Documenting The Dark Side: Torture and The “War On Terror” in Zero Dark Thirty, Taxi To The Dark Side, and Standard Operating Procedure

Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, US Vice-President Dick Cheney declared the need for the USA and its allies to work “the dark side,” ushering in an era of globalized torture and rendition. This article deals with documentaries and fictional dramas that have delved into “the dark side” of the post-9/11 intelligence world – including Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012), Taxi to the Dark Side (Alex Gibney, 2007), and Standard Operating Procedure (Errol Morris, 2008). Each of these three films offers a distinctive perspective on torture and the “War on Terror,” but I argue that Standard Operating Procedure, criticized by some for its lack of moral viewpoint, is actually the most important and ethical of these films.

The Hollywood blockbuster about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, has also attracted critical controversy, in its case for its apparent endorsement of torture. In the film, evidence obtained from a tortured detainee gives the crucial lead in tracking down the Al-Qaeda leader – a connection that has been disputed in real life, despite the film’s claim that it is “based on first hand accounts of actual events.” Its screenwriter Mark Boal has defended the film on the grounds that it is “a movie not a documentary,” a gesture criticized by documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney:

It implies that because “movies” (unlike Boal, I would include documentaries, for better and for worse, in that category) have an obligation to entertain, they don’t have to be nitpickers for accuracy. Yet, on the other hand, [the director Kathryn] Bigelow says that this film is a “journalistic account.” So which one is it? You can’t have it both ways.[1]

Debates about documentary have tended to revolve around questions of “truthfulness,” questions to which, Gibney suggests, fictionalized “movies” purporting to be based on historical events are not exempt. In her writing on the documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, Linda Williams has rejected the “dichotomy of truth and fiction” in these debates, suggesting that “the choice, rather, is in strategies of fiction for the approach to relative truths.”[2] This article takes as its starting-point the view that use of the cinematic medium to articulate historical and political issues is inherently transformative, whether in documentary or fiction. Far from a transparent window onto historical and political realities, the art of filmmaking consists in the careful crafting of sounds and images to appeal to spectators’ emotions and bodily senses. Therefore, this article does not seek to scrutinize “truth” and “fiction” in these films, but to shift the debate to the aesthetic choices that lead to either moral or ethical confrontations with historical torture events.

The terms “moral” and “ethical” are often used interchangeably.[3] This article, however, follows a crucial distinction. A moral viewpoint, of which there can be several, expresses normative values about “right” and “wrong.” An ethical standpoint reflects on these normative viewpoints and how they are constructed and reconstructed under different circumstances; it is a reflection on morality, revealed from this meta-perspective to be a malleable framework.

In my analysis, I argue that, despite accusations of moral irresponsibility in its account of historical events, Zero Dark Thirty adheres to a moral script about 9/11 and its aftermath, in which torture and other questionable methods (like drone strikes and elimination by elite commando squads) are presented as necessary and effective, justifying the self-appointed forces of good going over to “the dark side” to defeat their enemies. Taxi to the Dark Side constructs a different kind of moral universe, focusing on the consequences of “the dark side” to its victims, inspiring pity for them and outrage towards those who instituted the torture policy. Here, torture is always wrong and, moreover, an ineffective means of intelligence-gathering. Winner of the 2008 Best Documentary Film Academy Award, Taxi’s predominantly moral stance gave it a warm reception amongst those on the antiwar side of the political spectrum. However, I contend that Standard Operating Procedure, a documentary that was criticized for its lack of moral perspective, deserves re-evaluation for its exploration of how moral norms are reconstructed in the “atrocity-producing situation” and its ability to engage us at multiple, sensory levels. In my argument, this is where a properly ethical response resides. A term adopted from Robert Jay Lifton, the “atrocity-producing situation” is an environment in which “sanctioned brutality becomes the norm”[4] and to which ordinary people are capable of adapting themselves to carry out or give consent to atrocities; the “War on Terror” is a classic example of such a situation.

The question that drives this discussion of morality and ethics is “How are we being invited to watch?”[5] While viewers may come to a screening with existing moral viewpoints, affiliated to their social, cultural, and political backgrounds, films offer cues for sympathy or allegiance and invite viewers to respond in particular ways.[6] Useful here is Noël Carroll’s notion of “criterial prefocusing,” which describes how films make the emotively significant aspects of events and characters stand out for us through narrative structure, dialogue, voiceover narration, sound, lighting, and variable framing.[7] Through these kinds of techniques, films invite the emotional responses that the filmmakers intended us to have – including indignation in response to injustice, admiration of virtue, or disgust towards behaviour regarded as immoral.[8]

However, in this way, I argue, films can encourage spectators to accept their moral universe, which may be at odds with their own moral beliefs. In other words, they are capable of manipulating our sympathies and moral judgments through their narrative and stylistic choices. This approach gains particular urgency when a major Hollywood film like Zero Dark Thirty creates a moral consensus about a dark past and justifies its continuation under a new phase of the “War on Terror” whose hallmark is targeted assassinations.[9] My analysis draws attention to the mutability of moral norms as they are constructed and reconstructed in Zero and Taxi and demonstrates how such mutability is reflected upon in Standard Operating Procedure.

In order to explore the films’ moral and ethical confrontations with post-9/11 events, it is necessary first to consider their political and historical contexts. My article, therefore, begins by tracing some of the moral and political discourses around torture; it then analyzes how they have been remediated in fictional and documentary treatments.

Torture and the “war on terror”
Speaking on the NBC television news show Meet the Press in September 2001, US Vice-President Dick Cheney employed a metaphor drawn straight from the movies:

We also have to work … sort of the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in, and so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal … to achieve our objective.[10]

Invoking the Manichean moral universe of Star Wars (1977), his speech positioned the USA and its allies as the forces of good facing an utterly evil enemy and obliged to go over to “the dark side” in order to defeat it. According to this rhetoric, this new enemy necessitates a new kind of war – a “War on Terror” – where even dirty methods are legitimate.

After 9/11, the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” program was expanded to enable suspects to be clandestinely abducted and disappear in CIA “black sites” and other secret detention facilities around the world, where they could be indefinitely held, without charge or trial, and without their fate or whereabouts being disclosed.[11] Chosen for its offshore location in Cuba, where it was deemed US laws regarding prisoner rights would not apply, the military base at Guantánamo Bay is only the most visible of “War on Terror” jails. This prison network has expanded with the complicity of many other countries assisting in prisoner arrest or interrogation, providing re-fuelling stops for rendition flights, and hosting “black sites” – turning torture and enforced disappearance, although both banned under international law, into a globalized system.[12]

In the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984), torture is defined as “severe pain or suffering” that is “intentionally inflicted” by a public official (or someone instigated on their behalf) to gain information or a confession, or to intimidate or punish an individual or a third party.[13] The convention constructs and enshrines a moral standard – that torture is indefensible under any circumstances and against anyone. However, for the US administration led by George W. Bush (2001-2009), this definition of torture was perceived to be adjustable. In keeping with its Latin etymological root “to twist,” torture twists not only bodies but also language, as witnessed in the administration’s euphemistic jargon of “alternative,” “enhanced” or “special” interrogations through which it gave certain torture practices legal cover, while denying their status as torture.[14]

When the Abu Ghraib photographs, taken by US military police (MPs) employed as prison guards, were leaked to the media in April 2004, the administration blamed the incidents they showed on the pranks of a few “bad apples,” low-ranking soldiers who were prosecuted and sent to jail. The “bad apple” narrative suggested that these were isolated incidents, distancing them from official policy.[15] Among the thousands of snapshots of naked Iraqi prisoners hooded and shackled in sexually humiliating poses, lorded over by US soldiers, a few have become notorious: those of Private Lynndie England leading an Iraqi prisoner on a leash; a hooded captive standing on a box in a crucified pose (with electric wires dangling from his outstretched arms); and Specialist Sabrina Harman smiling and giving a thumbs-up sign over a dead Iraqi.

However, this is not the first nor last time that the USA has been involved in torture nor is it an exclusively US story.[16] What happened at Abu Ghraib and other sites is not exceptional but has roots in colonial violence that goes back in history, evoking memories of the British in Kenya, the French in Algeria, the French and USA in Vietnam. In his book The Colonial Present, Derek Gregory contends that the “War on Terror” is nothing “other than the violent return of the colonial past, with its split geographies of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ ‘civilization’ and ‘barbarism,’ ‘Good’ and ‘Evil.’”[17] A phrase that justifies a war without end, without temporal or geographical parameters, the “War on Terror” is also seen by some commentators as filling the US superpower’s “enemy deficit” after the Cold War – re-creating a Manichean universe in order to provide a “license” to expand its global empire.[18] Both of the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were strategically enfolded into the “War on Terror” – in the case of Iraq, following a spurious link between Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda, and his alleged possession of “weapons of mass destruction.”

In Western news media, 9/11 victims are duly mourned, while others whose lives have been destroyed in the extraordinary aftermath have often been hidden from view or masked under the dehumanizing imagery and nomenclature of “terrorists.”[19] As Judith Butler writes, our response to suffering rests upon the creation of certain perceptual frames through which we recognize what is and isn’t a grievable life: while some “ways of framing” “bring the human into view in its frailty and precariousness”, “allow us to stand for the value and dignity of human life” and “react with outrage when lives are degraded or eviscerated”, others “foreclose responsiveness where this activity of foreclosure is effectively and repeatedly performed by the frame itself.”[20] In dominant post-9/11 political discourses, “War on Terror” victims do not appear as grievable lives, only as the faces of terrorists – “the worst of the worst,” to use the epithet with which Bush administration officials famously vilified Guantánamo prisoners. When torture and other brutalities are inflicted against so-called “evil” people, they cease to be perceived as horrific; an altered moral universe is ready for its cinematic re-mediation.

Zero Dark Thirty and other fictional treatments of torture
In their book Screening Torture, Michael Flynn and Fabiola F. Salek remark upon a post-9/11 Hollywood trend of cultivating identification with torturers, rather than with their victims. The administration of torture is viewed as necessary and just in films like The Dark Knight (2008), or as lacking long-term negative consequences in films like V for Vendetta (2005). In Hollywood movies, torture has become professional and efficient (since it is applied selectively and is always effective), in support of “the myth that torture leads to truthful confessions.”[21] In Flynn and Salek’s reckoning, “These films transmit the concept that torture can be absorbed by civil society, that the consequences for the victims, the perpetrators and the system are insignificant.”[22]

Yet perhaps this trend is not as novel as it appears, for it slots into a moral universe familiar to Hollywood filmgoers. As Alison Young writes of Hollywood film violence in general, “the violence of wrong-doing is wrong, whereas the violence which responds to wrong-doing is righteous.”[23] When carried out against villains, violence is understood as “retribution”, “punishment”, and “heroism”, which makes it seem necessary and admirable, unfettered by legal restraints. Films typically establish a classic binary between “good guys” and “bad guys,” but even morally and legally compromised heroes, who temporarily go over to “the dark side,” can “win our admiration because they [ultimately] do the right things.”[24]

As Lina Khatib notes, Islamic fundamentalism already occupied the place of the villain in Hollywood’s imagination of the fight between “good” and “evil,” East and West, prior to 9/11, where, “In contrast to the degeneracy of the Arab / Muslim / fundamentalist Other, the United States stands superior, morally right and unbeatable.”[25] Despite some initial trepidation (including awareness of racial stereotyping), post-9/11 film and television have resurrected this characterization.[26] In TV shows like 24 (2001-2010) or the BBC drama about MI5 agents, Spooks (2002-2011), the heroes are intelligence agents pursuing suspects who are often, but not always, Muslims, and willing to torture them in the name of national security. Spectators are encouraged to “approve” of their use of torture because of the need to extract intelligence swiftly under an immediate, dire security threat: a ticking bomb scenario. As Stephen Prince observes, the idea of the ticking bomb is given dramatic form in 24’s narrative structure: each season follows a day in the life of Counter Terrorist Unit agent Jack Bauer, and each episode narrates the events of one hour, while an onscreen countdown reminds us of Bauer’s “race against the clock.”[27]

Although they often show the tortured writhing in agony and screaming, cutting to the wincing reactions of onlookers to confirm the painful spectacle, these fictional representations do not tend to linger on the phenomenon. They deploy a conventional cinematic iconography of torture that emphasizes immediate, stereotypical effects, such as convulsions from electro-shock, not effects that take hours to develop or whose signs are not obvious.[28] As Chuck Kleinhans suggests, action drama’s kinetic pace “allows the audience to recognize, experience, and quickly move on past the torture event.”[29] In other words, the event becomes an “action-image”[30] that extends into fast movement rather than unfurling into the duration of a critical image that might implicate the audience, allow them to absorb the painful experience, and ethically confront the consequences and contexts of torture.

“War on Terror” interrogators have been known to turn to films for inspiration and guidance; 24 was regular viewing at Guantánamo Bay, while The Battle of Algiers (1966), a film about the counterinsurgency war in Algeria which showed French paratroopers using torture against the guerrilla movement FLN, was famously screened at the Pentagon.[31] The resurgent interest in this film, made by Italian neorealist director Gillo Pontecorvo in collaboration with FLN leader Saadi Yacef, is particularly significant as it acknowledges similarities between the colonial situation of the French in Algeria and recent military occupations, especially in Iraq. However, for the US military its interest mainly lay in its illustration of the benefits of torture in intelligence-gathering. Although this might seem at odds with its other status as a revolutionary training text, The Battle of Algiers is similar to 24, and (as we will see) Zero Dark Thirty, in that its torture images are embedded within a narrative structure that shows torture is effective: the torture of an informer is shown to lead the paratroopers to the guerrilla leader Ali La Pointe’s hiding place, enabling them to win the Battle of Algiers, although not the Algerian War itself.[32]

Among recent fictional features, only a few stand out for their anti-torture stance. One is the Hollywood film Rendition (2007), loosely based on the case of Khalid el-Masri who was subjected to extraordinary rendition after a CIA mix-up regarding his name (which was similar to that of a suspected terrorist named al-Masri). One narrative strand follows a pregnant mother, Isabella, as she tries to track down what has happened to her husband, Anwar, an Egyptian-American chemical engineer, who has been rendered to a secret prison, where he is brutally tortured on behalf of the USA by the Egyptian secret police. Another thread focuses on the moral conversion of CIA agent Douglas Freeman, whose role is to observe the torture. The film constructs the moral viewpoint that confessions extracted under torture tend to be false. Attesting to Anwar’s innocence, Freeman quotes lines from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (“I fear you speak upon the rack where men enforced do speak anything”). He disobeys his superiors’ orders and smuggles Anwar out of prison. Rendition encourages us to regard Freeman as a benevolent hero who makes the right moral choice – another clue is his name – in contrast to a corrupt US administration.

The Bollywood thriller New York (2009) evokes sympathy with the plight of thousands of Muslims submitted to racial profiling and ill-treatment as “suspected terrorists” after 9/11. It portrays the breakdown of the detainees’ subjectivity through interrogation and the way that US reaction to 9/11 has itself spurred radicalization into terrorism. It was particularly well-received in the Middle East, where Bollywood has enjoyed popularity for decades. However, New York – like Rendition – creates moral closure on this painful topic, with a final caption stating President Barack Obama’s intention to close the Guantánamo Bay facility, as if that is the end of the story.

In its security policies, the Obama administration (2009- ) has not steered away but built upon the precedent set by the Bush years, extending indefinite detention of suspected terrorists to US citizens and expanding the use of targeted assassinations. The era has, so far, produced two new significant representations of the post 9/11 intelligence world, although both retain essential characteristics of torture as mainstream entertainment.[33] One is the Showtime network TV series Homeland (2011- ), where the focus is a CIA officer facing an “enemy within,” an ex-soldier who has been held captive by Al-Qaeda and who may now constitute a security threat.[34] The other is Zero Dark Thirty, which, as I argue below, aims to create a moral consensus about this dark chapter of US history.

Zero Dark Thirty opens without visuals, just audio that immerses its audience in the sounds of 9/11 victims and rescue workers. The black screen indexes the traumatic nature of these events as resistant to cinematic representation. The film then cues to “two years later,” with a suspect named Ammar being tortured in a CIA “black site.” The opening soundscape of 9/11 victims primes us to perceive him as a barbaric enemy guilty of helping to plan the attacks, and serves to dissipate moral anxiety about his torture. Waterboarded, forcibly led around like a dog, and confined to a small box, he surrenders information about Bin Laden’s courier that ultimately leads the protagonist, Maya (who, as in Homeland, is a female CIA agent), to discover the location of the Al-Qaeda leader. Maya can safely take off her hood during interrogation because he will never be set free. Chained to the ceiling, covered in his own filth, and subjected to acts of naked bodily humiliation, he is framed as a dehumanized monster. While the dehumanization is part of the torture, ostensibly to reduce him to a state of helplessness so he gives up the information, he is not “criterially prefocused” for us as suffering an injustice (ill-treatment under custody), but as inherently physically and morally disgusting, as underscored by a shot of Maya covering her nose as she enters the locked shed that serves as his cell. We are not invited to perceive torture as an illegal act, just as an extreme method, as the Bush administration’s jargon of “enhanced” or “special” interrogations would have us believe.

In these opening scenes, Maya’s partner Dan, a bearded, seasoned interrogator, leads the interrogations. Together, they form a double act, making Maya look relatively “clean,” since Dan is the one who does the “hard stuff.” Indeed, throughout the film, Maya never directly tortures anyone, although she orders others to. Legally speaking, this implicates her in a crime, yet the film does not expose it for our moral judgment.

Carl Plantinga has suggested distinctions between “allegiance” (our alliance with and rooting for particular characters), “sympathy” (care and concern for those in danger or suffering from an injustice), and “liking” (prompted by traits of similarity, affiliation, or attractiveness). Among these, it is allegiance that amounts to “a deeper and more abiding psychological relationship with a character.”[35] These distinctions are crucial to Zero’s effort to make us bond with protagonists involved in insalubrious practices. It encourages us to root for Maya, a woman in a male-dominated intelligence world, who, despite her pale, delicate features, is depicted as smart and determined, deserving of our admiration and hence our allegiance.

Meanwhile Dan, although portrayed as a torturer, is a likeable character, switching from his tough guy persona to joking and sharing fruit juice and cigarettes with Ammar. In later scenes, he further transforms into a clean-shaven, suited official at the CIA’s Virginia Headquarters. However, the film does not generate anxiety about the ambiguities of Dan’s character; rather, it uses his likeable traits to cement allegiance with his “side.” It would have our “liking” for him intertwine with our knowledge that he is a torturer without inducing any unsettling effects (which is very different, as we will see, from Standard Operating Procedure’s treatment of torturers).

Zero is set in multiple locations, making use of titles with real place names in an attempt to ground its depiction in history. The majority of the drama is in Pakistan, where Maya has a desk at the US Embassy and where Bin Laden’s hiding-place is eventually found. Among other locations are CIA “black sites” (including a shipping container in Poland), military bases and detention centres in Afghanistan, and the CIA’s US headquarters. Evoked through the film’s global settings, the global torture network is presented as tackling Islamic fundamentalism, a global evil. Zero reinforces “the myth of a unified Islamic fundamentalist world”[36] through its portrayal of various terrorist attacks – such as the 7/7 London bombings, the Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing, and 9/11 itself – as part of one global conspiracy. At the CIA station at the US Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, faces of suspects are plastered on the noticeboard, each one unequivocally framed as an evil terrorist. Boundaries between “us” and “them” are reinforced by representing the world outside the enclave of the Embassy as a hostile environment. Through the windows, Maya and other CIA staff stare at protesters bearing banners condemning “American terrorism” after their boss’s name is leaked in a lawsuit brought by a drone attack victim’s family. As presented in the film, the demonstrators are threatening, potentially violent terrorists filled with anti-American sentiment; there is no sense that protest against the drone policy could be justified.[37]

Ammar reveals the crucial lead to Bin Laden over lunch, which Maya and Dan tactically present to him as a reward for information he ceded earlier under duress and which he cannot remember; he believes he has already imparted key details and therefore gives them more. Although not an actual torture scene, it is pivotal to the film’s crediting of torture as the source of intelligence that led to Bin Laden, contrary to the US Senate intelligence committee’s findings that intelligence work other than torture was more significant.[38] Later in the film, the fact that this information is presented as having been extracted from detainees under torture is one reason why Obama’s officials doubt it, demanding further evidence. Contrary to its record with other targeted killings, the new administration is presented as requiring careful and precise corroboration about the target before launching an attack.[39] The other reason it gives for its scepticism is memories of “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD), false intelligence that led to the Iraq War.

Zero might, therefore, be seen as morally recuperating the CIA’s image following its involvement in shady torture practices and overcoming the bad WMD precedent.[40] Like 24, it features heroes who temporarily go over to “the dark side” in order to do “good.” At no point does Maya manifest any doubt about her mission: she is 100 per cent certain of the reliability of her intelligence; she never makes any mistakes. The plot is driven by a moral motor in which the injustice of the 9/11 attacks and deaths of 3,000 civilians recalled in the opening is redressed through CIA investigation and torture and, finally, the capture and assassination of Bin Laden. The retributive logic of torture and assassination is fully consistent with its moral outlook – the sequence of injustice, revenge, and restoration.

The raid on Bin Laden’s compound is finally carried out as a joint operation between the CIA and US Navy Seals in stealth helicopters, hence the title, “Zero dark thirty,” which refers to the early hours after midnight when the mission took place as well as the darkness that shrouds the entire enterprise. The film, thus, attempts to create a consensus over the Bush years, suggesting that questionable methods were used but that they gave valuable intelligence without which “the greatest manhunt in history” – as billed on the film poster – the search for Bin Laden, the worst of the worst, would never have been concluded. Moreover, the mission’s success acts as a validation of the Obama administration’s emphasis on targeted assassinations, making Zero, which is as much about the present as it is the past, a standard-bearer for this policy.

This is complicated by the fact the film does not give a sense of elevation or joy when justice is restored. At the end, Maya boards a military aircraft, which has been specially hired for her. As she is the only passenger, the pilot asks her where she would like to go. The question hovers over the film’s exquisite last shot: Maya’s tear-stained face as she realizes she has nowhere to go. Nonetheless, her display of sensitivity is entirely self-preoccupied, focusing on the sacrifices she has made, having devoted herself to a ten-year search to the exclusion of everything else; we are made to feel sorry for her, not for the countless lives destroyed by her methods. The ending does not alter the film’s fabricated moral universe, which effectively normalizes torture and other extra-judicial measures.

Taxi: a documentary in the moral mode
The documentaries Taxi to the Dark Side and Standard Operating Procedure might be seen as an antidote to Hollywood’s fictions. However, I would argue that they are intended to work on their viewers emotionally, in a similar way to fiction. Their filmmakers understand that “issues” alone do not appeal to audiences; therefore, they construct their material in the form of compelling stories, structure their narratives around popular genre motifs, and build their arguments with emotion-building musical scores, in the hope of attracting viewers who might not otherwise watch such films. In documentary, the compelling story is often found at the end of the production process, in the editing – like “a screenplay in reverse.”[41] It is, therefore, predominantly through the editing that moral and ethical perspectives emerge.

This is markedly different from the stance taken by renowned documentary theorists such as Bill Nichols, who insists on distinctions between documentary and fiction on the grounds that the documentary gaze is directed at the historical world in which we live and the real people in it, rather than a world imagined by its creators. For Nichols, film style is “intimately attached to the idea of a moral point of view.”[42] He proposes what he calls an “axiographics” of documentary, by which he means the values inscribed through a film’s spatial organization, including the filmmaker’s presence or absence within the image, the camera’s distance from its subject, and the acoustic layering of on- or off-screen voice and sound.[43] All of this privileges the observational aspect of filmmaking.

Documentaries have traditionally employed “truth”-telling conventions such as unsteady handheld camera, location shooting, and natural lighting, although such techniques themselves do not guarantee truth but rather originally stem from the technical constraints of documentary filmmaking. Fiction films, including Zero Dark Thirty in key sequences such as its opening interrogations and nighttime mission to Bin Laden’s compound, now liberally appropriate these features. Meanwhile, documentaries have absorbed fictional conventions, such as “character” construction; although Nichols rightly states that documentaries feature real social actors, the latter are “cast” in the films and we engage with them as characters. Documentary and fiction might be plausibly regarded as two forms that have segued into each other, especially in the age of popular factual entertainment when “for many viewers … the epistemological and ethical distinctions between features and documentaries have almost completely dissolved.”[44] While documentary and fiction retain important differences, the observational documentary values that Nichols espouses is partly redundant to the documentaries considered here, which retrospectively document their events, making extensive use of archival images created by others, along with dramatic reconstructions and computer animation.

Taxi to the Dark Side tells the story of Dilawar, a twenty-two year old Afghan taxi driver, apprehended as a suspected terrorist and detained at Bagram military base, Afghanistan, where he was tortured and died of his wounds. From its opening, it “criterially prefocuses” Dilawar as an innocent victim. A relative gives a character portrait of him as “a good and honest man.” The camera lingers on family photographs, bringing Dilawar’s young face close up to the sound of doleful music that underscores the poignancy of his untimely death. Title credits appear over images of a taxi steering its way across the dusty plains: the film’s first reconstruction. With interior shots that place us inside the taxi, the film draws the audience into the situation of its central character. “On December 1st 2002, Dilawar, a young Afghan taxi driver, took three passengers for a ride. He never returned home,” Gibney’s voiceover declares, before the graphics configure into the film’s title, signifying the tragic collision between Cheney’s post-9/11 remark about “work[ing] the dark side” and the story of this young man.

Following a murder mystery format, the film charts the circumstances of Dilawar’s arrest on false charges of firing rockets at US bases. He was turned in by an Afghan militiaman who, it later transpired, had carried out the attacks himself. Within five days of his imprisonment, Dilawar died, having been chained to the ceiling and repeatedly beaten. His death swiftly followed that of another prisoner and was brought to light when New York Times journalist Carlotta Gall tracked down Dilawar’s family and found a pathology report in which the cause of his death was stated to be homicide, contrary to the initial press release that both prisoners had died from natural causes.

Unlike most of the other interviews, which take place in brightly-lit homes or offices, the interviewed military police and interrogators from Bagram are spot-lit in the darkness of a studio, giving a feel for the moral darkness surrounding the prisoner deaths. One of several recurring images established early on is a photograph of Dilawar on the day of his arrest, standing against a height chart with a placard displaying his prisoner number – a framing that we instantly recognize for a “suspect.” Another is MP Sergeant Thomas Curtis’s sketch illustrating how Dilawar was cuffed to the ceiling to deprive him of sleep – a sinister hangman motif that the film accentuates by reversing it out on a black background. These images are repeated with intensifying moral and affective charge, as viewers accumulate more knowledge of the injustice of his imprisonment and death.

Taxi constructs the post-9/11 intelligence world as morally flawed by portraying Dilawar as “The Wrong Man” – a title given to a section of the film, highlighting, like the 1956 Hitchcock movie, a case of mistaken identity. Later, autopsy photographs from the coroner’s inquest are added to its montage, displaying serious injuries to Dilawar’s legs from repeated beatings, apparently a standard method to control prisoners even though he was already shackled. In her writing on documentary ethics, Vivian Sobchack has claimed that, in documentary, death is “experienced as real – even when not as graphically displayed as it often is in fiction,”[45] and therefore requires justification when shown. By introducing these photographs of the dead man into its narrative sequence, Taxi saturates them with a pathos that they lacked for those who took them, since they were created as a military record. It confirms this was a life, restoring what Butler calls a “quality of grievability.”

To show how torture was justified as a policy, Taxi focuses in detail on official memos redefining and implicitly condoning its use, “follow[ing] the paper trail all the way up to the White House.”[46] It identifies Cheney as “the primary architect of the new policy” with a clip from the speech he gave on Meet the Press, and features interviews with John Yoo, a lawyer in the Justice Department (2001-2003), who is named as the torture policy’s “chief draftsman.” Memos written by the administration’s lawyers attempted to redefine what counts as torture so as to sanction practices such as waterboarding, hooding, stress positions, nudity and sexual humiliation.[47] For example, Yoo’s August 2002 memo redefined torture as the deliberate intent to inflict pain equal to that “accompanying physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death,” and “prohibits only extreme acts” – a phrase that Taxi emphasizes in close up in order to show how it legitimated “lighter” techniques that, nevertheless, are lethal when used together or repeatedly, as it suggests happened to Dilawar.

Unlike the interrogation scenes in mainstream fiction, Taxi features a stylized black-and-white reenactment of a torture scene that attempts to convey the altered states caused by techniques, like sleep deprivation, isolation, sensory deprivation, and stress, designed to break down detainees. It is based, according to the film’s titles, on the Guantánamo Bay interrogation log for 9/11 suspect Mohammed al-Qahtani. An actor plays al-Qahtani, subject to sexual humiliation by a female interrogator, who invades his space and whispers into his ear “YOUR MOTHER IS A WHORE,” the words literally floating onscreen. Other acts of humiliation include performing “dog tricks,” which the film compares with the photograph of Lynndie England from Abu Ghraib, and being injected with fluid and forced to urinate in his pants. The film does not invite viewers’ moral opprobrium for a “terrorist.” The stroboscopic lighting together with a repetitive melody in this sequence creates startle effects – what the cognitive theorist Murray Smith calls “autonomic reactions” – that simulate the conditions of his torture, including distortions of time. Unlike Zero, Taxi encourages spectators to imagine what it is like to be subject to these dehumanizing procedures. The bright glare of the screen provokes empathic or mirror reactions, as we are invited to think and feel about how a prisoner deals with his bodily intimacies exposed to constant surveillance.

Taxi invokes experts, such as historian Alfred McCoy, author of A Question of Torture, who declares the interrogation of al-Qahtani a virtual compendium of torture techniques used by the CIA since the 1950s. He explains how the CIA became interested in sensory deprivation experiments by Canadian professor Donald O’Hebb that involved placing volunteers into a cubicle, wearing goggles, gloves and earmuffs to block their senses. Results found that psychosis could be triggered within 48 hours, and effects could be “more intolerable” than direct infliction of pain. With this, the film flashes back to the interrogation of al-Qahtani and places before us the official footage of Guantánamo detainees in which the jumpsuited, gloved and earmuffed detainees are bracketed in such a way that they don’t obviously appear to be in pain. When attuned to the embodied form of perception that the film fosters in us, however, we become aware of the possibility of an attack being inflicted on sensory receptors and the aim of breaking down detainees. Through this editorial juxtaposition, the film changes the original meaning of official images connoting a power spectacle of subdued “evil-doers.”

Throughout, Taxi makes extensive use of press images and other archival video and photography. A section entitled “The Worst of the Worst” begins with a montage of press statements by US government leaders. “These are among the most dangerous, best-trained, most vicious killers on the face of the earth,” declares Rumsfeld. “They’re terrorists, they’re bomb-makers, they’re facilitators of terror, they’re members of Al-Qaeda, the Taliban” adds Cheney, while Bush concludes: “The only thing I know for certain is that these are bad people.” Juxtaposed with the film’s other images, such as military footage of suspects being captured and hooded by US forces in Afghanistan, the leaders’ portentous speeches become incriminating evidence of flows of communication from the highest in the administration to interrogators and soldiers on the ground, shaping their perceptions of the enemy as barbaric and evil.

Dilawar’s capture along with the three passengers who accompanied him on that fateful taxi ride is illustrated by a dramatically lit photograph of four blindfolded Afghan captives, their hands bound behind their backs, crouching in the sand and surrounded by US soldiers, who cast ominous shadows; a composition of moral protest against injustice, used as one of the film’s publicity images. It is not a photograph of this particular incident, yet it is not dismissed by us as ‘fake’, since it is representative of Dilawar’s situation – just as Dilawar is representative, cast among the many thousands arbitrarily detained and interrogated under the aegis of the “War on Terror”, whose fate may be glimpsed through his, countering constructions that vilify them all as “evil people.”

Ultimately, however, Taxi settles for a “soft” liberal outrage against torture, with a coda featuring Gibney’s father, Frank B. Gibney, a navy interrogator during World War II and the Korean War, who declares his loss of faith in “the American government” when the highest officials not only “countenance” but also “advocate torture.” He declares: “All through World War Two and the Korean War … we had the sense that we were on the side of the good guys.” The film’s ending restates ideas of good and evil with this benevolent interrogator’s moral message that 9/11 has corrupted America, endorsing its exceptionalist myth and serving to contain the events within an isolated chapter of history. For a more complex treatment of these torture events, we need to turn to Standard Operating Procedure.

Standard Operating Procedure: a documentary without a “moral center”?
Focusing entirely on the Abu Ghraib scandal and its “bad apples,” Standard Operating Procedure (henceforth S.O.P) has not received major plaudits like Taxi, but has generated much critical debate. Its director Errol Morris is renowned for his innovative, postmodern approach, but many critics have found his aesthetic style problematic for this brutal subject matter. One of the most damning responses has come from Bill Nichols who upbraids Morris for failing to determine responsibility for the Abu Ghraib atrocities and taking “the sting from terrible images that had shocked the world by … fetishizing them” in the film’s reconstructions.[48] Morris’s non-judgmental approach, he remarks, may have worked in some of his previous films, but is misplaced here, seeming to condone the perpetrators’ behavior, or lessen its evil. Just as the guards portray their role as “softening up” detainees prior to their interrogation – that is, as not carrying out the real torture that, they claim, happened during interrogations with the CIA and military intelligence – so, Nichols argues, the film aims to “soften up” its viewers to sympathize with the perpetrators in their “unfortunate plight as scapegoats.” Thus, he accuses Morris’s film of lacking the “moral center” exhibited by Taxi.

Likewise, Thomas Austin has criticized S.O.P for failing to conform to the “politics of pity,” the conventional forms of spectator response to distant suffering identified by media theorist Luc Boltanski, which revolve around pity for victims, sympathy with their benefactors, and outrage towards perpetrators.[49] This is what, in his view, compromises the film’s “moral and political” potential.[50] However, as Austin and Nichols are both exclusively preoccupied with the film’s moral framework (or lack thereof), they miss the essential ethical dimension opened up through its aesthetic choices.

Certainly, S.O.P does not offer viewers a secure higher moral ground, as underscored by the absence of guiding voiceover narration and lack of external authorities; neither the forensic expert Brent Pack nor the civilian interrogator from the private firm CACI Tim Dugan, who appear in the film alongside the “bad apples,” qualify as providing this moral viewpoint, since Pack was involved in the trial and demonstrates a flawed perspective, while Dugan was part of the interrogations (also gesturing to the murky role of private contractors).[51]

Nor does S.O.P provide the catharsis of moving beyond events through a heroic redemptive figure, like the ‘good’ interrogator represented by Gibney’s father in Taxi. Joe Darby, the soldier who turned in the photos to military authorities (but not to the media), is noticeably absent. Morris interviewed him but edited him out of the final film. Beginning with a letter that Darby signed as a “Concerned MP” and submitted with CDs of the incriminating photos, this interview appears as a “deleted scene” on the DVD release, where Darby claims that the activities were confined to a few people (whom he names in his letter), that they should be punished and that this shouldn’t go any further. In contrast, the film instructs us that the activities were not confined to this group, more was happening than is shown in the photos, and this is worthy of exposure.

Unlike Taxi, S.O.P. does not provide an overview of the political context and chains of responsibility to the Pentagon and White House.[52] Rather than blaming the “bad apples” – who have, already, been blamed – or naming and shaming those who set the policies, S.O.P captures the subjectivity of the soldiers for whom torture was not simply a policy but a practice that came to be accepted as the norm, or “standard operating procedure.” In its invitation to viewers to consider the subjective dimensions of the “atrocity-producing situation,” it is more complex and ethical (rather than merely moral) than either Taxi or Zero Dark Thirty.

Moreover, S.O.P is alone amongst documentaries on the subject -including Rory Kennedy’s Ghosts of Abu Ghraib (2007) – in questioning the Abu Ghraib photographs’ status and function as evidence. As Susan Sontag writes, “the very notion of atrocity, of war crime, is associated with the expectation of photographic evidence.”[53] A photograph is an indexical trace of events it records, yet it remains ambiguous, offering partial and selective knowledge; not merely a case of “seeing is believing.” While the photographs did serve an important purpose in revealing torture and abuse to the public, “They prevented people from looking further, oddly enough,” states Morris.[54] As Specialist Megan Ambuhl, one of the “bad apples” interviewed in the film, puts it: “The pictures only show you a fraction of a second. You don’t see forward and you don’t see backward. You don’t see outside the frame.” This undercuts the photograph’s testimonial claim: it only shows you a frozen action; it does not capture the event. Rather, it is full of gaps.

In its three main levels of narration – interviews, photographs, and reconstructions – the film re-contextualizes these photographs and endows them with new possibilities to provoke. Despite the absence of an overarching moral framework, the editing and music provide cues for response to the images, telling us what the filmmakers want us to think and feel about them. Often there is a counterpoint between the image and various layers of soundtrack, including Danny Elfman’s musical score, which repeats its melody with variations “to beckon the viewer to slow down to look at and emotionally react to … the Abu Ghraib photos.”[55] The photos are used as counterpoint to interview testimony or, alternatively, the interviews “complicate” what the photos seem to show. Austin remarks that “there is no consistent epistemological hierarchy governing [these] two sets of sources,”[56] but this deliberately throws viewers upon their own imaginative resources to feel their way through the film rather than relying on a fixed moral framework.

Interrotroning the “bad apples”
Unlike other documentaries, where interviews are edited to converge into a main argument about events, S.O.P’s interviews with military police (Sabrina Harman, Lynndie England, Megan Ambuhl, Private Jeremy Sivits, Sergeant Javal Davis and others), military and civilian interrogators, and Brigadier General Janis Karpinski illuminate their different viewpoints. This allows the film to explore the situation’s complexity and its characters’ moral gradations, portraying them as neither wholly “bad” nor wholly “good.” Interviewees face the camera in an artificially lit studio backdrop, removed from both military context and their own social milieu – a strategy that Nichols has criticized as de-contextualizing. This set-up, however, places the audience in the position of a jury, evaluating for themselves the interviewees’ stories, assessing the limitations in their defence of their actions.

Crucial here is Morris’s use of the “interrotron,” a device he invented so that, rather than being present in the same room, his image can be beamed like an autocue to his interviewees, allowing them to look simultaneously at him and the camera. Through the direct gaze it facilitates it also constructs a startling intimacy between viewers and interviewees. We tend to associate a direct gaze, whether on camera or in real life, with truth-telling. Shawn Rosenheim has described the interrotron as a device with “psychoanalytic dimensions,” extracting confessions from its subjects.[57] Its function is reliant on close-ups, which magnify micro-movements of facial gestures and expressions, and allow us to scrutinize the faces of the “bad apples” for signs of guilt, remorse, honesty, pleasure – in other words, for what they feel in their recollection of events. We watch them as they reveal themselves to the interrotron, prompted by its inert yet expectant presence to search for an answer. The neutral background screen, which eliminates perspectival depth, throws the face into relief, while the film’s 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio magnifies the face and makes it look monumental.

But, if the film psychoanalyzes its interviewees, it does not focus on their personal psychology. Why, Nichols wonders, doesn’t Morris ask the guards about “their background and experience prior to arriving at Abu Ghraib – their families, their educational level, their political views and habits”?[58] Instead, the film psychoanalyzes the environment, exploring the conditions that allow such acts to take place, challenging the societal processes of denial that would interpret them as individual psychopathological behavior.

The film’s use of these techniques emphasizes ambiguity, a “push and pull in our stance toward such characters.”[59] On the one hand, it pulls us towards sympathy for the perpetrators, driving that identification through a “dynamic of vulnerability”[60] exploring their own sense of victimization and forces of obedience and desire that led them to become involved in the atrocities. Access to their thoughts and emotions through facial close-ups and voice testimonies enables the soldiers to become personalities for us, whereas their victims do not. On the other hand, this alignment does not result in unqualified allegiance; indeed, it invites unease as we share their emotional recollections testifying to their enjoyment at torturing others, as when Lynndie England smirks when recalling how one prisoner who was forced to masturbate continued to do so mechanically long after the others had stopped.

S.O.P’s exclusive focus on perpetrators not only prevents us from taking a higher moral ground – through, for example, pity for victims – it also explores the circumstances of perpetration, allowing us to see how it could happen. In a pivotal scene, England relates how some nights she would go up to the “hard site” (where “high-value” detainees were kept) and see people in stress positions: “We thought it was unusual, weird and wrong, but when we first got there the example was already set. That’s what we saw. I mean, it was OK.” After “That’s what we saw,” England looks offscreen, then directly ahead, in central framing, for “it was OK.” The jump cuts call attention to the alteration of the soldiers’ and interrogators’ moral bearings in Abu Ghraib prison: how the exceptional came to be accepted as the norm.

Barbara Ehrenreich has remarked that the fact that women have been involved in torture at Abu Ghraib destroyed her belief in women’s moral superiority.[61] Her reaction testifies to the gender crisis that is provoked when women’s participation in atrocity is disclosed, largely due to essentialist notions of women as “soft” and caring. While female CIA agents, portrayed as educated and drawn from a higher social class, are used to promote a more acceptable face of the intelligence world in dramas such as Homeland and Zero Dark Thirty, S.O.P makes the gender politics of torture explicit in a way that other films don’t, highlighting not the essentialist but rather the structural position of women, including the scapegoating of lower class female soldiers.

When women are torturers, there is an apparent reversal of normative structures of victimization, since women are traditionally positioned as victims and historically have been so in conditions of war. Contrary to this, the machinery of intelligence gathering in the “War on Terror” made a strategic use of women as subordinates to degrade and humiliate Arab and Muslim men. Women were deployed in scenarios that also humiliated and degraded them. While the photograph of England leading the prisoner on the leash became an icon of the Abu Ghraib scandal, positioning her as a dominatrix figure subjugating the Iraqi man, her interviews reveal the gender politics and the different forces of desire that govern her role in these pictures which were staged by Specialist Charles Graner, at that time her lover, the master of ceremonies in many of the photographed abuses – exhibiting his desire to exert power over both England and the Iraqi, using England as his tool.

Whilst this might seem to exonerate England, S.O.P’s interviews with female soldiers highlight their subordinated role, trapped, on the one hand, by the goals of intelligence-gathering and the war, and, on the other, by a desire to fit in and be accepted by their male colleagues. Unlike Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, where she also appears, S.O.P foregrounds that Sabrina Harman – famous for the thumbs-up photo – is a lesbian, whose sexuality and gender make her doubly oppressed in the army’s homophobic, sexist environment. Along with her aspirations to be a forensic photographer, this is key to her central role in this film, showing that a “victim” like her could also be a victimizer. The film incorporates letters home to her wife Kelly read aloud by her in voiceover with significant lines illuminated in close up: important contemporaneous evidence of her moral thinking, clearly stating her knowledge of acts of wrongdoing, her confusion, despair and outrage that they were being condoned, and her decision to take pictures as “proof” of what would otherwise be disbelieved.

In interview, Harman candidly explains the thumbs-up snapshot which was taken by a male colleague, who asked her to pose with the corpse: “Whenever I get into a photograph, I never know what to do with my hands, so I probably have a thumbs-up because it’s just something that automatically happens. Like when you get into a photograph, you want to smile.” Yet, do we trust her? Harman claims she took the photos in order to expose the abuses yet she never did expose them, and she not only documents but also participates in their torture scenarios.

The universe of images and the out-of-field
S.O.P’s use of the Abu Ghraib photographs has been pivotal to allegations that it objectifies victims and aestheticizes brutal events – rendering them “beautiful” and more than what they are. However, without this transformative power it would not be able to provoke or haunt viewers in the way it does. In the opening credit sequence, the photographs are shown receding into a black background, as if suspended in the universe, using the dynamics of the CGI movement-image. This presents each photograph as “an island universe” in itself, the point being that not everything is photographed; only certain images have been captured. The photographs are surrounded by a white border and black background to emphasize their status as snapshots. S.O.P. highlights the contingencies of the photographic frame – an artificially isolated, closed system, each act of framing a bracketing or limitation. Each framing, however, is linked to the larger dimensions of space and time – an out-of-field[62] that the film explores in its interviews and reconstructions.

In the military trial against the “bad apples,” the photographs were used as evidence to decide which were criminal acts and which were “standard operating procedure.” Shots of a Sony digital camera, held by latex gloves, lay bare the device through which the evidence has been collected, then subsequently analyzed and synthesized by forensic expert Brent Pack, who was given thousands of photos to analyze. Digital technology enables one to calculate the exact time a picture was taken by providing “metadata” (information about information), which Pack used to align the pictures in a sequential narrative. This is pictured in the film by a CGI timeline, a perspectival grid upon which the photographs taken by each of the three cameras (Harman’s, Graner’s and Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick’s) travel across the screen and are grouped chronologically. The graphics depict the multiple and fragmented events coalescing into one seamless continuity, resolved into a singular truth.

The sequence is reminiscent of Antonioni’s film Blow Up (1966), where the photographer attempts to reconstruct a narrative of events from the “instants” he has photographed but, as we later discover, it’s the ‘wrong’ story that he creates. Similarly, S.O.P questions Pack’s detective narrative impulse, providing an ironic counterpoint through its music which “conveys a sense of the mechanical”[63] during his analysis, allowing the audience to perceive for themselves the limitations in his perspective when he uses the photographs to separate out “criminal acts” from “Standard Operating Procedure.” As the photographs appear one by one, they are rubber-stamped “criminal act” or “S.O.P.,” including that of the prisoner on the box, holding wires in his hands (he had been told that he would be electrocuted if he stepped off the box), now an iconic image of torture and the “War on Terror.” On the grounds that the wires did not look live, Pack deemed the act to be “S.O.P.,” along with other photographs of nude prisoners wearing women’s underwear on their heads, handcuffed to a bed, or stacked in a naked human pyramid. The red lettering of the “S.O.P” stamp which the film lays upon these photos highlights the gulf between the official sanctioning of these practices within the CIA and military – despite their obvious depiction of degrading, cruel and humiliating treatment defying the UN Convention against Torture and Geneva Conventions – and the moral and ethical response that the film elicits from its viewers.

S.O.P’s use of horror conventions to depict actual horrors in its reconstructions has filled critics with unease.[64] Since they don’t show the faces or provide the voices of the Iraqi victims, the reconstructions seem to give us the privilege and pleasure of looking, without the victims looking back at us. The victims are not shown as realistic figures, but portrayed in fragments, as in an extreme close up of a general’s eyebrow being shaved as a punishment. This is what leads Nichols to criticize the film for voyeuristic and fetishistic strategies. He even contends that the reconstructions provide the guards’ point-of-view, allowing us to occupy the perpetrators’ position – like the shot through the spyhole of the “gas chamber” in Schindler’s List (1993). However, what is wrong with this reading is that it approaches the film only through a visual-cognitive map, that is, solely from the perspective of the gaze as visual pleasure, rather than through a tactile, proprioceptive, and synaesthetic mapping that these reconstructions encourage.[65] I take my cue for the opposition between visual-cognitive and proprioceptive mapping from Jennifer Barker (who derives it from Brian Massumi’s Parables for the Virtual). These two types of sensual map are said to coexist and mutually inform or “interrupt” each other. Synaesthesia is one way that we become aware of the proprioceptive map.

As Barker writes, in another context: “These images compromise vision (and visual identification), forcing us to experience them as skin and become skin in order to make sense of them.”[66] While S.O.P’s reconstructions illustrate details of interview testimony, they avoid representational verisimilitude. Instead, they invite viewers to take in sensory cues in order to understand, through imaginative simulation and other kinds of empathy, events we have never experienced ourselves, or at least not in the same configuration. Through their appeal to viewers’ tactile awareness and other sense organs, they question the guards’ stance that the acts were harmless, trivial or simply “standard operating procedure” – making the moral and ethical ramifications of the torture policy palpable to our senses.

Recreating Abu Ghraib on a sound stage far away from the actual prison, the reconstructions utilize extreme close-ups, blurred shots, soft focus, slow motion (with a Phantom camera that shoots 1000 frames per second), and the staging of the movement of objects towards the camera. Yet, it is, paradoxically, the images’ very constructedness that gives them their power and immediacy: “sounds and images are ‘reactivated,’ multiplied and intensified, precisely by being cut off from their source or origin.”[67] The reconstructions don’t present violent events directly but moments close to them, “staying peripheral in spatial and/or temporal terms.”[68] They depict conditions in the prison, where both prisoners and their guards were vulnerable to fire. Slow-motion imagery of falling mortars and debris emphasizes how the prison defied Geneva Conventions for prisoners-of-war, which state that prisoners must not be held in a place “exposed to the fire of a combat zone.” Sometimes the reconstructions directly contradict the testimonies, for example, after the military interrogator Roman Krol claims that he was charged with the “trivial” offence of throwing a nerve-ball at a prisoner, an image of a bouncing ball conveys its weight by slow-motion and the noise of its impact on the ground. These images require us to “see” proprioceptively, with a range of inner and outer senses. If we only interpreted them visually, we would not be able to grasp their meaning. These scenes also form a contrast to the filming of conventional film violence – characters ducking explosions or rains of bullets – where the use of slow motion “convey[s], paradoxically, a sense of speed.”[69] Here, slow motion encompasses a feeling for the vulnerability of the body under assault.

In the reconstruction of the prisoner on the box, the camera focuses in close-up on his feet and upturned fingers to emphasize that his forced standing under conditions of sleep deprivation is still torture, even if the wires were not live and were removed after the photograph was taken (something that Harman claims and Pack accepts on the basis of the photo’s visible evidence). The forces exerted by our own bodies, their muscle and bone structure, their desire to sit down and to sleep, can be used to inflict pain upon us: “Standing rigidly for eleven hours can produce as violent muscle and spine pain as can injury from elaborate equipment and apparatus, though any of us outside this situation, used to adjusting our body positions every few moments before even mild discomfort is felt, may not immediately recognize this.”[70] Torture includes the transformation and deformation of the body under these forces, which are what these reconstructions seek to capture by recomposing the photographs into movement-images.

Another key reconstruction is of the waterboarding procedure carried out by military intelligence, which invites audiences to imagine what this form of torture may be like. It begins with a shot from underneath the showerhead that recalls the horror film imagery of Psycho (1960). At first droplets fall; then, a torrent of water moves in the direction of the viewer’s line of vision, becoming a dazzling shimmer as it catches the light – the tactile intensity of the light depicting the force of the water. There is a fade to black, then, with sound effects of plunging, we appear to be immersed underwater, becoming one with the flowing matter. Only after this are we given a shot of water pouring on a face covered in a sack. In other words, before we are shown what the practice of waterboarding looks like, we are first invited to imagine what its smothering and sensation of drowning feel like. Called a “no-brainer” by Cheney, the use of waterboarding has been officially denied to be a form of torture and the media have labelled the process “simulated drowning.” However, Morris depicts it as an actual drowning, which it is, accompanied by slow asphyxiation and blackout – as sufferers have described it, a feeling of pain and annihilation that is felt throughout the body, engulfing one’s very being, yet that remains unsensed by others and, therefore, unreal to them.

Horror film conventions are used in S.O.P to depict Abu Ghraib as a haunted house populated by “ghosts.” The camera tracks down corridors, past transparent, spectral figures of non-uniformed and unidentified interrogators belonging to the CIA and OGAs (Other Government Agencies), who are literally known as “ghosts,” materializing and disappearing without notice, their job being to interrogate “ghost detainees,” who are never registered in the official log. Crucial here is the story of the death of “ghost prisoner” Manadel Al-Jamadi, who died in the shower while being interrogated, supposedly of a “heart attack.” His body was later ferried out of the prison, disguised as a patient with an intravenous drip. In interview, Sergeant Anthony Diaz, who was responsible for looking after the prisoner before and after the CIA interrogation, describes the prisoner’s blood dripping onto his uniform, making him feel “part of it” even though he says he himself was not involved in the shower torture; however, in the reconstruction, the horror imagery of blood, viscous and slowly dripping, marks his and others’ complicity.

Together with Frederick, Harman later went to investigate the body, which had been left, packed with ice inside a body bag, in a locked room. This was when the thumbs-up photo was taken. However, Harman later returned to take more photographs herself. From the injuries Al-Jamadi sustained, it was clear to her that attribution of death by “heart-attack” was a ruse. A bandage had been affixed to his eye to conceal some of the damage. Those responsible for his death were not held accountable, while an attempt was made to prosecute Harman for taking the photographs, alleging that she had tampered with the evidence although, as she points out in interview, the evidence had already been tampered with. The charges were later dropped because the authorities didn’t want the photos to come to light and reveal the cover-up of a murder.

As in its other reconstructions, S.O.P depicts the finding of Al-Jamadi’s body obliquely – firstly, through imagery of a pool of water collecting outside the door, indirectly evoking the horror, decomposition and stench, as the ice-packed corpse defrosts. The scene’s key moment is the removal of the bandage from the dead man’s eye. The close up of the wound, combined with the movement-image that endows the still photo with motion, impresses itself on the viewer’s sensorium with a tactile force capable of leaving enduring after-traces. Whereas this series of Abu Ghraib photographs caught the public gaze because of Harman’s smile and thumbs-up, which detracted from the murder, the reconstruction re-focuses our attention on the crime and the workings of power through denial, a “radical effacement” that claims “that there never was [such] a human, there never was a life, and no murder has, therefore, ever taken place.”[71] Through these reconstructions, which evoke the out-of-field of the photographs, the film provokes us to feel and ponder the atrocities that have not been captured: that are not in the frame.

In their cinematic recreation of the post-9/11 intelligence world, the documentary and fiction films discussed in this article make crucial aesthetic choices that lead to either moral or ethical confrontations with historical events. Although vastly differing in their outlook, Zero Dark Thirty and Taxi to the Dark Side both exhibit moral viewpoints. Conforming to dominant scripts about 9/11 and its aftermath, Zero constructs a moral tale of good and evil that justifies its heroes going over to “the dark side” in order to achieve their ends. By encouraging spectators to accept their moral universe, such films can play a pivotal role in influencing public perceptions, eliciting consent to torture and other extra-judicial measures.

The documentary films Taxi and Standard Operating Procedure together create important counter-images against this tendency. Whereas fictional representations often rely on an established image repertoire that presents torture in conventional ways, Taxi and S.O.P both attempt to articulate their own cinematic vocabulary of pain, drawing upon the multisensory properties of images and appealing to viewers’ embodied imaginations to convey the effects of torture upon its victims, including “clean” techniques where signs are not immediately obvious.

The value and importance of Taxi lies in its elucidation of an alternative moral viewpoint. It focuses on the injustices of “the dark side” to its victims, starting close up with the story of an innocent Afghan, then enlarging the picture to reveal the systematic dehumanization fostered by the Bush administration’s “War on Terror” rhetoric and implementation of a torture policy carried out using standard techniques in detention centres around the world since 9/11.

However, equally, if not more important, is a meta-perspective on moral viewpoints that is attentive to how they are reconfigured in different settings; in my argument, I have called this an ethical standpoint. Although it also elicits moral emotions, S.O.P avoids a standard moral framework based on pity for victims and indignation towards perpetrators. Instead, by uncomfortably aligning viewers with the perpetrator mindset, it makes us reflect on how moral norms are altered in the atrocity-producing situation, where brutal acts become “standard operating procedure.” It registers further complexity by gesturing to a universe of acts and networks of complicity beyond its frames; the atrocities we do not know about because their images have not been captured and circulated.

Though no longer officially called by that name, the “War on Terror” is still being waged. To date, Guantánamo Bay prison remains open. Trials by military commission, which do not meet international fair trial standards, have been reinstated after being revoked, and the Pentagon has asserted the right to detain people indefinitely even if they are cleared by these trials. The use of drones and other targeted assassinations shares the same principle as extraordinary rendition and indefinite detention in denying “suspected terrorists” a trial or hearing charges brought against them. Far from being confined to a single, unprecedented chapter of US history, “the dark side,” foreshadowed by the colonial past, lingers on, supported by similar underground international endorsement and complicity, lending these films an ongoing relevance.


[1] Alex Gibney, “Zero Dark Thirty’s Wrong and Dangerous Conclusion,” <>(accessed 23 January 2013).

[2] Linda Williams, “Mirrors without Memories: Truth, History and The Thin Blue Line,” in Documenting the Documentary, ed. Barry Keith Grant and Jeanette Sloniowski (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998), 393.

[3] Michele Aaron distinguishes between morality (predefined codes of conduct) and ethics (“thinking through one’s relationship to morality”) in her book Spectatorship: the Power of Looking On (London: Wallflower, 2007), 109. However, my use of the term “ethics” is closer to Sue Tait’s notion of the “ethical space” encoded in the image, although Tait – like many other critics – often uses the term “ethics” as a synonym for “morality”. See Sue Tait “Visualising Technologies and the Ethics and Aesthetics of Screening Death,” Science as Culture 18.3 (2009), 345, 239.

[4] Robert Jay Lifton, “Conditions of Atrocity,” The Nation, 31 May 2004,<>(accessed 28 July 2012). Lifton first elaborated the term “atrocity-producing situation” in his study of Vietnam veterans and later updated it for the Iraq War. See Lifton, Home from the War – Vietnam Veterans: Neither Victims nor Executioners (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973).

[5] This question is pivotal to a number of other studies on ethics and film aesthetics. See, for example, Alison Young, The Scene of Violence: Cinema, Crime, Affect (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010) and Lisa Downing and Libby Saxton, Film and Ethics: Foreclosed Encounters (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009).

[6] See Murray Smith, Engaging Emotions: Fiction, Emotion, and the Cinema (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).

[7] Noël Carroll, “Movies, the Moral Emotions, and Sympathy,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy, XXXIV (2010), 6.

[8] Carroll, 7.

[9] Zero Dark Thirty’s US box office intake was US$95,720,716, more than doubling its estimated US$40 million budget. Although they performed well for documentaries, the statistics for Taxi to the Dark Side and Standard Operating Procedure pale in comparison, at US$274,661 and US$229,117 respectively. Rendition, a Hollywood film which takes a different moral standpoint about torture from Zero, also performed far less well, at US$9,736,045, making a huge loss on its estimated $US27.5 million budget. Box office figures are taken from Additional budget estimates are from

[10] Dick Cheney, Interviewed by Tim Russert, Meet the Press, NBC, 16 September 2001.

[11] “Extraordinary rendition” is the extra-legal capture and transfer of prisoners from one country to another.

[12] For further details, see Open Society Justice Initiative, “Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition” (2013),


(accessed 8 February 2013).

[13] Office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR), “Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment,” <>(accessed 8 February 2013).

[14] See Mark Danner, Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror (London: Granta, 2004) and Jane Mayer, The Dark Side: the Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals (New York: Doubleday, 2008). For the language of torture, see Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985) and Derek Gregory, “Vanishing Points: Law, Violence, and Exception in the Global War Prison,” in Terror and the Postcolonial, ed. Elleke Boehmer and Stephen Morton (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 55–98.

[15] According to Anne McClintock, the “bad apple” is a “classic” imperial narrative used by powers that torture. See McClintock, “Paranoid Empire: Specters from Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib”, Small Axe 28 (2009), 60.

[16] Past US involvement includes its experiences in Vietnam, the Philippines, Latin America and its history of slavery, lynching, and campaigns against Native Americans. For an investigation of British history of torture, as well as complicity in post-9/11 rendition, see Ian Cobain, Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture (London: Portobello Books, 2012) and Gareth Peirce, Dispatches from the Dark Side (London: Verso, 2010).

[17] Derek Gregory, The Colonial Present (Maldon: Blackwell, 2004), 11. The War on Terror’s binaries were foreshadowed by Samuel Huntingdon’s “clash of civilizations thesis,” which contends that the “fault lines” of future world conflicts will be cultural rather than ideological, with Islam posing the largest threat to the West. Huntingdon’s thesis became influential amongst members of the Bush administration. Samuel P. Huntingdon,  “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs 72. 3 (1993): 22-49.

[18] McClintock, 55.

[19] See John Pilger, “Why are wars not being reported honestly?”, The Guardian, 10 December 2010,<>(accessed 7 July 2013). For a detailed discussion of lack of western media reporting of civilian casualties in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, see Gregory, The Colonial Present. The issues are also referred to in passing in books/articles on films about these wars. See, for example, Patricia Pisters, “Logistics of Perception 2.0: Multiple Screen Aesthetics in the Iraq War Films,” Film-Philosophy 14.1 (2010): 232-252.

[20] Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (London: Verso, 2009), 77.

[21] Michael Flynn and Fabiola F. Salek, “Introduction,” in Screening Torture: Media Representations of State Terror and Political Domination (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 10.

[22] Flynn and Salek, 12.

[23] Young, 24.

[24] Carroll, 17.

[25] Lina Khatib, Filming the Modern Middle East: Politics in the Cinemas of Hollywood and the Arab World (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006), 166.

[26] See Stephen Prince, Firestorm: American Film in the Age of Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 50-1.

[27] Prince, 239.

[28] For further discussion of the conventional iconography of torture, see Darius Rejali, “Movies of Modern Torture as Convenient Truths,” in Screening Torture: Media Representations of State Terror and Political Domination, ed. Michael Flynn and Fabiola F. Salek (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

[29] Chuck Kleinhans, “Imagining Torture,” Jump Cut 51 (2009), <>(accessed 18 August 2009).

[30] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: the Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (London: Athlone Press, 1992).

[31] See Michael T. Kaufman, “What Does the Pentagon See in ‘Battle of Algiers’?” The New York Times, 7 September 2003, <>(accessed 5 July 2013).

[32] In a recent interview, Saadi Yacef reveals that the FLN were party to the belief that torture “works”: “I would’ve paid for the soldiers to torture us, because by torturing us huge numbers joined the FLN.” “The Real Battle of Algiers,” The Battle of Algiers, DVD, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo (1966; Argent Films, 2009).

[33] Targeted assassinations, which kill suspects without bringing them to trial, using drone strikes or elite commando squads, is a policy pursued by the Obama administration about which Cheney has voiced his approval. See Charlie Rose, “Charlie Rose Talks to Dick Cheney,” Bloomberg Businessweek, 14 February 2013, <>( accessed 2 March 2013).

[34] President Obama has declared Homeland to be among his favourite TV shows. See Cynthia Banham, “New war emerges, as seen on your television,” Sydney Morning Herald, 10 February 2012<>(accessed 12 November 2012).

[35] Carl Plantinga, “‘I followed the Rules and They All Loved You More’: Moral Judgment and Attitudes toward Fictional Characters in Film,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy, XXXIV (2010), 42.

[36] Khatib, 175.

[37] For a discussion of civilian casualties of drone strikes, which have affected populations in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, see Medea Benjamin, Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control (London: Verso, 2013) and Jeremy Scahill, Dirty Wars: the World is a Battlefield (London: Serpent’s Tale, 2013).

[38] Henry Porter, “Rendition, Zero Dark Thirty and the brutal reality of Britain’s secret services,” The Observer, 16 December 2012, <>(accessed 20 December 2012).

[39] The drone strikes’ precision calculation was brought into question when The New York Times reported, in May 2012, that all males of combatant age within the strike zones are regarded as legitimate targets, “unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” For commentary on this extraordinary formulation, see Benjamin, 8.

[40] Indeed, a memo approved for release in April 2013, revealing details of the agency’s requested changes to Zero’s draft screenplay, illuminates the CIA’s influence over the film and the screenwriter’s readiness to alter plot details to portray the agency in a positive light; in exchange, the CIA gave him classified information on the Bin Laden operation. The memo is reproduced in full with commentary in Adrian Chen, “Newly Declassified Memo Shows CIA Shaped Zero Dark Thirty’s Narrative”, Gawker, 6 May 2013,<>(accessed 6 July 2013).

[41] Alex Gibney, “Screen Talk,” 56th BFI London Film Festival, BFI Southbank, London, 16 October 2012.

[42] Bill Nichols, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 80.

[43] Nichols, Representing Reality, 77.

[44] Shawn Rosenheim, “Interrotroning History: Errol Morris and the Documentary of the Future,” in The Persistence of History: Cinema, Television and the Modern Event, ed. Vivian Sobchack (New York: Routledge, 1996), 232.

[45] Vivian Sobchack, “Inscribing Ethical Space: 10 Propositions on Death, Representation, and Documentary,” in Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 241.

[46] Gary Crowdus, “Speaking Documentary Truth to Power: An Interview with Alex Gibney,” Cineaste 33. 3 (2008), 30.

[47] For further details of these memos, see Danner and Mayer.

[48] Bill Nichols, “Feelings of Revulsion and the Limits of Academic Discourse,” Jump Cut 52 (2010), <>(accessed 11 January 2011). Among the articles in the Jump Cut special issue on S.O.P in which Nichols’s essay appears, there is only favourable appraisal of the film, Linda Williams, ‘Cluster Fuck: The Forcible Frame in Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure’, Jump Cut 52 (2010), <>

[49] Thomas Austin, “Standard Operating Procedure, ‘the Mystery of Photography’ and the Politics of Pity,” Screen 52. 3 (2011), 344. Boltanski, however, contrasts the “politics of pity” (a phrase he borrows from Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution) with a more favorable “politics of justice.” See Luc Boltanski, Distant Suffering: Morality, Media and Politics, trans. G. Burchell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

[50] Austin, 344.

[51] The lack of accountability enjoyed by the war’s private contractors, the “coalition of the billing,” is investigated by Peter Singer, “War, Profits and the Vacuum of Law: Privatized Military Firms and International Law,” Columbia Journal of Transnational Law 42.2 (2004): 521-49.

[52] An accompanying book based on Morris’s interviews and written by Philip Gourevitch covers the broader context of Bush administration policies, as does Morris’s director’s commentary on the DVD; see Gourevitch and Morris, Standard Operating Procedure: A War Story (London: Picador, 2008).

[53] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (London: Penguin, 2003), 74.

[54] Livia Bloom, “Regarding the Pain of Others: Errol Morris on Standard Operating Procedure,” Cinemascope 34 (2008), 11.

[55] Julia Lesage, “Torture documentaries,” Jump Cut 51 (2009), <>

(accessed 18 August 2009).

[56] Austin, 349.

[57] Rosenheim, 232.

[58] Nichols, “Feelings of Revulsion.”

[59] Plantinga, 44.

[60] Steven Shaviro, The Cinematic Body (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 49.

[61] Barbara Ehrenreich, “Feminism’s Assumptions Upended”, in Meron Benvenisti et al, Abu Ghraib: the Politics of Torture (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2004), 69.

[62] Deleuze, Cinema 1,16.

[63] Lesage, op. cit.

[64] See, for example, Manohla Dargis, “We, the People Behind the Abuse,” New York Times, 25 April, 2008,

<>(accessed 20 December 2012).

[65] Proprioception is defined as “the sense one uses, based on cues from such organs as one’s muscles, tendons and inner ear, to judge one’s position relative to one’s own body and to the immediately surrounding space.” Synaesthesia refers to the intermingling of different senses; in filmic terms, this can involve exploring how vision in cinematic experience is “entangled with other senses.” Jennifer M. Barker, “Out of Sync, Out of Sight: Synaesthesia and Film Spectacle,” Paragraph 31. 2 (2008), 241, 243.

[66] Jennifer M. Barker, The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 60.

[67] Shaviro, 35.

[68] Austin, 350.

[69] Young, 38.

[70] Scarry, 47-8.

[71] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: the Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004), 147.

About the Author

Shohini Chaudhuri

About the Author

Shohini Chaudhuri

Shohini Chaudhuri is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies at the University of Essex, UK. She has published two books – Contemporary World Cinema: Europe, the Middle East, East Asia and South Asia (Edinburgh University Press, 2005) and Feminist Film Theorists (Routledge, 2006). Her latest book, Cinema of the Dark Side: Atrocity and the Ethics of Film Spectatorship, is forthcoming from Edinburgh University Press in 2014.View all posts by Shohini Chaudhuri →