Abu Ghraib-ass

Posted on 22 May 2008 at 6:33pm
By Steve Warren – Contributing Film Critic

Doc fails to capture big picture of Iraqi prisoner atrocities

CAMERA ANGLE; Lesbian MP reservist Sabrina Harman took photographs to document conditions inside Abu Ghraib.



Torture is in the eye of the beholder. To some, a picture of seven naked men in a pile represents cruel and unusual punishment. To others, it’s a ’70s flashback.

OK, the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. military police is nothing to joke about, but famed documentarian Errol Morris ("The Thin Blue Line," "The Fog of War") doesn’t do a very good job taking it seriously in "Standard Operating Procedure.

Prisoner abuse was covered better in Alex Gibney’s Oscar-winning "Taxi to the Dark Side," which focused more on the prison at Bagram Air Force Base.

Morris has a dozen interviewees, including most of those who took the fall for the Abu Ghraib-ass that was captured on camera. Brigadier General Janis Karpinski complains of hearing from the press that she was relieved of command 10 days before she was officially notified by her superiors.

But no one ranked higher than staff sergeant was tried or did prison time. And five of those seven are interviewed here. They put most of the blame on Ivan Frederick and Charles Graner, who were in prison (Frederick has since been paroled) and not made available when the film was shot.

It’s a movie, so there’s a romantic triangle. Lynndie England, who was 20 when she came to Abu Ghraib, tells of her affair with Graner, then 34, which resulted in a child. By the time she found out she was pregnant, Graner had moved on to Megan Ambuhl, whom he married.

The final woman, Sabrina Harman is the most sympathetic. Much of the narration comes from her letters home to her wife, Kelly. There’s no mention of "Don’t ask, don’t tell" or whether she was out in the Army. She is now.

Harman repeatedly (there’s a lot of repetition in this film) says she took pictures to back up her story when she told the world of the abuses she witnessed. But several of the photos she appears in show her standing over humiliated prisoners, grinning and giving a thumbs-up sign. She explains she was just playing along and didn’t know what to do with her hands when someone turned a camera on her.

STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE
C
Director: Errol Morris
Cast: Joshua Feinman, Zhubin Rahbar, Merry Grissom, Cyrus King and Sarah Denning
Opens: May 23 at the Magnolia.
1 hr. 56 min.        R

Harman says she took the famous video of seven naked prisoners being made to form a human pyramid, then went to call Kelly to wish her a happy birthday.

England, who also celebrated a birthday that night, was made to pose with one of the prisoners when Graner made them masturbate. She says the military is "a man’s world. You gotta be equal to a man or you’ll be controlled by a man." And she was controlled by Graner: "I was blinded by being in love with a man."

Civilian interrogator Tim Dugan calls the MPs at Abu Ghraib "a bunch of schmucks who didn’t know their damn jobs." As Gibney pointed out in his film, part of the problem was that they were young and their jobs weren’t clearly defined.

Brent Pack of the Criminal Investigation Division gives a detailed analysis while building a case against the MPs seen in the photos. His explanations for interrogating enemy prisoners are fuzzy — why some of abuses are considered "criminal acts" and others are "Standard Operating Procedure."

While Ambuhl voices the line that they were told the things that went on at the prison would save lives of soldiers outside, others point out that many of the prisoners had committed no crimes at all, certainly no crimes related to terrorism. So there was no point in torturing them to get information from them.

"Standard Operating Procedure" is not Errol Morris’ finest hour. But neither is it an atrocity on the order of those it depicts.



SURFIN’ TURF


The "Bra Boys" are not brassiere-wearing drag queens but a "surf tribe," often maligned in the press as a "surf gang," from Maroubra Beach in a poor section of Sydney.

In this Russell Crowe-narrated documentary the Maroubrans’ attempt to generate good press, blaming their problems, culminating in a 2003 murder, on chronic bad relations with the police and outside gangs invading Maroubra, making them defend their surfin’ turf.

Professional surfer Sunny Abberton, the oldest of four brothers, wrote, produced and directed. Jai and Koby Abberton are charged in the murder case. Youngest brother Dakota is barely glimpsed.

Surfing is crammed between history, "Jackass"-style stunts, fighting and general hooliganism. There’s positive material about the Bra Boys brokering peace in a race riot and offering boys a healthy alternative to drugs and crime. If there are any "Bra Girls" we don’t see them, except lost in crowds. The only woman in this macho world is "Ma," the Abbertons’ grandmother, who opened her beach house to the local boys.

There’s good surfing footage but not enough if that’s your only interest. Likewise there’s not much eye candy. The basic story is interesting enough that Crowe optioned the rights to direct a dramatic version.

Grade: C+

— Steve Warren

Opens May 23 at the Angelika Dallas.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 23, 2008.

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