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Thursday, April 24, 2008

S.O.P.: Evil is Not Banal

STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE, unlike recent Iraq films is about seeing, perception and the act of photographing. Errol Morris turns his camera on a very thin slice of time and space in this vast conflict but a layer with huge moral and political implications.

In typical Morris fashion, his documentary doesn't provide easy black and white answers. Factions on both the right and left want their documentary films to wrap up neatly and tight but Morris is not going to be the filmmaker who makes the viewer feel comfy by providing a quick and easy sound bite answer to the difficult questions of war. Were the kid soldiers inside Abu Ghraib who took pictures and appeared in them guilty as charged?

Ron Rosenbaum in his article for Slate online, keeps asking the question are the "bad Apple's" responsible for their actions even if we accept that higher-ups order them to carry out actions against the prisoners?

First, the "bad-Apples" Rosenbaum is referring to are Lynndie England (shown in photographs holding a "leash" around a prisoners neck), Sabrina Harmon (shown giving the thumbs-up next to corpse of a former prisoner) Javal Davis, Tony Diaz, Tim Dugan, Megan Ambuhl, Jeremy Sivitz, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski and others. Morris gives us the first opportunity, using his non-patented tele-prompter interview camera, to hear England, Harmon, Davis, Diaz, Dugan, Karpinski and direct participants talk about what when on inside the prison and in their heads. Why would they do these horrible acts? Why take pictures?

Well, for the most part it wasn't their idea. Let's be clear, the "bad-Apples" pleaded guilty, lost their rank and status in the U.S. military, were dishonorably discharged and went to prison. Is that enough responsibility for Salon magazine? Apparently not.

Obviously, Rosenbaum wants a few bad apples to be the responsible the American people won't be held responsible for these actions torture and death inside Iraq death chambers. That's the bigger order Salon magazine and others wish the bad apples would follow. This certainly was true of the audience I saw the film with - they wanted contrition and for the "bad-Apples" to apologize to the American people. They wanted tears and remorse. America wants a neat and tidy ending. Closure perhaps? Morris is not the man who is going to give easy endings to morally uplift.

Just as back in the 1970s the American people wanted the Vietnam Vet to suffer all the guilt and remorse for the policies of that war, the people living safely in their comfy homes on American soil want the "bad-Apples" to take the rap for Iraq and Abu Ghraib. And then the bad dream can all be over with and we can go on our merry way. I have always thought England, Harmon, Davis, Diaz, and Sivitz should take responsibility for their actions and they do. BUT, they don't do it in the way everybody wants them to, in the way that exonerates American citizens and covers our horrible government actions and policies.

But let's look deeper. Truth be told, the real bad-Apple's at Abu Ghraib have never been charged. The corpse Harmon stands next to is not a prisoner she killed but the CIA or MI person who did torture and killed this prisoner has never been charged for his murder. Never. And the U.S. government has covered it up. The only thing Harmon is guilty of is thumbs-up and a smile like a cheshire cat.

Gruesome, no question, but hardly a major crime in comparison to those going on all over Iraq, in secret prisons on European soil, Bagram prison in Afghanistan, and at Guantánamo under the auspices of the U.S. government. The pictures that put Harmon and England in front of the camera, posing before prisoners in the moments of and surrounding their humiliation are only the staged face of American humiliation while the true crimes of torture and murder have been covered up.

Morris reveals in these interviews there is good reason to believe America's true reason for invading Iraq is to humiliate Arab men and use our young women soldiers to do so. The photos inside the prison bare this out. Talking with Morris after he screened the film in Minneapolis, he told me it's very difficult to wrap his head around the insanity, the lack of rational clarity on the part of our political leaders who have lead us into this senseless war. Even more so for the fact that their actions come nowhere near producing what they pretend they wish will result.

Rosenbaum likes to create an eroticized view of Morris' use of slow motion or super-slo-mo in the re-enactment scenes of STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE. Morris uses a camera called the Phantom v12 to capture motion at 1,000 frames per second as opposed to standard 24 movie frames or previously the standard over cranked slo-mo of 130 frames per second. If anything unintended or off-message, Morris' slo-mo makes horrific motion stunningly beautiful. We see dogs snarling and bullet casings drop and bounce on the floor set to Danny Elfman repetitive and melodic scores.

However, it is clear why Morris uses slo-motion in many of his films from THIN BLUE LINE to FOG OF WAR. Less I think for the "moral investigation" as Rosenbaum likes to imply (the use of slow motion in science fiction as in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY or football games to show the spiraling ball in motion which does not have moral overtones) and more as a tool that focuses viewers attention more precisely on the details of the real world. In dramatic filmmaking we think about our purpose constantly: How important it is to direct the viewer to comprehend the story with purpose and focus. Great documentary filmmaking should do exactly the same thing. Comprehension is reinactment

The reason Morris footage of Abu Ghraib appears charged with moral implications is because, mostly simply stated, war has moral implications. Treatment of captive prisoners, innocent and guilty alike, is the most moral of all situations. That is why our founding fathers took a restrained view of government abuse of the people. None: This means all human beings and their rights not just American national human beings.

The truth behind the Terror memos by John Yoo and Timothy Flanigan, the White House and the Justice Department is that they have no moral compass and fail to see the horror of their actions and policies. They see exceptions abound. To circumvent the law, they seek court opinions that will rule human-beings as non-people just as the most notorious tyrants and dictators in history have done.

Morris' use of slo-mo is perhaps more pronounced in an age when information is devalued by its speed and constantly updating nature. We need slo-motion to gain focus and put the space of closely observant thought back into seeing. Slo-motion give us the time to contemplate critical details that fast and dirty media skips over.

The questions that are more important is "What was happening outside the frame?" Of course, this means what is happening in terms of these young soldiers being instructed and order to comply with their commanding officers. This also means what is going on inside the torture chambers and secret prison camps.

Certainly, as Rosenbaum wishes, the bad apples could have violated their orders and faced immediate and severe discipline in a war zone. Not a happy course for a soldier in a hostile war zone but, yes a possibility. Would the shameful actions of torture and murder end there? No. Would American's moral authority have been retained? You've got to be kidding.

Morris has called this film a "non-fiction horror movie" and it truly is - Evil is not banal it is horror.

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