Ask Academy Award-winning director Errol Morris how he makes movies, and his answer has a disarmingly goofy, gee-whiz quality: "I like to think of myself as a conceptual vacuum cleaner, an Electrolux," he told an audience in New York City at a recent screening of his latest documentary, "Standard Operating Procedure."
"I try to make friends with people I'm talking to. Gradually, a movie emerges."
He stopped, and shrugged. "Go figure."
Go figure indeed. "Standard Operating Procedure," which opens Friday, is a damning indictment of U.S. policy in Iraq. The film's starting point is the infamous photographs taken at the Abu Ghraib prison, which shocked the world when they were released in spring 2004.
Naked prisoners shackled to bedposts, shackled together, stacked in a human pyramid. Leashed, blindfolded, hooded, trussed up like turkeys, forced to masturbate, forced to simulate oral sex, threatened by vicious dogs. Pixie-ish young American women, smiling, mugging for the camera, giving the thumbs-up, standing next to them, holding the leash.
"Sexual humiliation," Errol Morris told ABC News, "is part of this war."
The photos were taken before and shortly after the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003.
"We were told to soften [the prisoners] up for interrogation," says specialist Lynndie England in the film.
"They couldn't say we broke the rules because there were no rules," adds Megan Ambuhl, also interviewed at length by Morris. (Both women were prosecuted for their actions at Abu Ghraib; no one above staff sergeant was prosecuted.)
"I do think this whole 'shock and awe' is an idea of humiliation, the idea of showing someone who is boss," Morris said in an interview with ABC News. "This policy of having female MPs strip Iraqi prisoners, put panties on their heads, I find incredibly perverse. Using American women to humiliate Iraqi men, to show them, we're so powerful that even our women can easily dominate you. You look at the picture of Lynndie holding the leash of [the prisoner the Americans nicknamed] Gus, and it's this strange picture of sexual dominance and humiliation."
It's not, he believes, "an aberration but part and parcel of the whole deal."
"Bush said the release of the pictures was the worst day of his presidency," continued Morris. "Certainly it wasn't the best, but in some perverse, ironic way it helped his efforts to secure another four years."
This is not the view traditionally associated with the release of the Abu Ghraib photographs.
"These 'bad apples,' these 'monsters' gave him a scapegoat," said Morris. "If the war is going south, the insurgency is growing by leaps and bounds, as monsters they're useful, they give us something to blame." In his film, "I like to think I've taken them back as people," said Morris.
For the director, that's standard operating procedure. His previous film, "Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara," for which Morris won the Academy Award, was a single interview—spliced through with Morris-esque dreamlike recreations illustrating particular points—with the former secretary of defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.