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Abu Ghraib hits the screens

Latest update : 2008-02-12

The first documentary to be presented at the Berlin Film Festival depicts the story of Abu Ghraib prison. The director Errol Morris visits, interviews and seeks the truth behind one of the worst episodes of the US led invasion of Iraq.

A searing documentary about the prisoner abuse scandal at Iraq's Abu Ghraib jail was set to premiere Tuesday at the Berlin Film Festival, reopening one of the most shameful chapters of the US-led war.

In "Standard Operating Procedure", Oscar-winning director Errol Morris uses recovered footage, reenactments and the notorious photographs published round the world to shed light on the forces behind the sexual and physical maltreatment of Iraqi inmates at the hands of US troops.

The film, screened at a press preview, avoids the familiar ground widely documented in the press after the first incriminating images surfaced in 2004: the global public outrage, the trials and the eventual apology by US President George W. Bush.

Instead, in probing interviews with the troops, Morris illustrates their contrition but also the defiance many involved in the abuse show as their superiors go unpunished.

The troops' candid confessions, shot in Morris' trademark close-ups, fly in the face of claims that the events at Abu Ghraib were a mere aberration.

The soldiers describe massive pressure from the highest echelons of the military to acquire "actionable intelligence" to stop the bloody insurgency in Iraq and locate then fugitive leader Saddam Hussein.

"We were told to soften them up for interrogation," Specialist Lynndie England, who was sentenced to three years in prison in 2005, tells Morris.

But the soldiers soon realise that the vast majority of the "high value" inmates at the prison, used as the primary interrogation centre in Iraq, were probably average family men with no involvement in attacks on US troops.

England, whose round face and thumbs-up sign were seen in a dozen key photographs depicting sexual humiliation and beatings of Iraqi prisoners, speaks with bitterness about what she calls her minor role in the scandal.

Her dark hair now cut in a bob and her expression hardened, England denounces her former fiance, Specialist Charles Graner, who was handed a 10-year sentence.

"I was blinded by being in love with a man," she says with a wry smile, after cataloguing the difficulties women in the military face.

Sixteen years her senior, Graner is depicted by England and others as a ringleader of the abuse but was not allowed to speak with Morris.

Other soldiers describe their mounting frustration over hazing by fellow troops, incessant mortar attacks by Iraqi insurgents, frequent rioting at the prison and the sheer boredom that fed the sadism against the inmates.

The commanding officer at Abu Ghraib, then Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, maintains her innocence in interviews with Morris, saying she was unaware of the abuse and kept in the dark about how interrogations were prepared and conducted.

Morris, who turned 60 this month, won an Academy Award for his incisive 2003 documentary "The Fog of War" about former US defense secretary Robert McNamara, who was at the helm of the Pentagon at the start of the Vietnam war.

His films "The Thin Blue Line" about the death penalty in the United States and "A Brief History of Time" on the disabled British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking were also international successes.

"Standard Operating Procedure", the first documentary ever to enter the competition at the Berlinale, matches those films in its gripping presentation of complex material and indelible visual effects.

The title is a reference to the wide berth given to interrogators in the US-led war on terror, as officers explain that many of the shocking photographs to come out of Abu Ghraib represent acceptable techniques under current military policy.

The film is one of 21 pictures in the running for the festival's prestigious Golden Bear top prize, to be awarded Saturday.

Date created : 2008-02-12