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Hot Docs Review: Ghosts of Abu Graib

Eddie Adams, the Pulitzer Prize winning photographer who took the famous picture of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Vietcong prisoner, once wrote: "still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them; but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths." (Time).

If Adams' iconic memento symbolizes the zeitgeist and disillusionment of the Vietnam War, then the disturbing and all-too familiar torture pictures of Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison are and will forever be the sorrowful reminders of the war that's happening today.

Rory Kennedy's Ghosts of Abu Graib is the kind of documentary that puts golf ball-size lumps in your throat; it's infuriating as much as it's thought provoking. The film probes deep with never-before-seen interviews and accounts from Iraqi victims as well as those disgraced US guards who appear in the photos.

The film first examines how the US managed to circumvent the Geneva Conventions that would eventually give way to the open exploitation of torture practices that are literally straight out of Guantanamo, Gitmo. Kennedy's assertions of the hypocrisies running amok within the Bush Administration are clear and, to her credit, sharply pointed; suggesting that the young soldiers mugging for the camera like it was "Animal House in Iraq" were guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Nevertheless, Kennedy's thesis is a human one rather than a political one -- that under overwhelming and oppressive circumstances our willingness to harm another human being will surface, even if our souls and conscience are intrinsically good. The film is book-ended with footage of social psychologist Stanley Milgram's famous obedience experiments (conducted in the 60s) in which ordinary people were ordered to administer electric shocks to an unseen victim behind a wall. The victim would scream louder each time the voltage got higher, yet the trigger kept getting pushed -- over and over again. Milgram concluded that:

"The ordinary person who shocked the victim did so out of a sense of obligation -- an impression of his duties as a subject -- and not from any peculiarly aggressive tendencies". (Milgram, The Perils of Obedience)

At last, if nothing new, Ghosts of Abu Graib at least tries to bring these fuzzy "half-truths" into focus, and does so with enough steam and vigor that kept me thoroughly engaged -- albeit pissed off -- right up to the very end.

(Photo: HBO Documentary Films)


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