EM: No, they’re not striving to be literal. In fact, I avoided shooting them in that way. Often they’re fragmentary. Often they show certain details that you want to think about. Were the wires put on [Gilligan] so the photograph could be taken, and then removed? What was the purpose of the wires? I’ve tried to include enough material to give you something to think about, and to include enough material that no one has seen before, or thought about before. It’s a way of adding clarity. Usually visuals are designed to stop us from thinking, not to encourage us to think. I’m very fond of pointing out to people that reality is reenacted inside of our skulls routinely. That’s how we know about the world. We walk around in the world; the world isn’t walking around in us.
MM: I understand that you are also putting together a Web site that presents some of what you uncovered.
EM: The cid investigator Brent Pack, who is in the movie, put together a timeline. He arranged all the photographs chronologically, and identified which cameras they were taken by. I was really captivated by this document. I thought I’d use it as the basis of this Web site. You can click on a photograph and an iris opens up—you go into the photograph, and inside of the photograph is context. Take, just for example, the Gilligan photograph, the one on the box, with the wires. I rubber-band that photograph with the other ones taken at the same time, so that it becomes a group of related photographs. There’s software that allows you to reconstruct the room from the different angles of the photographs. Then I have biographies that you can click on for all the people who were in the room, and their own accounts. Plus you can see stuff that I recorded for this movie. In other words, you can really enter the world of the photograph. Maybe this whole thing works better as a Web site. I don’t know. [laughs]
MM: Are there parts of the film that particularly stand out for you?
EM: Often it’s how the characters describe themselves, or the things that they say. Certainly when Brent Pack talks about [Gilligan’s treatment] as being standard operating procedure, I find that a powerful and odd moment. He’s sincere, he’s not a bad guy, and yet he’s telling us something that is actually surreal and disturbing—even more so because he’s not a bad guy, because he’s being sincere. Or just seeing Lyndie England and how devastated she was by all of this. I’m moved by it. Call me crazy, but I am. She gives this final speech, which to me is so sad, about how maybe the whole world is just backstabbing and lying. You’ve got all of these players caught in this strange drama. The perversity of it all.
MM: None of your films has been particularly concerned with what we might call balanced journalism. In Standard Operating Procedure, the point of view largely belongs to the soldiers who took the photographs and were subsequently indicted. What is your aversion to stories that employ a more traditional weighing of arguments?
EM: I don’t believe that’s journalism. I’m sorry. [laughs] Take a clear example: I made this film, The Thin Blue Line, about a murder case in Dallas. Is the job of a journalist simply to have everybody weigh in on what his or her viewpoint might be? Or should the journalist find out what really happened? Is it a matter of indifference whether [the suspect] is guilty or innocent? Is it just something that we should have a vote on—as if a vote can determine what actually transpired in reality?
That doesn’t mean you don’t interview people with different points of view, different beliefs, different ideas. Of course you do. You interview lots and lots and lots of people, and look at lots of different kinds of evidence. But a journalist’s job—and I do think of myself as a kind of journalist—is to try and ferret out what really happened; to ferret out the truth. Did these soldiers, these “seven bad apples,” create all of this stuff? One of the things that we learn in the movie is that when they arrive at Abu Ghraib, a lot of this stuff is already in place: the stress positions, the cement bags, the hooding, stripping prisoners naked, sleep deprivation. It was there to begin with. It was there when they walked in. I think that is a very, very important detail. People know very little about this place: what happened there, where these policies came from, whether they were in fact policies, what they were hoping to achieve.