Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Q&A with Errol Morris: On Abu Ghraib, moral ambiguity, interviewing and war …

By Rob Nelson | Thursday, May 22, 2008 Filmmaker Errol Morris, whose latest documentary, “Standard Operating Procedure” opens in Minneapolis on Friday, talks shop and philosophizes with film writer Rob Nelson. 

Errol Morris, second from right, on the set of "Standard Operating Procedure."
Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics/Photo by Nubar Alexanian
Errol Morris, second from right, on the set of “Standard Operating Procedure.”

World-renowned documentary filmmaker Errol Morris is visiting the Minneapolis Central  Library, inspecting a library gift shop T-shirt. “If the public library is doing its job,” the T-shirt reads, “it has something in it that offends every single person.”

I ask Morris, meeting me for a chat on his U.S. tour to promote his Abu Ghraib documentary “Standard Operating Procedure” whether he agrees with this philosophy of information and the public good — key subjects of his film, as it happens.

“Yeah,” he answers. “More or less.”

I persist: Could the same be said of “Standard Operating Procedure”? That if the film is “doing its job,” it has something in it that offends every single person?

Morris, the tennis pro of interviewees (and interviewers), returns the serve and then some. “I was thinking that if a public library is doing its job,” he says with a faint, sneaky smile, “then everything in it should offend every single person.”

Does that comment of Morris’ offend you?

If so, you’re in for a doozy of a time with “Standard Operating Procedure” (which starts Friday at the Lagoon Cinema), wherein Morris interviews several people the world has come to wonder about — those who made and/or appeared in the notorious photographs at Abu Ghraib, as well as others present at the prison. Morris also dares, through surreally lit reenactments, to make Abu Ghraib, site of the most notorious war crimes in U.S. military history, look like an art installation.

This provocative, potentially offensive technique is not without purpose, or so I’d argue, as Morris investigates not so much the human-rights abuses at Abu Ghraib as the nature of the photographic medium, including its potential to lie. Not for nothing do the film’s promotional materials feature the image of a digital camera under the words, “Weapon of Mass Deception.”

Former Army reservist Lynndie England
Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics/Photo by Nubar Alexanian
Former Army reservist Lynndie England in a scene from “Standard Operating Procedure.”

This reminds me that the last time I met Morris — at the Cannes Film Festival in 2003, when he was premiering his film about Robert S. McNamara, “The Fog of War” — he was talking about talking, in particular how conversation, too, is a tool we humans use mainly to lie effectively.

Thus one must take the transcribed conversation that follows with a certain grain of salt if not outright skepticism. Morris, the kind of investigator who makes Mike Hammer look like Miss Marple, would no doubt prefer it that way.

MinnPost: Do you like this library of ours? Does it serve its function at this, the dawn of the Internet?

Errol Morris:
I like the building, yes. I think it’s very nice, very soothing. I think libraries are going to be around for a while. I have a fondness for them. Although it is an amazing thing to be able to sit at a computer and access more or less the equivalent of the British library. That in itself is extraordinary. I’m not so sure about how long newspapers are going to be around.

MP: As a voracious researcher, do you find that you trust the information you receive online — compared to the information you can receive in print, for example in a library?

EM: Well, the two are not mutually exclusive of one another. There are books online. Is it a Wikipedia question? Do I trust everything I read in Wikipedia? No. But I think anybody who trusts anything that they read anywhere needs to be reminded that there are errors everywhere — not least in newspapers these days.

MP: Last night at the Walker Art Center, where you were speaking after a screening of “Standard Operating Procedure,” you responded to a question in a way that was very loud and dramatic — whereas the film, to me, is striking for its almost supernatural sense of calm, of control. Were you feeling enraged last night?

EM: I would call it enthusiasm [laughs].

Cinematographer Robert Richardson and director Errol Morris
Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics/Photo by Mark Lipson
Cinematographer Robert Richardson and director Errol Morris on the set.

MP: Sure. Would you say that it’s the opposite tone of the film’s, which is so …

EM: Dispassionate?

MP: I wouldn’t want to put it in negative terms. How would you describe the film’s tone?

Maybe it’s dispassionate, I don’t know. Here’s my thinking. I finished “The Thin Blue Line” in 1989, and I’m being interviewed by a reporter in Dallas, and the reporter says, “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” I say, “Why?” The reporter says, “Because if you had made a standard documentary instead of this art film that you made, you would have gotten this [wrongly convicted] guy out [of jail] much faster.”

For better or for worse, I’m not Michael Moore. I can rant and rave as much as the next guy. As you’re probably aware, I feel very passionately about these issues.”

MP: There’s no shortage of ranting and raving in the blogosphere, would you agree?

Yes, I would agree. And it doesn’t necessarily help. It has this almost narcotic kind of effect. You know what people are gonna say — this received opinion and that received opinion — and people stop listening. What is actually needed is systematic investigation and storytelling. I’d rather make an argument — what I consider to be a solid argument for what I’m saying.

I feel I did that in “The Thin Blue Line.” I intervened in the imminent electrocution of an innocent man. But I think that film is laying out — in an orderly, systematic, and clear way — an argument of why misunderstandings and wrongdoings result in an outrageous miscarriage of justice.

MP: And the same is true of “Standard Operating Procedure,” yes?

EM: Yes. You know, when I say about “Standard Operating Procedure” that it’s a nonfiction horror movie, I’m being serious. I want to bring the audience into this world of Abu Ghraib, with all its moral ambiguities. Because I think that is an essential element of Abu Ghraib. People who, say, tell me that there was no ethical principle and no morality at Abu Ghraib are wrong. The people involved were wrestling endlessly with moral issues. They were obsessed — and remain obsessed — with whether their actions were right or wrong or something in between.

It’s a story not about my screaming and yelling about what I think of this issue — we can do that after screenings — it’s an issue of trying to capture that nightmare, that world of moral ambiguity and confusion, to put that on the screen. It’s my art. I’m a filmmaker.

Retired Brigadier General Janis Karpinski
Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics/Photo by Nubar Alexanian
Retired Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski in “Standard Operating Procedure.”

MP: Yes. And you’ve also been writing lately. How is that different?

EM: I’ve had trouble writing for the longest time, and now I just feel it’s all I really want to do. I think writing is really hard. I had written two op-ed pieces for the New York Times, and then I stopped for a while, because I was finishing [“Standard Operating Procedure”]. In the last couple of weeks, I have put up another couple of pieces — about reenactments in documentary film. I’m about to put up more stuff.

MP: Where are you in your thinking about this latest piece that you have coming due?

EM: My thought at the moment coincides with some of the issues that came up in the Q&A last night — the question about the smile that Sabrina [Harman] is wearing in that photo where she has her thumb up, sitting over the [dead] body. I have an interview with the world’s greatest living expert on facial expressions. I had sent him some of the pictures from Abu Ghraib — including the one we’ll call “Sabrina’s Smile” — so that he could analyze them from his perspective and we could talk about it. I’m looking forward to that conversation.

MP: So you would say that there is an informed opinion of photography, artistic and otherwise? Everyone has an opinion, as we know, but not all opinions are created equal?

People do have opinions of facial expressions, and they reflect on those opinions consciously and otherwise, wittingly and unwittingly. I wondered if I should go deeper into the investigation of that smile. I never know when to stop.

MP: Is that new for you? Did you always carry your films forward in investigations after they were finished?

EM: In a way it’s new, and in a way it’s not new. I kept interviewing McNamara after “The Fog of War” was released. But I wasn’t writing about it the way I’m writing now. I wish I had been.

MP: In terms of what’s not in “Standard Operating Procedure,” I’m struck by the absence of Rummy and Cheney from the film — but they’re very much present through their absence, do you think?

EM: They’re there. They’re loitering at the edges of the frame. They’re lingering in the wings. This gets to the infinite decisions that a filmmaker or any artist makes about what to include and what not to include. With this particular movie, I had no real appetite for going into to the upper levels of the chain of command. Not because I don’t think it’s interesting — I think there’s an enormous amount of material about the policies of this administration — but I think it’s already out there. We know there were torture memos [written or authorized by Rumsfeld]. We know about John Yoo. But to my mind, no one has looked closely at Abu Ghraib.

Here’s what I would do, if I were a decent human being, and more productive: I’d finish this damn thing that I’m writing for the Times, I have another essay about Zimbardo, Hannah Arendt, and Stanley Milgrom, and Abu Ghraib, which I would like to finish. I have a piece called “Forty Things That No One Knows About Abu Ghraib,” which I should put out. And I keep futzing with this, that, and the other thing. I’m frustrated at the moment: I’m trying to write, I’m trying to promote the movie, I’m trying to do everything.

MP: Is writing harder than filmmaking?

EM: It’s lonelier. With the films, I surround myself with really good people — editors, researchers, producers. There are lots of people. Filmmaking is not what I would call a solitary enterprise. Ultimately, I’m the one who has to make the decisions and produce something that makes sense with all the money I’m given. But it’s not like writing. With writing, you’re alone — at least the way I’m doing it.

I wish I could hire an editor and a fact checker … . This goes beyond the need to mitigate loneliness. You want some other people looking critically at what you do. “Are you sure you can make this claim? Are you sure you have substantiation to say this?” Those questions are really important. Because it’s not a blog I’m writing; it’s a series of essays. I need to find some more people.

MP: Well, I’m available [laughs]. In the meantime, would you mind if I take your picture?

Not at all!

Article continues after advertisement

MP: As an amateur photographer, I’d like to ask: What things should I consider when taking this picture of you? Can you give me some advice?

EM: I always Dutch-angle the camera. I always tilt it, in other words.

MP: Ah, right? Okay [snaps picture]. Could you take my picture — at Dutch angle or otherwise?

EM: Yes, I’d be happy to.

MP: Should I raise my thumb like Sabrina? Or point it down like a critic — a critic of Abu Ghraib?

EM: As you prefer [snaps picture].

Errol Morris and Rob Nelson
Top photo by Rob Nelson, bottom photo by Errol Morris
Errol Morris and Rob Nelson

MP: What do these photos say, do you think?

EM: I think they reveal expressions of great inner peace and satisfaction.

MP: Like your “enthusiasm” last night?

EM: Was that a bad scene last night? Tell me the truth.

MP: Oh, no — not at all. I found it energizing and inspiring. Didn’t you?

EM: I don’t know. An interview is so weird. It’s a simple thing on one hand, and on the other, it’s not so simple. People have all these strange expectations about what should be accomplished in an interview. There’s this odd phenomenon that I resist — maybe out of pure perversity or persnicketyness. I didn’t want to make McNamara confess. Confess to what? That he killed two and half million people? “Sir, did you kill two and a half million Vietnamese people? Are you sorry, sir? How so, sir? How sorry are you?”

My theory is that apologies and confessions empower the listener — or the viewer in the case of a movie. If I sit here and I say to you, “I’d like to apologize for my behavior last night. It was excessive, it was unwarranted, I’m embarrassed, and I apologize.” Well then you can look at me and you can say, “I accept your apology.” The ball is in your court. You’re empowered. Or you can say, “I’m terribly sorry, Errol, that scene was uncalled for, it was embarrassing, it was uncouth, and I can’t accept your apology for that kind of behavior.”

MP: You’re ceding control then, yes?

EM: You’re ceding control in a certain way, yes — in a way that relieves tension where maybe tension ought to remain. The funny thing is, I’m a person who apologizes constantly. I apologize for everything.

MP: Could you imagine ever making a documentary film without interviewing the people the film is about? Would you make a film about Donald Rumsfeld without his participation? Certainly you wouldn’t turn down an invitation from him, would you?

I don’t imagine making a film about Rumsfeld without his participation — and I don’t imagine ever having his participation, either. But if Donald Rumsfeld called me tomorrow and said, “Hey, I would like you to come over here and interview me right away,” I would do it. Or Bush, of course, I’d interview him. Meantime I have my dime-store psychological theory about Bush, just like the next guy. I think that Bush spent a hefty amount of his life feeling humiliated in one way or another.

I don’t know for sure what the origins of this war — or any war — might really be. War is so horrendously complex. But I feel strongly that there’s no absolute necessity to go to war — and yet this administration obviously felt an enormous need to close off any possibility of discussion, mediation. They wanted to force a war, and they did it. That is a terrible thing. Why mince words? It’s a terrible crime. It’s a crime against our country, against the world. They should be punished for it. You don’t go to war for no good reason. You don’t go to war because you feel our country has been humiliated by 9/11, and it’s time for payback. That’s not leadership; it’s cowardice. I’m sorry to sound so political.

MP: Are you kidding? You’re hitting us where we live. Were you active politically before you became a filmmaker?

EM: Yes. I was part of demonstrations against the Vietnam War at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and then at Princeton University. The war [in Vietnam] was endlessly being discussed. It was the central issue of the time. Whereas [the Iraq War] is a kind of sidebar concern — perhaps because there’s no draft this time, because the loss of life, at least for Americans, is much less than it was during Vietnam. See, to me the issue is not war or even torture. It’s the idea of a rogue government — a government whose officials believe they’re entitled to do anything. I think that is really, really scary.

It’s not unique in the history of this country to be in a period of fear and retrenchment and of the abnegation of civil liberties of one form or another. But I just feel that the threat here, in this era, is so diffuse, so removed. We’re creating a world of fear for reasons that I don’t quite understand. Have you seen “The Power of Nightmares?”

MP: Oh, sure, yes. A great documentary by Adam Curtis. You like it?

EM: I like it very much. I think looking at Abu Ghraib carefully does create evidence of new information. I know all kinds of stuff about it. Like if you asked me, “Were people at the higher levels of the Defense Department in constant communication with the officials of Abu Ghraib in the fall of 2003?” I would say, “You betcha.” It was a high priority element — the highest priority — to find Saddam Hussein and kill him. There are smoking guns everywhere. As soon as I get some time I’ll publish “Forty Things That No One Knows About Abu Ghraib.” In the meantime, I like resisting audience expectations — and I like things that are disturbing and remain disturbing.

A book that has always fascinated me is Gitta Sereny’s collection of her conversations with Albert Speer. In the book. Sereny has set herself a task: to get Speer to admit that he knew about the Holocaust. “Sir, you were present at such-and-such a meeting, where Goebbels said X, Y, and Z — how is it possible that you did not know what was happening to the Eastern European Jews? Did you not hear what he said, sir?” The book goes on and on and on in this vein. And I think in the end, Gitta Sereny deceives herself into thinking that Speer has eventually admitted something about what he knew. I don’t think he admits anything in that book! The desire to hear him confess is so powerful, so overwhelming.

MP: It’s a desire for closure, yes?

Maybe that’s it. That’s always been my interpretation of death. Man asks God, “What about closure?” And God says, “Wait a second — I have an idea. How about death? How’s that for closure?”

Rob Nelson is a member of the National Society of Film Critics and a former writer and editor for City Pages. He can be reached at rnelson [at] minnpost [dot] com.