Operating Procedure appalled at the inhumanity and stupidity of the grunts in the photographs, but also deeply outraged that the investigation stopped at the level of staff sergeant.

After the screening Morris talked at length with Anthony Swofford, author of the Gulf War memoir Jarhead. Some of Morris’s insightful comments are transcribed after the jump.

As Morris reiterated to the audience last night, the abuse that lead to the iconic photograph of the hooded prisoner standing on the box was deemed 'Standard Operating Procedure' by investigators. To the top brass, the real crime wasn't really the abuse but that it saw the light of day. This is why Sabrina Harman – who took many of the photographs, including those of the murdered detainee – comes off as the least risible of the bunch. In letters home to her wife, excerpted at length in this excellent New Yorker article, it becomes clear that for her the photographs were not grotesque war trophies, but a way of showing the world what was happening at Abu Ghraib.

Errol Morris: "A big part of my motivation of making the movie is that on the one hand you have photographs that are probably the most widely seen photographs in history – hundreds of millions of people – and yet no one had ever talked to the people who took the photographs, no one had investigated the circumstances in which the photos were taken. It’s interesting that you have all these ideas about what the photographs show without knowing anything about them at all. And at some point I realized that, 'Hey, I’m making the flip-side of The Fog of War.' I’ve made one movie with a guy at the top of the chain of command, second in power only to Lyndon Johnson, and now I’m making a movie about people who are really at the bottom.

042508standardop2.jpg"When I tried to ferret out why one photograph showed a crime and one did not, why Gilligan with wires on the box was Standard Operating Procedure and Lynndie England with the detainee on the leash was criminal, I never really got a clear answer. Here’s my theory, for what it’s worth. In creating these pictures – the pyramid, Gus on the leash – they were creating a picture of American foreign policy. I mean, in the largest sense.

"I did this 17 hour interview with Janis Karpinski, believe it or not, over two days. And as the interview progressed, Janis got angrier and angrier and angrier and angrier. And the last three hours of the interview are memorable; she started talking about how she identifies with Lynndie England.

"It’s a remarkable comparison because we’re talking to a woman who at the time of Abu Ghraib was a brigadier general, and Lynndie England was a private… Janis said to me – it’s not in the movie, we’ll put it in the DVD extras, I promise – Janis said, 'They had these representations of women in the military. There was a heroic woman – Jessica Lynch – and then they needed women as villains. And that was Lynndie England and me.'"

"It was a very strange and powerful moment. I’ve often seen this war as a war of sexual humiliation. It’s no accident that the American women were used to strip Iraqi males, to interrogate and humiliate Iraqi males… It’s no accident that Graner took his 90-some-pound girlfriend who was 5 feet tall and 20 years old and created this picture.

"Here is one of the things that I am really, truly outraged by: The wrong people took the fall. And photography helped in this very, very odd way. The best example I can give you is this picture of Sabrina Harman; it’s in the movie: thumbs up, a big smile on her face, the body of a dead Iraqi prisoner, Al Jamadi. I remember seeing the photograph for the first time and thinking: She’s a monster! There she is, juxtaposed with the body. She’s implicated, obviously! Maybe even responsible!

"What do I find out? I find out that Al Jamadi was killed by a CIA interrogator. The entire brass of the prison was involved in covering up that murder, sneaking him out with an I.V. on a gurney. This wasn’t a couple of soldiers who planned this; everyone was involved! The colonel who runs the place! The top ranking MPs! They’re all involved. Then the question is, was Sabrina Harman involved in the murder or the cover-up? And the answer is no! She got into that shower room and she took pictures, in her words, to show that the military is nothing but lies.

"The other thing that you don’t know from the movie but you do know, perhaps, from Philip Gourevitch’s piece in the New Yorker and the book that’s coming out, Sabrina’s father was cop, her brother a cop and she wanted to become a forensic photographer. And she joined the military so she would have enough money to go to school. After taking the picture with the thumbs up, she went on to take over 20 detailed photos of the body that can only be described as forensic photographs providing evidence of a crime.

042508errolmorris3.jpg"Okay, here’s where the outraged citizen comes in. We know the name of the CIA interrogator who killed Al Jamadi! He has never, never, never been brought up on charges. Sabrina Harman spent a year in prison. I’m always a little baffled – and maybe I know a little too much about the story – when people say, “They don’t express remorse.” They’re angry! They’re angry! The people who they know knew everything about this and who were involved with this have never been held accountable! And it goes all the way to the top! It’s wrong! It’s deeply, deeply, deeply wrong!

"We looked at the photographs, we thought we knew everything that there was to know about Abu Ghraib. We thought we understood everything we needed to understand about Abu Ghraib. We understood little or nothing. The photographs reveal and they conceal. They serve as an expose and a cover-up. We saw a glimpse of Abu Ghraib and it stopped us dead in our tracks because we thought we had someone to blame. A prison at the end of 2003 that had close to 10,000 prisoners. It’s not one cell block. It’s a city.

"I’m always fascinated when I hear someone in the administration say, 'We don’t have to follow the Geneva Conventions, but we do follow the Geneva Conventions.' Everything at Abu Ghraib was a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Everything! One of the stipulations of Geneva is that you don’t put a prison in a free fire zone; you put it way behind the lines. This was a prison that was being mortared. American soldiers were being killed by mortars, and then you have thousands of prisoners behind razor wire in what I can only describe as tent cities who were subject to mortar attacks constantly. And many of them died.

"Standard Operating Procedure is not a movie that can provide answers to every question. It’s a movie that for me raises questions and makes you think about things you may not have thought about before. There are lots of things I would still like to find out about… There are many, many ways in which Abu Ghraib is directly connected to the highest levels of the Pentagon… If anyone still believes that somehow the Pentagon was unaware of what was going on, there is just overwhelming evidence to the contrary."