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.
Widely vilified as a principal architect of the Vietnam War, McNamara spent hours on end being interviewed by Morris. What Morris, to this day an adamant opponent of Vietnam, found in McNamara was not an evildoer pulling the strings of history but a complicated man "sincerely anguished by his own history… a person who operated with good intentions [yet who] became mired in some truly, truly horrendous things."
Morris's other films — this is his eighth feature-length documentary — include "A Brief History of Time" with Stephen Hawking; "Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr." (the maker of execution devices); "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control" (four quirky characters, including a wild animal trainer and a topiary gardener); and "The Thin Blue Line," about a murder in Texas, a film Morris calls "an epistemological thriller."
"Fog of War," of course, has the most obvious connections with "Standard Operating Procedure." The first is about "someone who was at the very, very top of the chain of command," said Morris. In the second, "you're looking at the very bottom: privates, specialists, corporals, sergeants, close to exact opposites. People who are following orders, not making them. That is a really, really important and interesting difference."
Leaving aside the "Animal House," frat-house-run-amok quality to Abu Ghraib, "the important thing to remember is that when [night shift guards] Sabrina Harman and Javal Davis walked on the tier for the first time, this was a system that was already in place," said Morris. "They look at this stuff, and Harman said, 'I started taking pictures to expose what the military was doing.'"
And while the photographs may have been worth a thousand words, they weren't necessarily the right words, much less all the words. In one, Harman is posing, smiling, signaling thumbs-up, next to the corpse of a man named Manadel al-Jamadi, who had died during an interrogation at Abu Ghraib.
"What are we looking at here?" Morris asks, his voice rising and cracking with incredulity and horror. "We see a photograph of Sabrina looming over al-Jamadi's body, we assume she's connected, she's gloating. The reality of this picture is that he was killed by the CIA, who's never prosecuted for the murder. Sabrina was told he died of a heart attack.
"Sabrina, who has said she wanted to be a forensic photographer, manages to get into a locked shower room, and in addition to the thumbs-up picture, she takes pictures of the injuries that al-Jamadi received. Why don't people see the murder? It's like you're looking at a crime scene and you know nothing about the nature of the crime."
In another context, added Morris, "Sabrina might be given a Pulitzer Prize in photography."
This film, Morris thinks, was the "first opportunity any of them had to tell their story. I don't think anybody had ever approached them for anything but soundbites. Or to ask, 'Are you ashamed? Do you feel guilty?'"
Yes, he adds, he did like the people he interviewed, people the world saw as monsters. They're not "lily white," he quickly acknowledges, but "I found them endlessly interesting. Would I imagine myself becoming close friends with them? No. But I think they're all people, not monsters, and quite articulate. Lynndie included. The way she was described to me before the interview was, I would be talking to a person who, some said, at best was mentally challenged. She emerges as a person who is gone crazy, but she's there and she's quite articulate."
And back to the subject of pictures and words, there is one picture and three words that Morris returns to. A prisoner nicknamed "Gilligan" is covered by a floor-length black hood, placed atop a box, wires attached to his fingers, told to stand still. If he moved, he was told, he'd be electrocuted.
This photo is "the most notorious picture from Abu Ghraib, the iconic picture of abuse," Morris says. This was not deemed "criminal" during the military investigation. It was, he adds, his voice rising once again, "standard operating procedure."