This weekend the New York Times reported on the controversy surrounding Standard Operating Procedure, Errol Morris's new documentary about the Abu Ghraib case. "I paid the 'bad apples' because they asked to be paid, and they would not have been interviewed otherwise," Morris said in a statement. He considers the possibility that he should have revealed the payments in the credits, though he says he "didn't feel the necessity."
The story highlights an interesting and little-remarked-upon dichotomy between journalism and movie documentaries: newspaper, magazine, and Tv interviewers rarely pay subjects, while film producers commonly do. In fact, the dicier issue seems to be whether the New Yorker violated its standards by publishing in its March 24 issue an excellent piece by Morris and Philip Gourevitch that drew from the interviews Morris collected for the film. Especially fascinating is its treatment of Specialist Sabrina Harman of the 372nd Military Police Company, who began snapping digital photos inside Abu Ghraib as a way of indemnifying herself against what she knew were abuses but wound up incriminating herself instead.
The Times is also hosting a blog by Morris, where he considers in two posts his technique of staging reenactments for the specific purpose of isolating and focusing on key moments in a complex chain of evidence. There's a fair amount of this in Standard Operating Procedure, though the stagings are mostly for emotional effect. The evidentiary burden falls mainly on the prosecution's reconstruction, by synchronizing digital photos from three soldiers' cameras, of the chain of events as prisoners were abused and ritually humiliated. And Morris's interviews with Harman and Lynndie England are chilling--paid or not, they starkly capture the dehumanizing environment inside Abu Ghraib.