House Logo
Explore categories +

Abu Ghraib (#110 of 2)

Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2010: Moloch Tropical

Comments Comments (...)

Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2010: <em>Moloch Tropical</em>
Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2010: <em>Moloch Tropical</em>

Moloch Tropical, which follows the political and mental disintegration of a fictional democratically elected president in Haiti, is the latest from Haitian-born director Raoul Peck, who tread similar territory a decade ago in Lumumba, the story of Congo’s heroic prime minister Patrice Lumumba. However, it’s not his own earlier work that Peck has audaciously repurposed, but Aleksandr Sokurov’s Moloch, a chamber piece detailing the mundane existence of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun at their Bavarian hideaway. (At least I think that’s what Moloch is about—having seen it in the late ’90s at a surreal Russian Film Festival screening with German subtitles and a live English translation.) Peck himself is a frustrating talent, one whose grandiosity is simultaneously his strength and his weakness—not unlike the lead character of Moloch Tropical.

The Conversations: Errol Morris

Comments Comments (...)

The Conversations: Errol Morris
The Conversations: Errol Morris

Jason Bellamy: Ten years from now, if not sooner, when people refer to Standard Operating Procedure, they’ll call it Errol Morris’ film about Abu Ghraib. But anyone who has seen the film, and certainly anyone who has heard Morris discuss it, knows that the prisoner abuse scandal that unfolded at the notorious Baghdad prison wasn’t the subject of the documentarian’s investigation. For Morris, the scandal is coincidental context. What Standard Operating Procedure is actually about is the elusiveness of unambiguous truth in photojournalism. Morris uses the digital snapshots of prisoner harassment at Abu Ghraib to illustrate that while a picture never lies, it seldom tells the truth. To look at a photo of a hooded man, standing on a box with wires wrapped around his fingers, is to see just that, yet instinctively we give images additional meaning; we fill in the areas outside of the frame. In the context of Abu Ghraib we look at that aforementioned photo and call it a depiction of torture or harassment or effective interrogation or standard operating procedure, etc. Any one of these might be true. A few of them might be true. Or maybe none of those interpretations is true. In the end, all we really have is an image of a hooded man, standing on a box with wires wrapped around his fingers. That’s where unambiguous truth ends.

I mention all of this as setup to our conversation about the films of Errol Morris because I think it’s fascinating that a documentary filmmaker would call attention to the unavoidable deceptiveness of his medium. Though most moviegoers are savvy enough to realize that documentaries seldom deal in Absolute Truth, the documentary genre is one that relies on the presentation of at least near-truth. As a “documentary,” Standard Operating Procedure is akin to 60 Minutes; without that label, it would be akin to A Few Good Men. Fictional films can still be truthful, of course, but their truth has a different weight. In a fiction film the “based on a true story” assertion is a decoration, an accessory. It’s like a tattoo. In a documentary, truth is the spine holding everything in place. Thus, you’d think that no documentary filmmaker would want to chop away at the very element that keeps the genre upright. Then again, not many documentary filmmakers are so specifically expressive with their images as Morris. I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that Morris’ documentaries are more unambiguously truthful than anyone else’s, but few filmmakers are so skillful at slicing away the periphery to narrow in on the subject at hand. I can’t think of any filmmaker who so adeptly and obsessively focuses our attention to precisely what’s on screen.