Since Abu Ghraib first came to the world's attention in 2004, nearly 300 photographs of Iraqi prisoner abuse have been shown to the public. But soon an enormous archive of new material - including more than 1,500 other photos, unredacted court papers and interview transcripts - will be posted online by filmmaker Errol Morris, whose latest documentary "S.O.P.: Standard Operating Procedure" examines the scandal in horrific detail.
"I'd like all this material to be seen," says Morris, who shot an estimated 200 hours of interviews for his two-hour film and used much of the extra material as research for an accompanying book scheduled for release later this year. The Academy Award-winning filmmaker (for "The Fog of War") says he's currently negotiating with several universities to host the large collection.
Using the current promotional site for his new movie to spark the larger project he envisions, Morris plans to create an interface in which clicking on each photo pulls up its context and circumstances - who took it, who else was present when was it shot and any salient testimony made to the commissions investigating Abu Ghraib. Morris sees his website as a growing historical archive, with new information added as more participants and witnesses come forward to speak.
Morris' new film was publicly unveiled last month at the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival, where it became the first documentary to ever be nominated for the top award. (It ended up winning a jury grand prize instead.) Opening in several U.S. cities on April 25, the film will roll out to more theaters in May. Raw, brutal and unrelenting, it is also a vivid tone poem recounting the stories behind the well-known photographs and an attempt to uncover the truth of what happened outside the frame.
"We think somehow we know what Abu Ghraib is about because we've seen the photographs," says Morris, "and I believe the photographs do not really tell us the real story. The photographs are both cover-up and exposÃƒ©. The element of the cover-up is unknown, I suppose because it was covered up. It's as simple as that. ... I don't think there ever will be justice until parts of the story are made public, and I am trying very hard to do that."
Morris says few, if any, members of the public are aware, for example, that children were kept at the prison as hostages, ostensibly in order to make family members talk.
Morris also feels the popular perception of Abu Ghraib has been colored by both political agendas. "The left and the right - and I don't think it makes much difference here - all assume they know what's in the photographs," he says. "In that sense, it goes beyond politics. Yes, the left will say it's because of this administration's policies, while the right will say it's a few bad apples. But both [sides] stop at the photographs, because there's a feeling we know what they mean and what they're about. ... I don't think it's been known at all."
Whether they be big-budget narratives featuring major stars or low-budget documentaries, recent films about the Middle East have had a rough time at the box office.
"No End in Sight," exploring the neo-conservative's rationale for invading Iraq and the problems leading to the violent insurgency, became 2007's second most successful documentary - and earned a miniscule $1.4 million. "Taxi to the Dark Side," detailing the death of an Afghan taxi driver while he was being interrogated by U.S. soldiers, won the Oscar for best documentary in February, yet it has grossed less than $200,000.
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But Morris has never chased commercial success. His films are meditations on the human condition, asking deep, probing questions that often don't have simple answers. He realizes Abu Ghraib is something most Americans would rather forget than spend $10 to relive on a Saturday night. But he can't shake the disturbing, nagging notion that the scandal will continue to haunt the nation until and unless it comes to terms with what actually happened.
Congress, under Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), has investigated the prisoner abuse scandal, but Morris thinks there is still more to the story.
"I have a feeling that everybody has kept hands-off of this because it's seen as a political hot potato that perhaps doesn't help anybody," says Morris. "But Abu Ghraib goes well beyond the issue of torture - it's about the abandonment of our military and the scapegoating of low-ranked soldiers. It's that version of 'It's a Wonderful Life' where Mr. Potter wins and the little guys are blamed while the big guys walk away scot-free. It happened in My Lai too. Maybe there's just some fear of proceeding further but, oddly enough, this stuff doesn't go away. My Lai is still with us; so is the Dreyfus Affair."
Besides the premiere of his new movie, the upcoming book and the accompanying website, Morris is keeping busy with plans for new films, an ongoing series of articles for The New York Times, as well as other projects.
During the last presidential election cycle, he made several commercials for MoveOn.org, and this year he may again helm some ads for one of the so-called 527 groups. It's not something he's entirely thrilled about, however. "I dread politics, I have to tell you," he confesses. "It's wandering into the true morass, the swamp. But I'd be happy to do it again."
ODDS & ENDS:
With any new president comes a flood of new political appointments, so this week The Hollywood Reporter canvassed the "tele-cognescenti" to predict who could be selected as the next Federal Communications Commission chair under different administrations. Should Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton become the first woman commander in chief, pundits claimed FCC Commissioner Susan Ness might also become the first female chief.
Under a President Obama, the trade paper suggested Harvard Law School pal Julius Genachowski, former FCC Common Carrier Bureau chief Larry Stickling, policy director Karen Kornbluh or Commission vet Don Gipps. Sen. John McCain, who headed the Senate committee charged with oversight of the FCC, might select Disney lobbyist Bill Bailey, Google counsel Pablo Chavez or top adviser Charlie Black.
Candidates can't stay away from Hollywood - or Hollywood cash. Clinton will return to Beverly Hills on April 3 for a fundraiser that's billed as "an evening of live conversation and celebration" at the Wilshire Theater. Tickets start at $100 and go up to, yes, $2,300 - the limit for donors under federal campaign laws. McCain is also in the Los Angeles area this week, for a speech before the Los Angeles World Affairs Council.
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