Berlinale: Abu Ghraib documentary challenges US military over scandal
It's the first time a documentary makes it into the competition round.
Berlin -- "Everybody knew about the photos," insisted Lynndie England near the end of Standard Operating Procedure, a documentary about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal with the filmmaker Errol Morris challenging the US military's response to the horrors unearthed at the complex near Baghdad.
Present in many of the shocking photos pointing to prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, England with her short-cropped hair and army fatigues in a sense became the face of the scandal, which rocked the US military establishment and helped to undermine the American public's confidence in the Iraq war.
Standard Operating Procedure premiered at the Berlin Film Festival Tuesday and is among more than 20 films in the running for top honors at the Berlinale.
It is also the first time in the Berlinale's 58-year history that a documentary has been included in the festival's main competition.
Morris, a US Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker, used video footage, interviews with the US soldiers involved, re-enactments and the photographs themselves to explore the horrific events at Abu Ghraib and the reactions that were unleashed by the scandal.
While some of the examples of abuses at Abu Ghraib that the photos unearthed resulted in criminal charges, many of the events portrayed such as the image of the man standing on a box with a cement bag over his head and wires attached to his body were classified by the military as Standard Operating Procedures.
"If you ask me if these are pictures of torture, I would say yes," Morris told a press conference in Berlin to mark the movie's screening in Berlin, as consequence laying down a challenge to the US military's response to the events at Abu Ghraib.
Morris claimed that a vast amount of evidence at the prison complex had been destroyed with the military undertaking "a massive cover-up."
He described his documentary as "a non-fiction horror movie" portraying what he said was "a dark and disturbing chapter in American history."
"To me this was a story about these soldiers that took the blame," said Morris.
But apart from telling the story of the people who were involved in taking the photos and posing in them, Morris' documentary is also in a sense about the politics of photography and whether a photograph can convey the truth of a situation.
The photos, said 60-year-old Morris, "shook me to the core" but he also felt that the soldiers such as England who were caught up in the scandal had been "scapegoated for the policies of the US government."
"They were culpable for everything we did in Iraq," said Morris who spent about two years trying to convince and to cajole the soldiers into telling their stories.
Morris also said he spent a considerable amount of time trying unsuccessfully to track the Iraqi inmates featured in the photos.
No senior military officers suffered as a result of the investigation into events at Abu Ghraib, except the prison's commanding officer, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, who was demoted in rank in the aftermath of the scandal.
In the documentary, she emotionally defended herself, insisting she knew nothing about the abuse at the prison.
"Do we really understand what these photographs mean?" Morris asked at the press conference. "Did the photographs show everything that we need to know about Abu Ghraib?"
One of those caught up the political scandal surrounding the Abu Ghraib photos claimed in the film that she had been taking the photos to expose what "shit" the army is involved in.
"Without them (the photos) we would be blind about his moment in history," said Morris.
"We were told to soften them up for interrogation," said a bitter England, who was in her early twenties when she was stationed at Abu Ghraib, a notorious prison even during the time of Saddam Hussein.
England was sentenced to three years jail in the wake of the publication of the photos, which showed sexual humiliation and beatings of Iraqi prisoners.
Morris is planning to publish a book with more material about Abu Ghraib in the coming months to coincide with the film's US release.
The release of Morris' new film follows his acclaimed documentary, The Fog of War, about former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
Set in part against the dark days of the Vietnam War, The Fog of War won an Academy Award for best documentary in 2004.
His other films include The Thin Blue Line about the death penalty in the US and A Brief History of Time about the British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking.
DPA with Expatica