Monday, 23 June 2008

Errol Morris and the Power of Nightmares.

Hannah McGill served up a massive treat when she booked Errol Morris for an In Person event to accompany the screening of Standard Operating Procedure at the Edinburgh International Film festival last Saturday. Morris is the Oscar-winning director of Fog of War, a commercial director who makes visually stunning and thought provoking nonfiction films on a "not for profit" basis. That's not to say he redistributes millions in box office green, just to say that the man doesn't seem to make money on his documentaries. This is as baffling as it is depressing; his consistently interesting, provocative work represents one of the great achievements in modern film.

Morris isn't to everyone's taste, a criticism often levelled at him is that the films are as much about Morris as they are about their subjects. This is a wilful and rather gratuitous slander in a period where popular documentary film is personified by the Ordinary Joe tendency. Morris is iconoclastic and his approach is distinctive using re-enactments to enhance the narrative but you never feel driven by his authorial voice. The interviews in Fog of War, Mr Death and Fast, Cheap and Out of Control allow their subjects to speak for themselves and generate wildly divergent opinions as to their likeability/believability. This is where Morris' genius lies, in the ability to challenge the contemporary fallacy that there is a "right answer". When asked why he decided to interview Robert McNamara for Fog of War he said that he felt that people's "first instinct with Robert McNamara is to shout at him" and that anyone who didn't do so was somehow "morally comprimised". For me, this goes to the heart of Morris' work and was the central theme in the extended conversation at the In Person event. Morris' isn't an easy raconteur, his laconic thoughtful ramblings frequently slow down and stop mid-sentence. But it was illuminating, thought-provoking stuff. Morris' films require us to think and look again at what we think we know. Mr Death, his mindbending profile of death-engineer and holocaust denier Fred Leuchter Jr is a fantastic meditation on vanity, self-destruction and delusion. It creates a humanity to this toxic self-important functionary, requires us to see the man as human, even likeable, one of us. A member of the audience picked up on the scene with Leuchter in a death chamber with a cup of coffee all his films are peppered with stunning visual ideas that enhance the story Morris is trying to tell. Morris refers to McNamara talking about his work on developing automobile safety and dropping skulls down stairwells- about the visual idea taking root in his head as McNamara described.

Fog of War is a riveting portrait of a man struggling with his own conscience, a man loathed by people of Morris' generation. Why does Morris work against prevailing orthodoxy, why pick demonised and unrepentant protagonists like Leuchter, McNamara and Lynndie England? Morris answered "because if they're not like us, where does that leave us?"

We're in a period where the "right" way of thinking has become essential to social acceptance. It is no longer socially acceptable in certain circles to dissent from conventional wisdom relating to a whole raft of topics. This, for me, represents a denial of our humanity, of our inherent flexibility. It transposes the media-fed Red/Blue state view of the world where we are Liberal/Conservative/Religous/Secular/Hungry/Thirsty/Rapidly losing the will to live and shouldn't hang out together. This isn't even a debate anymore, it's become an industry where newspapers, blogs, TV news, zines and films tout opinions as products, creating a world where a persons position on current affairs become a surrogate for thought. This is pernicious nonsense and Morris is one of the few mainstream non-fiction filmmakers attempting to challenge this. Morris' work requires the viewer to draw their own conclusions, to think about the work and come to ones own conclusion. That's not to say Morris doesn't have his own view, one which was voiced at the In Person event and the Q&A after Standard Operating Procedure- but he doesn't allow his view to be expressly stated in his films.

Standard Operating Procedure is one of the first mainstream films about Iraq to avoid editorialising as to the morality or otherwise of the misadventure/catastrophe/oil-grab in Iraq. As Morris said in the Q&A "there's plenty of other product in the market" that treat of this issue.
The film treats of the evidence that emerged from Abu Ghraib, attempts to put it into context and allows those who took the blame to articulate their sense of rage, frustration, anger and hopelessness at what transpired. This sense transmits to the audience (at least from where I was sitting) where we're all sat at the end wondering how the hell we got here and despairing at providing an answer as to what we should have done about it. The film is interesting in providing a snapshot of how unaccountability at the command level contributes to despair which in turn drives a disassociating effect from the immediate circumstances. This could apply to Lynndie England, Sabrina Harman and Roman Krol(easily the most sinister and unrepentant character in the film) or just as equally to the US/UK itself, inured the the horrors played out daily throughout the world but completely devoid of any idea of how to resolve the problems. The photographs are returned to again and again and again.

Morris said that it has been his ambition to make a film "where the audience would wish they'd never been born". In Standard Operating Procedure (the term means the lawful manner in which prisoners can be mistreated without the act being, in itself, criminal) he comes close to achieving the goal. We are forced to confront our complicity in the acts that created Abu Ghraib, a POW camp in the middle of a free fire zone, devoid of authority and accountability in which the lowest orders were punished for preparing prisoners for the undocumented and enhanced abuse at the hands of CIA and Military Intelligence interrogators.

Standard Operating Procedure refers to the lawful manner in which prisoners can be mistreated without the act being, in itself criminal. In a harrowing sequence in the film an army CID investigator differentiates between photos depicting criminal acts (those featuring sexual humiliation, threatening inmates with dogs etc) and those depicting SOP (the most famous being the Hooded Man but others including men chained to railings and left to stand for hours). This is where the film really achieved Morris' goal of a non-fiction Horror movie; we now live in a world where prisoners can be chained, standing against bunks for hours before interrogation and strictly speaking there's nothing criminally wrong. It makes you feel dirty.

And that's before you get to the substantive issue of the photos which are central to the confusing and upsetting litany of degradation and horror that follows. The film is very ambiguous about the photos, their inspiration and the content- there is clear enjoyment of the act of photographing prisoners, corpses and abuse. There are revelations in the film which are profoundly disturbing and made me unsure about my disgust at the photos given that they are the only ones surviving from a damage limitation exercise- the horror at what you see gives way to the horror at what you haven't seen. It is the limitlessness of the despair of these conclusions that we truly wake in Morris' nightmare.

There's a lot to the film and I'm still processing it. I quote Morris from memory as I (stupidly) failed to bring a notebook, any corrections, comments and gripes welcome. I'm also eager to get the book co-authored by Morris and Philip Gourevitch. Morris' site and blog are really illuminating resources and are probably far better informed, argued and written than this.

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