The familiar and disturbing pictures of torture at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison raise many troubling questions: How did torture become an accepted practice at Abu Ghraib? Did U.S. government policies make it possible? How much damage has the aftermath of Abu Ghraib had on America's credibility as a defender of freedom and human rights around the world?
Acclaimed filmmaker Rory Kennedy (HBO's Indian Point: Imagining the Unimaginable) looks beyond the headlines to investigate the psychological and political context in which torture occurred when the powerful documentary Ghosts of Abu Ghraib.
"How could ordinary American soldiers come to engage in such monstrous acts?" Kennedy asks. "What policies were put into place that allowed this behavior to flourish while protections granted to prisoners under the Geneva Conventions were ignored?"
"These photographs from Abu Ghraib have come to define the United States," says Scott Horton, chairman, Committee on International Law, NYC Bar Association. "The U.S., which was viewed as certainly one of the principal advocates of human rights and...the dignity of human beings in the world, suddenly is viewed as a principle expositor of torture."
For the first time, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib features both the voices of Iraqi victims (interviewed in Turkey after arduous attempts to meet with them) and guards directly involved in torture at the prison. Conducted by Kennedy, these remarkably candid, in-depth interviews shed light on the abuses in an unprecedented manner.
Through these interviews, the film traces the events and the political and legal precedents that led to the scandal, beginning with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
While the White House and Pentagon claimed that the situation at Abu Ghraib was "a kind of animal house on the night shift," other on-site participants and observers maintain that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were part of a general pattern of a "gloves off" interrogation policy that had been put in place after 9/11.
Ghosts of Abu Ghraib strongly suggests that, far from being an unauthorized, isolated event by rank-and-file soldiers acting on their own initiative, the physical and psychological torture employed at the prison was an inevitable outgrowth of military and government policies that were implemented in a climate of fear and chaos, inadequate training and insufficient resources.
The interviews with soldiers who took part in and observed the torture at Abu Ghraib show them to be intelligent and articulate young men and women, not gun-happy, sadistic torturers - challenging what viewers may think they know about what took place at the prison. For the most part, soldiers stationed at Abu Ghraib were not trained as prison guards, yet as few as 300 of them were put in charge of up to 6,000 prisoners, who were held in squalid and dangerous conditions.
"If there were no photographs, there would be no Abu Ghraib," said Javal Davis, an MP stationed at Abu Ghraib, who was later court-martialed.
After numerous investigations, 11 low-ranking MPs and Military Intelligence corpsmen were court-martialed. Only one high-ranking officer has been penalized to date: Brigadier General Janis Karpinski was demoted to colonel and has since retired from the military. At the same time, other high-ranking officials associated with the scandal have been promoted and the chain of command has not been subject to an independent investigation.
Ultimately, the film raises serious questions about what happened, why it happened and whether it was an isolated incident, as the government continues to maintain. Using footage from famous obedience experiments performed at Yale by eminent social psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s, the film suggests that under orders most people are capable of perpetrating inhumane and unjust acts against others.
As one of the Abu Ghraib MPs says in the film, "That place turned me into a monster." Another remarks, "It's easy to sit back in America or in different countries and say, 'Oh, I would have never done that,' but, until you've been there, let's be realistic: You don't know what you would have done."
The feature-length special was an official selection in the American Documentary Competition at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.
Rory Kennedy, co-founder and co-president of Moxie Firecracker Films, is one of the nation's most prolific independent documentary filmmakers, focusing on issues such as poverty, domestic abuse, human rights and AIDS. Kennedy's work has been featured on numerous broadcast and cable outlets, including HBO, A&E, MTV, Lifetime and PBS. She has directed and produced more than 20 films, including the HBO specials Indian Point: Imagining the Unimaginable, which examines the potential for a nuclear disaster in New York City's backyard; Pandemic: Facing AIDS, a five-part series that follows the lives of people living with AIDS throughout the world (nominated for two primetime Emmy Awards); American Hollow, which documents an Appalachian family caught between tradition and the modern world (nominated for a Non-Fiction Primetime Emmy Award and Independent Spirit Award); and A Boy's Life, about the troubling forces shaping the life of a young child in impoverished Mississippi. She executive produced Street Fight, which was nominated for an Academy Award for documentary feature in 2006.
The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib is a Moxie Firecracker Films production of an HBO Documentary Film; directed and produced by Rory Kennedy; produced by Liz Garbus; written and produced by Jack Youngelson; director of photography, Tom Hurwitz; editor, Sari Gilman; original music, Miriam Cutler. For the Fledgling Fund: executive producer, Diana Barrett. For HBO: senior producer, Nancy Abraham; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.