Just saw the Abu Ghraib documentary by Errol Morris and it blew me away: the focussed concentration on the Abu Ghraib soldiers narrating those infamous pictures, each soldier framed alone on a wide-screen, calm and expressive. "Standard Operating Procedure" stunned from the first image of a sun setting on Abu Ghraib to the last image of the same sunset, with birds flying away. Can't say more about the film now (publicist wants me to wait until April release), but so far it's one of the festival's best. It moved my blood, to quote German director Doris Dörrie, who this morning said in our interview that a film works for her if it moves her--either to thought or feeling: anything that causes a stir inside.
Moved me to remember my activist enthusiasm against the war, lying dormant now in my Paris professor role, and to feel thankful for people like theater director Richard Schechner who riding strong, at age 70, came up with the idea two years ago to do a performance piece in New York against the apathy of the American public towards torture. We amateur actors were to dress up like the photos, i.e. the woman with the leash (who is the centerpiece of the Abu Ghraib film, telling her own story matter-of-fact, a small smile on her face) with the difference that those playing the soldiers would be naked. Schechner's idea (never realized): a naked re-enactment of the photo in Penn Station would bring police and newspaper photographers--and we need photographs to make things move, said Errol Morris with a flourish this evening after his film, which is why he was intrigued to make these photos talk, to put together the bits and pieces of evidence, to investigate the truth.
One of the most interesting photos that talks is a picture of specialist Sabrina Harman, holding the head of a bloody bruised corpse, with a pretty grin and a thumbs-up sign. "Well when you get into a photo, you automatically smile," Sabrina explains, with a sheepish grin.
Coincidence of coincidence: just went to check my email and received, pop on the screen, after two years' hiatus: an email from Richard Schechner himself, musing on the abuses of power.
Synchronicity: wake up from apathy!
...and from DIPLOMACY IN THE AGE OF TERROR, a panel discussion organized by Participant Media, the Los Angeles-based production company who produced the film (and the successful "An Inconvenient Truth"), whose goal is to produce films "to awaken, inspire and empower audiences to take action and create change."
Lord Peter Goldsmith (former UK Attorney General):
The world was shocked by those photos because they were shocking and not only shocking but as we can see in the film, they use methods that were not even effective. International law is to help prevent terror. The effect of these pictures was to damage the credibility of the US and also the coalition.
Dr. Allen Keller ((Director, Bellevue/NYU for Survivors of Torture):
There is nothing benign about the methods used in Abu Ghraib and in Guantanamo: stress positions, sleep deprivation, "enhanced interrogation techniques". They should be seen for what they are: torture with devastating physical and psychological consequences. Standing in extreme positions for hours: this causes blood clots which can migrate and be life-threatening. Victims of torture suffer repeated nightmares and terror. There is also a political impact: we have proved corrosive on what is already a worldwide epidemic of torture. For example, I was just in Zimbabwe and saw individuals being persecuted. And it is dubious that the methods are effective. These methods are not about getting information, but about humiliating and silencing.
Herta Daubler-Gmelin (Chairwoman of the Committee for Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid of the German Parliament)
It is not just Zimbabwe. Torture is all over the world: China etc. It's much more difficult if we don't have the US feeling obliged to follow international law. As for Abu Ghraib, only named soldiers have been prosecuted. What about the military leaders? Why is their impunity not put on the table?
Wolfgang Kaleck (General Secretary, European Center for Constitutionaland Human Rights)
Our work is about accountability and prevention. If you let these things go on, every police man and torturer in the world will feel justified. Everyone has his own excuse. It is not only about restoring dignity, it's also about restoring the law. It is not easy to go after the Rumsfields of the world, it's easier to go after fallen African dictators. But it is necessary to keep this on the agenda of the law enforcement agencies. We have an ongoing torture debate in every country of the world, and what we want to show is that Abu Ghraib is just the tip of the iceberg. Nobody really cares. People in Guantanamo are still held without legal control. The road of Abu Ghraib is a slippery slope. It is up to us to stop this.
Lionel Barber (Editor of the Financial Times)
I was in New York when the pictures of Abu Ghraib were shown, and to my astonishment, the New York Times did not have it on the front page in the mroning. The British newspapers did. Part of the answer lies in the extraordinary atmosphere that exists in US after September llth, which explains why the US took extraordinary methods in its "war on terror." We saw the media buy into the whole Bush project and support the decision to invade Iraq. In the 3-4 years after 9/11, the media did not cover itself in glory. As for Abu Ghraib, the damage to the US image was catastrophic.
You deaden sensibility to something by calling it something else, by calling torture something else. "War on terror" is a very dangerous concept. Where it falls down is when it becomes a legal definition of what is going on. "War on terror" became a justification for the US. We won't stop detaining people until some "war on terror" comes to an end. It is difficult to apply Geneva conventions because the concept does not quite work. I anticipate that the next US government will want to re-examine the concepts that have been using. They will realize that complying with international law is productive. If you demonstrate that you believe in freedom, democracy, human rights, you will win people's hearts.
With 2001, the US administration started to attack the rule of law itself. It came up with a new definition of torture that has nothing to do with international law. We want to restore the law, and the most important norm: Article l of the UN Torture Convention, which states that for whatever reason it is used, torture is prohibited.