Sundance Features

January 19, 2007

Rory Kennedy, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib

"It's not just looking back at Abu Ghraib, but also about looking forward ... We have a lot of policies in place right now that are arguably very encouraging of torture."

One of the photographs of torture depicted in Rory Kennedy's Ghosts of Abu Ghraib

(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)

So I checked out the film, but just for the record, can you go over what you're taking to Sundance?

Ghosts of Abu Ghraib is a feature length documentary that starts with the photographs that came out Abu Ghraib in April 2004, and goes beyond the images to explore exactly what happened in the fall of 2003 -- who took the images, why they were taken, what motivated the people who took them and why the abuses occurred. I was able to interview about 15 people who were at Abu Ghraib at the time these incidents took place, ranging from people who were involved in the abuse to detainees who were abused and photographed to Gen. (Janis) Karpinski and other people up the chain of command -- who were either directly or indirectly involved -- in an attempt to paint a fuller picture as to what happened and why.

There are several pretty stunning levels of access you acquired to make this film. For starters, to what lengths did you have to go to secure interviews with people like Sabrina Harman, Janis Karpinski and the rest?

Some were more difficult than others. I think the hardest were the MP's who were involved who we were able to speak to; most of them had already served time and were looking to put these incidents behind them and move on with their lives. I would say there was an emotional resistance to revisiting Abu Ghraib and what happened there on film. I think all of them were also invested in really trying to get the truth out about what happened. By and large, most of them thought the full story hadn't been told; sound bites didn't do it justice and they saw an opportunity to kind of go into greater depth about what actually happened. I think that was really the drawing point for them and the reason most of them were motivated to speak to me.

For Janis Karpinski, I think she felt she had really been scapegoated on this issue, and she had been blamed for a lot of what happened -- that she was responsible -- and felt that others who were responsible were getting off the hook or even being promoted. So I think that she was invested in telling that story. And then we were also able to speak with John Yu, who was working in the administration at the time to create the basis for the legal policies that were put into place. I was very happy that he was willing to speak with us because I think it was important to understand what was going on in the administration mindset at the time that motivated them to change policies so radically -- to really get rid of Geneva (Conventions) and to put a radical legal framework in place that allowed for interpretations of policy that shifted, really, what has been the standard for the last 200 years in this country.

How did you about locating the Abu Ghraib inmates and persuading them to be interviewed for the film?

That was probably the most logistically challenging issue that came up in the film -- just trying to secure those interviews. We spoke to a number of organizations that were working directly with detainees, and after that, collaborating with a legal firm based in Philadelphia -- a woman named Susan Burke who was representing a number of detainees in a class action suit against the independent contractors. She had relationships with a number of detainees; we were then able to work with her, she tried to secure access to some detainees, which she was able to do with detainees who agreed to speak with us.

We made arrangements for three of these detainees to fly to Jordan, but unfortunately they were turned away at the airport in Iraq and weren't able to get on the plane. We tried to film them in Iraq, but they didn't want to talk to us there because of security issues. So we arranged for them fly to Turkey, which they were able to do but were then detained again at the airport there. We flew to Turkey, and ultimately they were released and we able to interview them in the hotel in Turkey.

The levels of courage that it took all of these interviewees to sit and discuss these issues as candidly as they did is incredible.

I know! It's so brave. The MP's -- you have to give them credit for going into the details.

And anyone can look these people's names up, but their faces, voices and personalities were pretty much sequestered until now. Did you have any discussions about anonymity versus attribution?

The MP's weren't invested in being anonymous, but it was something I offered a lot of them early on when there was a lot of resistance. Ultimately all of them agreed to be on camera and show their faces. That really wasn't an issue. With the detainees it was an issue; I assumed that they were scared about having somebody in Iraq retaliate against them, but actually their greatest fear was retaliation by Americans in Iraq. One of the detainees didn't want his identity obscured; we showed his face after long discussions with him and then even months after when we were in the editing room again. We had another opportunity to obscure his face and got back in touch with him. But that's what he wanted; he was very committed to speaking on camera.

Why was he so insistent?

He just felt that the Americans had humiliated him enough. He wasn't going to walk around the world scared, and he was going to tell them what they did to him. He wanted his name and voice known, and if there was retaliation, then we would know who did it and who would be responsible. He just didn't want to be in hiding. It was that important.

With regard to the administration -- Rumsfeld in particular -- there's a case to be built here against Rumsfeld as virtually a war criminal. And sure, it’s a film about history and events of the past, but it's also about the potential implications of consequences of the past for the higher-ups. Do you look at the project as yielding that type of potential?

I don't know. I'm hopeful with the new Congress. Part of the problem is the people who've been running these committees the last few years have been people who've been invested in keeping the powers-that-be in place and not questioning that authority. I really think that with a new leadership in position there are people who are very invested in getting exactly to the bottom of what happened. I don't know if Rumsfeld is guilty of war crimes, but I do know that there area lot of questions that remain unanswered, and there's a lot of information we do know that suggests he was very much involved in what happened at Abu Ghraib along with other people along the chain of command -- none of whom have been held accountable.

I think one of the tragedies and travesties of this issue is that there have been 12 low-ranking soldiers who served time and not one person up the chain of command beyond a low-ranking soldier has served any time. That includes people in the CIA who are responsible for killing people. (Charles) Graner is serving 10 years for humiliating people, and there have been 96 cases of death in custody, at least 12 of which have been ruled homicides. And the most that any of those people who've been responsible for those homicides have served is five months. So there's a real disconnect between what is really reprehensible and what is being treated as reprehensible.

There are a lot of unanswered questions, and I hope this new leadership in the House and Senate takes this on and makes it a priority. It's not just looking back at Abu Ghraib, but also about looking forward, because we have a lot of policies in place right now that are very suspect and are arguably very encouraging of torture. There's the president and the vice president, who will say we don’t torture. But if you say, "What is the CIA allowed to do exactly?", they say, "We can't answer that." If you say, "Can the CIA be held responsible for any abuse that happens?" "We can't answer that; it's top secret." "Well, are you guys still waterboarding?" "Can I take you out to a private committee room to answer that question? I can't answer that in public." There are a lot of questions that remain in terms of policies in place about secret detention facilities: Where are these facilities? What exactly is going on there? These are absolutely operated illegally, you know? Let's get to the bottom of it.

And the administration wouldn't talk about any of this on camera or allow any interviews?

No. I approached Miller, Rumsfeld, Vice President Cheney. I approached several people up the chain of command and none of them agreed to appear on camera.

Totally switching gears: You're a Sundance alumna; what are looking forward to at this year's festival?

I'm excited. I mean, I don't know -- I haven't been there yet, so I guess I'll know more when I get there. But it's such a great experience to be able to show your film in front of an audience, and the Sundance audience is always so interesting and smart and engaged and relates to the film very well. So it's always a privilege to be showing a film at this venue, and I think it's going to be really fun. I'm excited about it.

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Comments (4)

I would like to contact this filmmaker. Where can I reach him? Thank you. Please if you can have him reply.

Fuck all you enemy sympathizers! Why don't you do an in-depth analysis of all the Americans beheaded by these Muslim dogs? Fuck all of you! Abu Ghraib was a cake-walk for these demons, and you know it! Far worse happens in American jails every day. Cut out your wanton exaggeration, which is nothing more but a thinly veiled animosity toward your own country. We ain't buying any more of your leftist bullshit.

You pinko bastards, led by that ageing commie bastard Robert Redford, who, by the way, is looking more and more like some estrogen-starved grandmother, cut out your America bashing leftist crap. We're onto you, and you know it. You're all hoping for the Socialist overthrow of this country. These Muslim dogs were probably laughing their way through what you like to call "torture," you pigs!!! How dare you!!! Would you care to exert the same journalistic scrutiny over the question of the cruelty to aborted fetuses? NO? Not man enough? You fucking cowards! You see violence only where it serves your Commie agenda to see it. Look no further than your own backyard, where we are daily slaughtering 4,000 fetuses per day! You Goddamn cowards!!1

I love the work Rory Kennedy has done. How can I purchase some of her documentaries? They are very informative.

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