10 October, 2008

"I mean, we get it, it was grim"

So here's the thing.

Next year is the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II. And over the past seven decades, we've seen film after film, documentary after documentary, story after story about that war. We've had the serious dramatisations of real events, portraits of great WWWII figures, or films that use WWII as the backdrop for a good action-packed thrill-ride. Then there's the related issue of the Holocaust, the horrible toll that that took, and again, we've had that story told from every viewpoint, from the tragedy underlying Schindler's List or Anne Frank, to the comedy Holocaust of Life Is Beautiful. Most than any other conflict, World War II has to be the war most presented in cinematic form. After 70 years of WWII films, you would think there are no more stories to tell, no more incidents to leave the audience saying "I didn't know that happened."

And then a film like The Counterfeiters comes along, and surprises the audience by revealing a little-known corner of the war, a surprising front on which the war was being fought. And it's a story that is so fascinating, it leaves the viewer wondering why they've never heard about this before. The Counterfeiters (see the trailer here) is a fictionalised account of Operation Bernhard, a Nazi attempt to win the war by undermining the Allied economies. The film revolves around a guy known as Sally, who is arrested for counterfeiting and sent to a concentration camp, but then finds his skills in demand by a Nazi regime planning to flood the US and UK with counterfeit dollars and pounds. The prisoners cooperating in the scheme are given special benefits, are comparatively well-treated, but must cope with the guilt of benefiting while others are dying, the knowledge that their actions may actually be sustaining the Nazi war effort, and the growing awareness of that, if they succeed in making the US dollar, they may not survive much longer.

And here's the frustrating thing. I liked the film, I enjoyed it, I though it was interesting, but on reflection I realised I liked the idea of the film more than I liked the film itself. What I liked was that it was a film that told me something I did not know about the Second World War. And it was an interesting story - learning that the Nazis were undertaking the single largest counterfeiting operation in history is interesting to learn. But when you get past that, the film itself, while well-made, left me a bit empty. In a lot of ways, it's not surprising that the film won the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film - it feels almost like it was made to win an Oscar, not because it's a great film, but because it's good and it ticks the right boxes (WWII, anti-hero turned good, the Nazi who is marginally less-completely-evil, the bookends that show the enduring effects of the film's events on the main character). But ultimately, when I think about The Counterfeiters, I'm not going to be remembering what a good film it was - in fact, only a couple of months later, I'm already having difficulty remembering much about the film at all. The only thing I'll remember about the film will be the true events that the film informed me of. And being about a cool story isn't enough to make a great film.

But The Counterfeiters was not the only festival film I saw that took me inside a wartime prison. Two documentaries, Taxi To The Dark Side and Standard Operating Procedure, both examined events in the Abu Ghraib prison, but adopted entirely different approaches. Taxi To The Dark Side (see the trailer here) took a broad approach in examining the wider context of events. Indeed, the events that give the film its title took place not in Iraq, but Afghanistan. An apparently innocent Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar was arrested as an alleged terrorist by US troops, held in Bagram Air Base, and was beaten to death five days later. The people involved in running Bagram were later tasked with running Abu Ghraib, and we all know what happened there. A fascinating film, it sought to explore the circumstances that caused those events to occur. What the film ultimately presented were a collection of frankly confused soldiers who didn't really quite understand what had gone on, who had found themselves thrust into a prison in Iraq, without the necessary knowledge or training to prepared for this unimaginable situation, and being unofficially urged by those up the chain of authority to use any means, including extremes of torture, to get information that they believe will save the lives of their fellow soldiers. And then when bad things occurred, they were thrown out as the guilty parties, acting without authorisation, while those who ordered or encouraged these behaviours are able to deny any knowledge and move on. And the film goes even wider, discussing also the treatment of the detainees in Guantanamo. By the end of the film, it successfully links the treatment of prisoners in three separate prisons in three different countries to demonstrate a policy of prisoner mistreatment and torture, unofficially approved but officially denied by those at the highest level.

But personally, I preferred the other Abu Ghraib film. Ive never seen an Errol Morris film before, although I'm familiar with his reputation as a top documentarian, so I was interested to see his new film, Standard Operating Procedure (see the trailer here). And it didn't disappoint. Where Taxi To The Dark Side looked at Abu Ghraib in the wider context of the entirety of US actions in the war on terror, Standard Operating Procedure had a very narrow focus, looking pretty much solely at the photos that came out of the prison, and exploring the story of these photos. The idea underpinning the film was simple, but compelling. We see the photos, we're horrified by them, and we think we understand everything we need to understand about the situation that's presented. But the film argues that there's a lot we don't see in the photographs. A photograph captures a limited image of a single instant in time. We don't see what happened before or after the photograph, we don't see the people to the left or right of the frame, we don't see the person taking the photo, we don't see what's in anyone's mind at that time.

For example, consider the famed photograph of the woman giving a thumbs up by the body of a dead Iraqi. Seems horrible, callous, and offensive, and the woman, Sabrina Harman, deserved to be punished, which she was. But in the film, we hear that Sabrina was horrified by the events at the prison, and actually wrote to her partner saying that she was taking photographs to document what was happening, for her to use once she left Iraq. We hear that everyone was posing with the body, for her to refuse to do so would have attracted comment. And as for the "thumbs up" - it was just a habit, what she did in every photograph, for her as natural and instinctive a response to the camera as smiling would be for anyone. So how do we now view this woman? As a callous inhumane woman, a person treated unfairly by the system, or somewhere in between? And why was she prosecuted for posing with a body and giving the thumbs up, when the people that killed the person weren't prosecuted?

But more than that, the film asks the question I've not seen asked anywhere else - who was taking the photos? The film points in particular to a guy called Sgt Graner, who was in a relationship at the time with Lynndie England, and who seems to have been responsible for taking most of the more shocking "posed" hotographs. The film asks the very reasonable question, why has all the attention gone to the people visible in the photographs, and not on the person behind the camera telling them what to do? After all, would the "naked pyramid" or the "man on the leash" have even happened if Graner hadn't told the participants what to do? Would there have even been an offense if it weren't for Graner? If so, why is he still serving in the military?

It also explores, to a lesser degree, the borderline between enhanced interrogation and criminal torture. And that leads to the most fascinating moment in the film, where one interviewee goes through a collection of shocking photos, at a glance identifying wich ones are actual crimes, and which ones simply represented "standard operating procedure" for interrogation. All the photos may be shocking, offensive, horrible to look at, but does that mean that they are all morally or legally wrong?

Neither of these documentaries make enjoyable viewing. They're deeply unpleasant and horrific to watch, especially when you watch both of them so close together. But they're both interesting and challenging, well-made and intelligent, and if you can stand them, both are worth your time.

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