Running Time: 116 mins
Rated: Rated MA 15+ (strong themes, graphic images of prisoner abuse)
It didn't happen while the Vietnam War was going on: big name directors making feature films or documentaries about the war and its consequences. But, it is happening on a significant scale with American films, many with mainstream stars, with films not just about the invasion and occupation of Iraq or the bombing of Afghanistan, but critical of these events and of American behaviour at political and military level (Redacted, Rendition, Lions for Lambs, In the Valley of Elah, Battle for Haditha (from the UK)).
Now Oscar-winning documentarist, Errol Morris, brings a detailed consideration of what happened in the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, especially after the publication of the notorious, humiliating photos around the world and the trials where US military personnel were found guilty and imprisoned - though, as so often noted, no higher official was held to account.
Morris is able to show not only the photos on the big screen but has drawn together a cast to re-enact aspects of the scenes, not in a melodramatic way but with staging, light and shadow, in a style that takes its cue from the photos with the audience feeling that they have seen the actual events. Occasionally, this is heightened with the extreme close-ups of the toothy maws of the snapping guard dogs.
The basic situation of Abu Ghraib is introduced, especially through a 2003 visit of Donald Rumsfeld and the concern of American authorities to capture and imprison Saddam Hussein. (In one of the interviews, it is pointed out that the military found Saddam not through any information gained from torture.)
The bulk of the film, however, consists of interviews (intercut with the photos and re-enactments) conducted by Morris over several years with key personnel responsible for the prison, with participants in the action photographed, especially the now well-known Lyndde England, with Sabrina, one of the key photographers with quotations from her letters of the time, with an American interrogator and with an expert on photography who prepared the data for the prosecution.
One of the guards remarks that the situation must have been grave if it led to the US President apologising to the world.
So, the film is a questioning and an indictment of American policy (and lack of it), unpreparedness to deal with the post-invasion situation, especially in terms of personnel training - and the critique of a tradition that has accepted torture. It is hoped that we are becoming more sensitive to these brutal and humiliating realities.
Sony Pictures Opens July 10
Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.