Midway through Standard Operating Procedure, Errol Morris’s searching, unsettling examination of the infamous photographs taken by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib, an investigation is described as rigorously “factual, [with] no emotion or politics.” Although Morris himself spent time as an investigator, the description doesn’t really fit his work as a documentarian; whether pondering a pet cemetery, questioning a convicted murderer’s guilt, or looking through the fog of war, his pictures challenge documentary definitions of “fact” and “fiction” and invariably invite strong reactions. No matter how volatile or mundane his subject, he is endlessly alert and inquisitive behind the camera, a unique combination of detective, storyteller and philosopher. I caught up with Morris at the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival, where he received the Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award and attended the Bay Area premiere of his latest film.
You mentioned at the screening yesterday that you never bring prepared questions to your interviews. I’m not as good yet, so bear with my notes for a second.
Errol Morris: [Laughs]
Was Standard Operating Procedure inspired by the way these photographs were received by the media?
Of course. I believe that the pictures have served as both exposé and cover-up. That they have pointed us away from the overall abuses that went on in the prison, and focused our attention, inappropriately, I believe, on the “bad apples.” And their story, turning them back into people, is a very important story. They’ve been used essentially as scapegoats. I don’t see them as lily-white or as morally uncompromised by any of this, but they certainly are not the people who deserve the lion’s share of responsibility.
With exceptions like not being able to talk to [former U.S. Army reservist] Charles Graner, did you have trouble securing any of the interviews?
There’s always trouble, there are always difficulties. [The subjects] have been humiliated, dishonorably discharged. People think they know Abu Ghraib, and there’s a suspicion on their part about anyone who wants to tell the story differently. I’d like to think that I was doing something different, that I was telling their stories. I was able to convince them on that basis.
For the most part, we never hear your questions.
No, I edit them out.
Yet we hear, significantly, you asking whether any of the events did “seem weird” to the soldiers. It’s one of the only times an outside element enters this subjective reality.
Well, I don’t want to have my voice there that much, but I like to have it there occasionally. It’s all editorial choices.
But your presence is always felt: in the music, the graphics, the distinctive placement of the camera, the reenactments. Do you get complaints from documentary purists?
I do. But I actually don’t really care about documentary purists. To me what makes a documentary “pure” or “impure” is whether the person is trying to uncover truths. The fact that they use various different cinematic techniques in pursuit of truth is more or less irrelevant. Style isn’t about truth. Style is about style. And I make movies, proudly so. Whatever I do to put a movie together is, I think, fair game. If I were to make a badly constructed movie, it wouldn’t make it any more truthful.
When you first started directing, did you see your pictures as a reaction against conventional documentary language?
I did. From the very beginning. It’s really interesting to me, because I went through this 20 years ago with The Thin Blue Line. Now people say the reenactments there were okay, but they are not okay here. I think this is crazy talk. The reenactments in Standard Operating Procedure are very much like the ones in The Thin Blue Line. Hopefully it won’t take another 20 years for this film to be seen in a different context. They’re not reenactments. It’s my fault, really: bad choice of words. They’re illustrations of ideas, material that comes out of interviews. I don’t have a very specific, reenacted scene, but rather moments, details caught in ultra slow motion.
Your films have always been debated from different sides.
Even early films like Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida are experienced very differently. Some people feel you’re being condescending of your subjects, others detect genuine fondness for them.
That’s gone away, and been replaced by new criticism. The criticism I would hear again and again and again would be that the attitude I had about the people in Vernon and Gates of Heaven was unconscionable. That puzzled me. I often thought, well, both movies are funny, and the fact that people find them funny embarrasses them. They don’t like laughing, they think it’s a guilty pleasure and hence would like to blame me for it. But I like [the] people in [my] movies. I absolutely love all those people, and have no desire to condescend to them. They’re no different from you or me, and I felt grateful that they gave me their time and attention. Albert Bitterling, the old guy on the bench with the jewel [in Vernon, Florida] is one of my very, very favorite characters ever. I adore his first line: “Reality. You mean, this is the real world? I never thought of that.”
It’s almost kind of a big-city critic thing. They hear an accent that’s different from theirs, and “condescending” is trotted out.
I was struck by the layered notions you found in many of the Abu Ghraib photographs. The infamous snapshot of Lynndie England holding the Iraqi prisoner on a leash, we learn, was orchestrated by Charles Graner, who’s behind the camera. We see a man humiliating another culture through a woman.
I think it’s a really complex picture. It keeps coming back to me, and maybe that’s some grotesque oversimplification on my part, but I see that picture as a picture of American foreign policy. What in the hell are we doing in Iraq? It changes. It changes every day. First, it’s “shock and awe,” we’re gonna show Saddam who’s the boss. Then we’re gonna devote the entire resources of this country to find Saddam and his sons and killing them. That’s our entire foreign policy, and what the rest of the world thinks be damned. Now, the arguments are whether we’re winning the war or not. People have stopped arguing whether the war is even appropriate. “Are we winning?” General X says we’re winning, General Y says we’re not winning. I don’t care whether we’re winning! We’re destroying both countries, we’re not making the world safer, we’re taking our gross national product and pouring it down a rat hole.