“What is outside the frame of the photographs that we look at?” asks director Errol Morris at the start of his commentary to the Blu-ray release of his eye-opening documentary, Standard Operating Procedure, “do photographs reveal the truth to us or do they hide the truth?”
The release of photos from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004, followed by graphic details of abuse, torture and homicide of prisoners by US military personnel, led to a storm of controversy around the globe.
The subsequent removal and trial of soldiers involved may have offered some feeling that justice was served, but the question of just what went on in the minds of these professionals remained.
Morris’s film goes behind the controversy to speak to some of the men and women who worked at Abu Ghraib. Sitting them down in front of nondescript backdrops, the director allows each of them to try to explain just what was going on at the prison and in their heads during the period.
Sabrina Harman was the first guard to take photos of abused prisoners, her reason for doing so being that she wanted to expose the truth: how else would people outside believe her if they couldn’t see them?
Along with the simple-yet-effective talking heads, the film also reconstructs some of the events, albeit in abstract, non graphic form. There’s also some clever use of graphics to help explain, CSI-like, how the criminal investigators who later examined the photos came to their conclusions.
The central question of the film – what do photographs really mean? – is touched upon at various points, the recognition that we’re living in a new world were digital photographs can be sent around the world with a single click, a stark one.
One point raised by the film is the presence of women in the military, in particular the younger, less experienced ones and the situations they are faced with on a daily basis.
The story of Lynndie England, guilty of falling in love with one of the Abu Ghraib ringleaders, is one of the saddest of the film, her youth and immaturity the main causes of her actions.
Multi-layered, challenging and often gut-wrenching, Standard Operating Procedure offers no easy answers to a complex situation. After watching the film it’s near impossible to see how anyone can respect US Military methods but it’s important that everyone have the chance to see for themselves what is going on in the name of democracy.
Do the ends justify the means? Decide for yourself.
An erudite commentary from director Errol Morris complements his film perfectly, the added insight he offers another valuable addition to the viewers’ understanding of what’s on-screen.
Extended interviews and additional scenes give more background to the story while a 45-minute panel discussion, Diplomacy in the Age of Terror, offers views from both the press and lawmakers on the themes raised in the documentary.
Release Date: 12 January 2009