An Interview with Errol Morris

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

There are few film fans and no documentary buffs who don’t know the name Errol Morris. During a long and distinguished career, Morris helped free an innocent man from prison with his investigative documentary The Thin Blue Line, had Gates of Heaven made one of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, and finally won an Oscar for his 2003 documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. Morris’ skillful blend of interviews, reenactments, and archival and new footage moved the documentary form away from the monotonous talking-head format and toward a more engaging, contemplative form. His new film, Standard Operating Procedure, mixes his time-tested techniques with the infamous photographs of the torture and humiliation of Iraqi detainees at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison to help viewers get beyond the borders of the images and consider the bigger picture. How could an American president and his staff approve of torture and how could the American Congress and public sit quietly by and let the low-level MPs take all the blame?

My interview with Morris took place on April 15, 10 days before the film’s official opening. After a rocky start, we settled into a more contemplative conversation about what seems to be the (hopefully) temporary insanity of the American populace and America’s need to come to terms with a radical change in its self-image dating back perhaps as far as Vietnam. This article represents a nearly complete transcript of the entire interview. My comments are in italics.

After watching this film, I felt that the people in it were guilty as hell and being self-justifying.

Let me ask you a question. What is Sabrina Harman guilty of?

I would say that she participated in some of these abuses, and she didn’t speak up.

What would you have done if you had been at Abu Ghraib the night of Al-Jamadi’s murder, you saw that all of your commanding officers were participating in a cover-up, you realized that much of what was going on around you was a matter of policy, what would you have done?

It’s a difficult question. If it were me, I probably would have excused myself and gone somewhere else.

You’re in the middle of a war zone. Where do you go?

To my quarters, anywhere away from the abuse. But it’s a tight situation. The Army is chain of command. I suppose if you’re told to shut up, that’s exactly what you do. That’s what they felt they needed to do. But I will also say…

And yet Sabrina took these pictures.

And that’s a good question. Why? She said it was in order to document what was going on. There were a number of people who took videos, a number of people who took photographs, several hundred.

Thousands. And it was an amnesty period where the guy who essentially ran the prison ordered the destruction of all the evidence. These were not destroyed, I think, for one simple reason: they provided evidence to deflect blame from people who were really responsible.

And yet if they were destroyed, nobody would have ever known.

Why do you say that?

No physical evidence.

How do you think the media have become aware of these photographs?

I imagine somebody turned them over to a newspaper, a journalist.

Which is what happened. We live in a digital age in which it’s very easy to take photographs and easier to distribute photographs around the world. Hard to destroy everything. The photographs taken of Al-Jamadi, the corpse, we wouldn’t have any knowledge of this murder if they had not been taken by Ivan Frederick, Chuck Graner, and Sabrina Harman. They had nothing whatsoever to do with the murder or the cover-up. The people responsible have never been charged with the crime. In this instance, what makes them the center of evil?

I don’t think they’re the center of evil and I’m not trying to suggest that they are. I’m merely suggesting that was my reaction when I watched this film, and that I would have liked to get interviews with higher-ups.

I was not interested in interviews with higher-ups. If people want the same cookie-cutter movie about Iraq, there are plenty you can go see.

But you talk about putting the photographs in a context, otherwise we don’t really understand what we’re seeing.

And to that end, am I required to interview every single person in the U.S. government? You have so much god-damned context. America puzzles me at the moment. There is an immense amount written about the higher-ups. What the fuck does America need to be convinced that the material is staring them in the face? Do they have to be hit over the head with a smoking gun? What would you like? What is your dream interview that you would have liked to have heard in this particular movie to clarify things for you?

Not to clarify…

Then to do what?

If you’re only going to present, just as in a trial, only the evidence that the lawyers want you to hear. I’ve been on a jury, and I had lots of questions that I was not allowed to ask. I only got what they wanted me to see, and from my point of view, if I just look at what these people are saying and what they’re doing…

If it seems like I’m saying they’re lily white, I’m not saying that, and my apologies, because I’m not making that argument. But I’m making a somewhat different argument that…hard to know where to even start. You look at a photograph, you think you know what the photograph is about. You don’t. You look at the photograph of Sabrina Harman smiling next to Al-Jamadi’s corpse, you think she’s responsible for the murder. She isn’t.

To me, which is the worse crime—the thumb up or murder? People don’t see the murder. People are obsessed with the thumb and the smile. It’s an essay on the Cheshire Cat. You see the smile, you don’t see the cat.

You see what you want to see. I think that does stick out more than the gruesomeness. You can only handle so much gruesomeness, and there is a level of disbelief in the American public. These are not who Americans are.

It’s denial. Much easier for all of us to blame the seven bad apples. That’s the easy way out. I think it’s really interesting and I don’t think any accident here that both the left and the right accept them as monsters. It doesn’t matter. The left says, oh, they’re monsters because of the three-headed monster in the wings—Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld. That three-headed monster made them into monsters in its own image. The right says no, no, no, no. They’re monsters to be sure, but they’re monsters because they’re monstrous, self-directed monsters, rogue monsters. Seven bad apple monsters. But monsters, both left and right.

It allows us to blame somebody, to actually push this away from ourselves and not deal with it. It allows us actually not to look any further than the photographs because then we can say, “Oh this is it. Done. Finito.”

It seems a theme through a number of your films to take the monster and put a human face on.

This is correct. Thank you.

I think this film carries on in that grand tradition. I also think it will be misunderstood.

I think all of them have been. Look, you’re talking about a film that’s coming out about a story that has fingerprints all over it. This is not The Thin Blue Line, this is not a story that people don’t care about, that they don’t know about. Everybody knows about it. They’ve seen the pictures. Along I come claiming there’s a story hidden here that hasn’t been seen that is also a story about scapegoating, that Abu Ghraib really needs to be investigated. It never has been. The photographs I think effectively prevented an investigation. Easier just to look at Lynndie England or Chuck Graner or Sabrina Harman and say this is the problem.

I even think the bad apples got George Bush reelected in 2004 because they gave him someone to blame. It’s them, not me. You want to know why the war is going south, why the insurgency is growing, why there are all these beheading videos. Actually, with the beheading videos it’s even more cause and effect. These guys embarrassed America. The crime here is so perverse and so odd, is not the stuff depicted in any one picture, it’s the existence of the pictures embarrassing the administration, embarrassing the Army, embarrassing America.

Why did they do it? Why did they photograph these things? Why did they video them?

Go back to Sabrina. In a way it’s an essential question and I don’t pretend that I have some definitive answer. I think, in general, we photograph things because reality is peculiar. Maybe we need to stop it and look at it and memorialize it so we can scrutinize it at some later time, refresh our memory of our own experiences.

Sabrina says she took the pictures, she says this again and again in the letters, to expose the military as “nothing but lies.” She was lied to. She also knew that a lot of the things around her—this is just the opposite of the faceless automaton picture we’re given of these people—she was aware that what she was doing was wrong. She was aware that there was some horrendous moral compromise here. She was uneasy with it. She imagined…that was a way of creating moral distance, but it was also a way of analyzing and also perhaps imagining yourself as the whistle-blower, imagining yourself as standing up against this. I somehow think that some of those pictures were acts of disobedience. They were saying, “We know what you’re doing. We can show people what you’ve been up to, the real cards you have in your hand.” The real irony of it is the pictures were turned around and used against them. They thought that in many instances they were protecting themselves.

It’s unfortunate that you were not allowed to talk to Graner. Graner certainly did seem to be the ringleader. Did you get that impression?

My impression is that this all comes down to one night, the night of the pyramid. There was horrible, horrible abuse in that place that goes far beyond some photographs. We’re fighting a war of humiliation—sexual humiliation. We have been from the very beginning, a war, I guess, to show Saddam who’s boss, who’s got the biggest stick. We’re a country of 300 million people who had a foreign policy of “Kill Saddam.” I don’t mean a foreign policy for the Iraq region or the Middle East. That was our complete foreign policy, the sum of it. What I’ve watched is a story of humiliation and rehumilitation, the administration’s attempt to humiliate Saddam, the use of women in American military prisons—American women to humiliate prisoners.

Do you think that was a specific directive to them?

Absolutely. It’s one of the sickest things about this war—how women have been used. To think the fact that there are women in the military, suddenly the military is egalitarian. I think there’s a sick—I don’t know how to describe it any other way—undercurrent to all of this. Using American women to humiliate Iraqi men.

Which is simultaneously humiliating to the women, who didn’t want to be in the picture in the first place.

There you go. I often think that Graner in his crazy-type way when he put Lynndie at the other end of that tiedown strap and took the picture and later cropped Megan Ambuhl out of the picture, that he was creating a little vignette about the war, you know, American male dominating his American girlfriend, who in turn is dominating an Iraqi man. It’s a crazy, crazy story. These bad apples humiliate America. The administration tries to humiliate them, and so it goes.

Somehow, we remain blissfully unaware of the real nature of this war, the real content.

I was looking at some polls, and only two weeks after the photos came out, the public were already not wanting to see them anymore. They said, the press has covered this too much, they were wrong to show those photographs. Just two weeks after, when earlier they said, this is an outrage. The American psyche switched that fast.

I really want to know where you read that stuff. That’s really fabulous.

I’m not saying anything remotely original or even interesting—we live in a world of spin. There’s a glut of information. It’s spun, the photographs come out, they essentially become a political football. Nobody stops to say maybe we should find out what really transpired there. There’s tons of investigations, a laundry list of investigations, none of which really produce a conception of what went on, almost as if the goal was obfuscation, and it becomes this crazy, polarized world where we’re all concerned with blame.

There’s information out there. If we wanted to, we could impeach this president. How many torture memos do you need to see before you realize the administration is into torture? The odd thing about the world we live in now is do people care about the information that’s right in front of them? I thought, and this is a crazy idea, to come at the story in a different way. It may irritate people because they have their own ideas of what the story should be, but if you approach it in a completely different way, you’re liable to find out something that people don’t know about. If you’re following that same herd path, the chances of finding something are much, much, much less.

It goes back to that Cheshire Cat concept. We see the smile, and we don’t see the murder. It’s almost a metaphor for the entire war. You can’t force people to see what they don’t want to see, what they’re not predisposed to see. I don’t really know how things have gotten to this point, it’s one of the great mysteries of America at the moment. The values that make this country a great one seem to be forgotten. And one value that I keep going back to is It’s a Wonderful Life and Potterville. It’s a movie in part about little guys sticking together against the big, bad guy. It’s almost like a version of It’s a Wonderful Life where we’ve jumped to blaming the little guys, that Potter and his cronies can walk away scot-free. I’m a populist. It’s not a level playing field, no society will ever be, but you can pay lip service to it, you can try to move in the direction of greater rather than lesser equality.

You don’t watch the big guys pin medals on each other’s chests and the little guys go to jail. I think restoring them as people is important, I really do. It’s a first step. I bristle at the idea of seeing them as evil incarnate because it’s a way of abdicating our own role.

If we don’t face our shadows, we’ll never conquer them.

I think you have to and I think one of our great shadows is this war. I feel it much more so than I did of the war during which I came of age—Vietnam. This one seems crazier to me. Maybe it’s ideology that I didn’t grow up with, but it’s hard to see rhyme or reason in any of this, and it’s hard to know why there is so little opposition in Congress and America to it.

Can we have an update on “Nub City”?

I still want to make it, I have the script. There’s two kind of quasi horror movies that I wanted to make. One of them is “Nub City” and the other the movie about Ed Gein. I think of all the movies I’ve wanted to make that I haven’t made. I’m too slow. Doing this kind of movie is just plain exhausting. But I hope it sparks questions.

My review of Standard Operating Procedure is here. Be sure to read Errol Morris’ blog on the New York Times.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    17th/04/2008 to 10:56 pm

    Fabulous interview Marilyn. Kinda rough, there at first, but you hung in there.
    Unfortunately, I think the insanity you describe is permanently etched in our psyche, that we are, as Morris put it, “predisposed” not to see beyond the ruses we are trained to think are thoughtful, meaningful investigation.
    As Morris said “it’s almost as if the goal was obfuscation.”

  • Marilyn spoke:
    18th/04/2008 to 8:09 am

    Thanks, Rick. Morris is really a very gracious man. I was simply contradicting what he hoped the film would do, but I think he understood my position once I mentioned feeling like a jurist who couldn’t ask questions.
    I think Americans have been severely traumatized about our image of ourselves since Vietnam. Reagan was elected in part because he promised to restore our good feelings about ourselves. But it was illusory because the neocon policies put us at odds with many nations of the world.
    The day after 9/11, I remember talking to a coworker who couldn’t understand how anyone could do this TO US. I told him I had traveled abroad and knew that a lot of people don’t like Americans. It just did not compute on American soil.
    Now, the Bush Administration has committed severe crimes and the evidence from Abu Ghraib has shocked Americans dumb. Oh no, not more bad news on the image front!!! It’s too much.
    Can it change? Yes, it can, but we have to start living up to our ideals of what America means. One of my coworkers, a Korean, became a U.S. citizen a couple of weeks ago. He’s wanted it for a long time and worked hard to get it. That speaks volumes to me about the potential we still have. I’m hopeful, but I fear that the criminals of the Iraq War on our side will not be punished before that happens.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    18th/04/2008 to 12:33 pm

    I agree with your assessment. I feel powerless anymore as no elected officials seem willing to bring guilty parties to justice anymore. I am consistently amazed with the free ride that has been given to our current administration over these past several years.
    And a great interview. Well done.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    18th/04/2008 to 1:15 pm

    Well, I hope we can change our image overseas, I’d like to travel in my old age …
    Seriously, I think that you put a finger on it when you described 9/11, and the incomprehensibility around here that anybody didn’t like us. My problem is, folks overseas see us more clearly than we see ourselves … a country founded on the backs of the enslavement of one people, whose westward expansion was facilitated by the near extermination of another. I fear people overseas have an all too clear view of us. We’ve been doing stuff similar to Iraq thing all along, I’m afraid.
    Sigh.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    18th/04/2008 to 1:51 pm

    Thanks, Jonathan. I’d like to do more of these now that I’ve gotten my feet wet. It’s a lot better than asking a single question at a film festival screening.
    Rick – Our history is the history of the world. What is Europe if not founded on the backs of serfs and slaves under the Roman Empire? Africa? Asia? We’re not alone in inficting human misery to create progress for a subset of the population.
    I’ve found a blindness to those outside of America. They often don’t understand that America is not a monolith where people all think the same way. Many countries are very homogeneous, so thinking we’re all alike comes easily to them. I hosted a Swedish student for a week this winter, and she remarked that she’s never had to face the diverse issues this country routinely has to reconcile. I told her that if she takes nothing else away from her stay with me, to let people in her country and the others she visits that many of us have been against the Bush Administration from the start, that we’ve been living through a nightmare created in large part by illegal actions of our rogue government.

  • Pat spoke:
    19th/04/2008 to 10:08 am

    Marilyn – This interview was riveting, and I hope we’ll get to see more like this from you.
    I do agree with Morris’ point about people not seeing what they don’t want to see. I’m always surprised at the number of people I talk to -intelligent, accomplished people, too – who have stopped watching or listening to the news because it’s too depressing or keeps them in a constant state of fear or makes them pessimistic about humanity. (I have a couple of other friends who will only watch Fox News because “they show the good that’s being done” in Iraq.)I’m sure it’s that sense of feeling powerless to change anything that leads them to tune out. (And perhaps an unwillingenss to confront the degree to which we may be implicit in or capable of these crimes?) Although I watch the news everyday, I have to admit to having those feelings myself.
    But, as your interview with Morris shows, while the main moral issue is pretty clear (these were murders), the set of circumstances around them is rather complex. They can’t be adequately addressed in the typical TV news soundbite format. And as long as most of our news is produced by corporate conglomerates like GE or AOL Time Warner, I doubt we’ll get the full story there.
    (Sorry, this kind of went off on a tangent, but this interview was just very thought-provoking.)

  • Marilyn spoke:
    19th/04/2008 to 12:17 pm

    Thanks, Pat. The hubby and I are still talking about the issues, what Morris was trying to accomplish, and how his work is so double-edged that his stuff can be exploited. When he says all of his works have been misunderstood, I think he’s right.
    I am going to be vacationing on the Big Island of Hawaii at the same time as the Big Island Film Festival. I’m planning to do more interviews there for my blog (as well as reviews, of course).

  • Kimberly spoke:
    19th/04/2008 to 1:48 pm

    Fascinating interview! Thanks so much for sharing it here. I’m really looking forward to seeing Standard Operating Procedure. I’ve enjoyed all his films but The Fog of War is my favorite because it’s such an important historical document and the ending floored me.
    I really love the man’s work for reasons that a lot of people don’t seem to understand or fully grasp. I don’t consider him a director who wants to put human faces on monsters. Monsters are human. Period. Morris just refuses to judge them and presents them as they are – human. I think a lot of people who view his work don’t want to deal with the nastier aspects of human nature or they consider themselves above it or separate from it. Viewers bring their own baggage to a film. When some people view a film like Fog of War or Mr. Death they think Morris is presenting the subject in a “good light” and there are plenty of commentators on IMDB.com (just for an example) that clearly see his films this way, but I don’t at all.
    For me they’re just films about people who have clearly taken part in horrible things that a lot of other folks (me included) find appalling but I don’t want the director to tell me how to think or feel. I just want the facts and I’ll judge them for myself. I’m glad Morris lets me make up my own mind. These days that kind of intelligent and adult approch to making films (documentary or fiction work) is extremely rare.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    19th/04/2008 to 3:31 pm

    Marilyn,
    Yup, every country in the world has done what we routinely do … problem is, our self-image is that we are not like other countries, that we are better than they are, that we don’t do these things. Thus, people actually buy the line that people oversees hate us because of our freedoms, rather than our oppressive foreign policy. (I like Morris’ oversimplified but never-the-less hilarious assessment of our late foreign policy as “Kill Saddam,” only now it seems to be “Kill Islamo-fascists)
    We are fed the line that we are a “shining city on a hill,” somehow better than other countries, for God’s sake. When it is brought home that we are, indeed, not, then it can be rough.
    The great preacher William Sloan Coffin opined that nationalism is a sin as great as racism; we are just beginning to understand how true that really is.
    Double sigh.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    19th/04/2008 to 6:18 pm

    Thanks, Kimberly. Morris is a complicated guy – an idealist who is constantly facing the shadow (in the Jungian sense), trying to integrate it into our society. I applaud him in this effort, though I always feel like he’s being used – particularly by McNamara during his image rehabilitation tour. He’s wildly intelligent, though, so I think he understands the risks he is taking.
    Rick – I think America is afflicted still by its WASP past. The English, the most civilized people on Earth if you ask them, brutalizing culture after culture in order to civilize them. Bringing people “democracy” is just another version of the White Man’s Burden, a veiled pretext for looting other countries of their riches and creating a market for ours.

  • Daniel spoke:
    20th/04/2008 to 5:37 pm

    Great work, Marilyn. Can I ask where you interviewed him? Just curious since he was at the screening I saw of SOP that same night, 4/15. For about an hour and a half he repeated most of what you found here, with as much attitude to boot. I would have found it quite difficult to continue as you did – he knows how to conduct an interview, but not so much how to be interviewed. Anyway, excellent job.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    20th/04/2008 to 10:13 pm

    Thanks, Daniel. That’s why they pay me the big bucks – no, scratch that; nobody paid me anything…
    I interviewed him in Chicago. I know he was headed to Minneapolis. Is that where you saw him?

  • Daniel spoke:
    21st/04/2008 to 8:25 pm

    Yep, that’s where I am. Makes sense that you primed him because he was pretty fired up for the post-screening discussion! I’m working on the review, trying to separate the film from the discussion from the man.

  • Marco Milone spoke:
    23rd/04/2008 to 9:01 am

    Great interview!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    23rd/04/2008 to 9:42 am

    Grazie, Marco! Benvenuto.

  • Daniel spoke:
    23rd/04/2008 to 11:01 am

    I’ve read over this a few times and I’m still impressed with your questions. You brought out pretty much everything he wanted to say, and really flowed with it well (especially for one of your first interviews!). I’d like to hear the audio if it’s doable. I found that he was an odd way of speaking. His pauses are awkward, but they make you hang on his next words. I think the pauses are also how he’s able to draw so much out of his interviewees. He doesn’t talk, so they do. It’s interesting.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    23rd/04/2008 to 11:32 am

    Thanks, Daniel. I was impressed with how carefully he chooses each word, and I think that’s where the hesitation comes. He speaks perfectly, few ums and ahs. At one point I said that Sabrina took the photos to document, to signify…, and he came back with, “I liked the first word–to document.” That’s the kind of a thinker and speaker he is. Of course, he’s given these interviews again and again, so it’s almost like a rehearsed speech in some parts. But I was able to surprise him a bit, and that helped get him to be more sympathetic with me. I think he really hadn’t thought exactly about how the military humiliates the women it initially didn’t want in the first place. These pictures were the epitome of that lack of regard for the female MPs.
    I’ll try to get the audio up, but it’s not looking good right now. I could e-mail it to you, but it’s a 30-minute MP3. Let me know.

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