Rory Kennedy: Disturbing the Ghosts of Abu Ghraib

interviewed by Michael Guillen -- February-2007

Rory Kennedy's probing hbo documentary Ghosts of Abu Ghraib is now out on dvd. As David Courier wrote, introducing the film when it premiered at Sundance in January, Kennedy "explores how, given the right circumstances, typical boys and girls next door can commit atrocious acts of violence.... The now-infamous photos that emerged from Abu Ghraib represent only the tip of the iceberg, pointing to systemic abuse from Guantanamo Bay to Afghanistan and beyond. These photos have come to redefine the United States - once considered a bastion of human rights - as a principal proponent of torture. Have we blurred the distinction between ourselves and terrorists in ways that will haunt our country throughout history? Powerful, restrained, and fiercely compelling, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib demands that we examine our conscience as a nation."

Bay Area audiences have had two unique opportunities to catch Ghosts of Abu Ghraib in an Oscar-qualifying albeit limited theatrical release. It ran for three days at the Roxie Film Center and then was screened at Fort Mason's Cowell Theater for members of the World Affairs Council. In attendance at the World Affairs Council screening, Rory Kennedy took time to talk with me about her disturbingly poignant documentary.


Watching Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, I noted three or four instances in which the military police - to qualify the reality of their being put into the position of prison guards - likened their experience unto movies; either The Shining, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome or Apocalypse Now. That, in and of itself, is not anything new. For quite some time, people have questioned this popular tendency to describe reality as being "like a movie." But what intrigues me is that there is also currently a popular trend in the horror genre that indulges what is being called "torture porn." Perhaps it is a cultural zeitgeist reflecting our fear of torture in torturous times? Notwithstanding, the trend concerns me. Your documentary impressed me because it seemed to balance against the fictionalized voyeurism of torture porn with some hands-on information about real government-sanctioned torture. Do you have any thoughts about the value of documentary as a corrective or instructive ameliorative against fictionalized torture porn?

I'll tell you an anecdote: Tony Lagouranis - who is one of the characters that we interviewed in the film - was an interrogator at Abu Ghraib but was also on a mobile unit that traveled throughout Iraq. He interrogated people at a number of different facilities throughout the country. What he said was that there were a lot of interrogators who he worked with who said that they got their ideas of how to interrogate through television.

Television really does have a significant impact in terms of having a material effect. If you go to Iraq and somebody's torturing somebody like they torture them on 24, it's obviously inspired by that television show. The other thing that happens in some of these more fictitious accounts is they're not reflecting the real reality of the situation. For example, I think what happens in a lot of these TV shows is there's a situation where there's a bus full of kids and, if you interrogate somebody, they're going to get the information to save the children. So be it. If you've got to torture somebody a little bit to get the information, it's worth it to save that busload of kids. So when people think of torture, they think, "Wow. If we can prevent another 9/11 by torturing somebody a little bit, then that's okay."

That's just not the reality. The reality is what Tony Lagouranis talks about which is they say, "Listen, we think there was an IED attack and it's somebody who did it in a black Opal." They round up everybody, 200 people, who were driving black Opals and they torture all of them. At least 199 of them are totally innocent and probably 200 of them are, right? So they treat them horrifically and there's no information that's gained. We have to deal with the realities of what torture is and I don't think these TV shows do it justice - or probably these horror films, though I don't really watch horror films that often.

I've sampled torture porn movies like Saw, Hostel and Wolf Creek - because I'm trying to understand why audiences are attracted to these movies. I suspect it is because in these films the possibility of torture is presented as something coming from without, from the other, from foreigners, which is to imply the possibility that Americans feel comfortable claiming the mantle of victimization. Your documentary is powerful because you've laid out that, in truth, the fear is going in the wrong direction and that it is our government policy that has made it easy for American military personnel to torture Iraqi civilians.


But Ghosts of Abu Ghraib is not just a study in finger pointing. Or, where it points most of all is to the darkness within. Thus your film is in the unique vanguard of exploring the psychology of why people torture. You bookend the events at Abu Ghraib with archival footage from Dr. Stanley Milgram's 1961 Yale "Obedience" study during which test subjects were encouraged to inflict pain upon others. Your documentary quotes Dr. Milgram's somber conclusion: "The results, as I observed them in the laboratory, are disturbing. If in this study an anonymous experimenter could successfully command adults to subdue a 50-year- old man and force on him painful electric shocks against his protests, one can only wonder what government, with its vastly greater authority and prestige, can command of its subjects." To achieve an exploration of yet one further example of Hannah Arendt's well-known "banality of evil", and how authority-respecting individuals will follow commands to torture others, your documentary employs a plurality of voices. When you were conceiving and designing the documentary, did you think you would achieve this variety of viewpoint?

I didn't. I didn't expect to be able to get access to that many of the soldiers. I was very happy to be able to speak with them. I know a lot of people are hissing at John Yoo in the documentary but it took a lot of courage for him to be a part of this film. His perspective is important in understanding where the Administration is coming from. I was happy to be able to talk to someone within the Administration who was there at the time in the Justice Department to understand where they were coming from. Then, of course, getting access to the detainees was a challenge logistically and otherwise but they add a dimension to the film that's enormously important. They provide a perspective we really haven't heard from before and a dimension that balances out the film overall.


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