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Notes on “Standard Operating Procedure”


by Bart Weiss 27 May 2008

Guest blogger Bart Weiss is president of the Video Association of Dallas. Last weekend, I saw Errol Morris’ new film Standard Operating Procedure, about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. I thought it would be crowded. But there may have been 10 people in the large theater at the Magnolia Theater, on 7:50 on a Saturday […]

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Guest blogger Bart Weiss is president of the Video Association of Dallas.

Last weekend, I saw Errol Morris’ new film Standard Operating Procedure, about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. I thought it would be crowded. But there may have been 10 people in the large theater at the Magnolia Theater, on 7:50 on a Saturday night of a holiday weekend. I guess everyone was watching Indiana Jones or Iron Man. Sometimes we call this the McGovern effect, ya know: everybody I know voted for him but he lost by a lot. I guess in some ways I live in a bubble in big D.

Well so much for the paragraph about the audience, now about the film: If you are a fan of the Errol Morris film you should love one. In many ways, it is the ultimate manifestation of the style he evolved from Thin Blue Line on. Yes I know he made films before that, but the stylized recreations with stylized music created by Phillip Glass really began with the who-did-it murder story in Dallas. (I believe it was first seen at the USA Film Festival.) This film takes all that to the max.

The score by Danny Elfman (Oingo Boingo, Simpsons, Tales from the Crypt) brings a more dramatic feel; the stylized recreations are extremely theatrical. It seems like a Hollywood Documentary, or not even a Documentary, as we once knew it. That is not to say I don’t like the film. I love it. I really do. But we have come along way from Primary and Salesman. The form has changed, grown, extended, broadened, and that is good. While so much of the film has been created for the camera, there is so much that speaks to what happened that there is truth there. But the film is a very good media construction. There was criticism of the film because some of the subjects were paid. (You can also read Morris’ blog for the New York Times.)

I don’t really care that anyone got paid. This film is NOT Journalism. Most documentaries are not so why are they held to this standard?

So this film is a detailed story about Abu Ghraib. It is clear that these kids were in way over their heads, they had no idea what to do, or what was going on. As I watched, I keep thinking about the many many Holocaust films I had seen growing up, and more recently, since programming three stars cinema, a Jewish film series . The question that always comes up is how could these people do this to other people. Those horrible Nazis. Here we see Americans, nice Americans, doing horrible things. Now, they did not kill anyone, but they clearly dehumanized others. There is much to learn about who we are in this film , and in it, Morris, in his usual way, has his subjects talking right to us. We cannot look away.

The film also touches on the importance of photos as evidence. Who was in the photo? What did that pose mean? Was this a criminal act or was it standard operating procedure? Is the photograph real, really true or does it speak to some truth? What we see in the photos is what we see in the film. A representation of what was there, what happened – in some cases real, in some cases a construction or reconstruction. (In the film, some of the characters say that some of the actions at Abu Ghraib were taken for the camera.)

So in the end, what do we know? We know mistakes were made. We know that the little people got screwed, the people at the top got off.  We know the world no longer thinks of the United States as simply good people fighting evil. And that we need leaders who can make it clear that the acts of those responsible for Abu Ghraib do not reflect the new soul of America.

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  • Nice review. We saw it at noon with about 5 people. I agree completely with your point that it is ordinary people who do some of these things we consider monstrous. The interviews of these soldiers show that these were the kids next door.

    My only quibble with the review is the phrase, ‘mistakes were made.’ I’ve never cared for that phrase since Reagan used it during Iran Contra. People were wrong, and committed morally unjustifiable actions. I would have been a bit more sympathetic to these soldiers if I sense more regret. This is often true, for people who feel they were scapegoated, like one of my favorite films, Breaker Morant.