Ghosts of Abu Ghraib



PARK CITY -- The three people director Rory Kennedy would most like to see her documentary "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib" are George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Unfortunately, they probably won't, but many Americans will get the opportunity when HBO gives the film a limited theatrical release prior to its airing in February. In these troubled times, it should be required viewing for all thoughtful citizens.

Not only does the film thoroughly and skillfully explain the context in which something as heinous as Abu Ghraib could happen, it attempts to understand the psychology of those involved. Interviews with members of military intelligence, military police, inmates from the prison and experts on the legal and moral implications of torture, create a complete and disturbing view of a tragedy far more complex than the work of "a few bad apples."

The film is framed by black-and-white footage from a 1961 documentary of a Yale University study in which recruits were required to administer 450 volts of electricity to people they didn't know. The point of the study was to observe an individual's willingness to inflict pain when ordered to do so, which, according to Kennedy, is what happened at Abu Ghraib.

The MPs whom Kennedy interviews are seemingly mild-mannered, even likable people who were forced into a job as prison guards for which they had no training. One of them, Javal Davis says, "the place turned me into a monster," a feeling echoed by others. This was not what innocent-faced MI officer Israel Rivera, only 21 at the time, or MP Sabrina Harman, fresh out of basic training, signed on for. After September 11 they wanted to defend their country and do some good. So they didn't question the torture they witnessed, and in some cases administered, because these were, after all, terrorists of the worst kind. (Ironically, as the film points out, none of the prisoners were ever charged.)

In the bigger picture, the film convincingly traces an administration policy that laid the groundwork for these atrocities. Scott Horton, chairman of the committee on international law for the New York City Bar Assn., cites a 2003 Pentagon intelligence briefing in which Rumsfeld called for the "gitmoizing" of Iraq's prison, which lead to the assignment of Major Gen.  Geoffrey Miller, formerly head of prison operations at Guanatanamo Bay, to bring his methods to Abu Ghraib.

Other witnesses, including a retired judge advocate general of the Navy, connect the dots between the acts in the prison and the administration's decision to redefine the terms of torture in ways contrary to those established by the Geneva Convention in 1948.

The photographs and grainy homemade videos shot inside the prison that Kennedy and her team have collected are no less shocking today than when the story broke in 2003. And cinematographer Tom Hurwitz has done an outstanding job shooting the interviews, especially the prisoners. Close-ups on their face and forehead suggest the fractured souls they have become. In one instance, an ex-inmate movingly details the murder of his father in Abu Ghraib, while another kisses the photograph of his dead brother.

This is clearly not an uplifting chapter in American history and it is difficult to watch at times. But as a restorative for the values this country aspires to and a condemnation of the injustices at Abu Ghraib, it is an important and eloquent piece of filmmaking.

HBO Documentary Films
Moxie Firecracker Films
Credits: Director: Rory Kennedy; Writer: Jack Youngelson; Producers: Rory Kennedy, Liz Garbus, Jack Youngelson; Director of Photography: Tom Hurwitz; Music: Miriam Cutler; Editor: Sari Gilman
No MPAA rating, running time: 82 minutes.