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Ghosts of Abu Ghraib

Methodically relating the story -- as told by several of the U.S. soldiers involved -- whose leak to the media badly damaged U.S. credibility, "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib" makes grim but worthwhile viewing.

With:
With: Alberto Mora, John Yoo, Scott Horton, Mark Danner, Alfred McCoy, Col. Janis Karpinski, Rear Adm. John Hutson, Javal Davis, Megan Ambuhl, Israel Rivera, Roman Krol, Gen. Janis Karpinski, Ken Davis, Tony Lagouranis.

Methodically relating the story — as told by several of the U.S. soldiers involved — whose leak to the media badly damaged U.S. credibility, “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib” makes grim but worthwhile viewing. Beyond reprising the notorious photos and videos of Iraqi prisoner abuse at a facility where Saddam Hussein had ordered even worse violations, Rory Kennedy’s docu points an accusatory finger at the highest reaches of White House, intelligence and military leadership. Pic, which played scattered eye blink Academy-qualifying hardtop dates before its Feb. 22 HBO premiere, could re-ignite the debate about these incidents and the Bush administration’s possible complicity.

The surface facts about the torture and humiliation that occurred at Abu Ghraib prison in autumn 2003 are familiar; the images are indelible: grinning, goofing Yank M.P.s standing next to oft-naked, cowering prisoners in various forms of extremis as if showing off “Stupid Pet Tricks.”

Reeling from the response at home and abroad, D.C. officials distanced themselves from any involvement post haste. It was ” ‘Animal House’ on the night shift,” a bunch of crazy dumb kids pranking out of control.

But as various experts here note, the combinations of binding, sleep/sensory deprivation, “stress positions,” sexual humiliation, dog attacks, et al., are extreme techniques well known to those who study, monitor or for that matter practice such deliberate human-rights violations. They were hardly likely to be spontaneously re-invented overnight by a few, mostly very green Army recruits. Nonetheless, the buck was successfully passed.

The soldiers and lowest-end officers directly involved received various punitive sentences, the longest 10 years (though most of them were already free to participate in this film).

Meanwhile, higher-ups whom pic suggests actually ordered the abuses got off scot-free, even receiving promotions. Needless to say, none of the latter are interviewed here.

Instead, humbler personnel relate the frightening details of being thrown into an understaffed, dangerous situation. U.S. officials were under great pressure to get intelligence information. Thousands of citizens hauled in on the thinnest pretexts had yielded little of use.

The order purportedly came to “Gitmo-ize the situation” — i.e. implement “enhanced interrogation” methods that had worked at Guantanemo Bay, earning that prison a reputation for Geneva Convention-flouting abuses.

At the likely behest of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, Gitmo operations chief Major Gen. Geoffrey Miller was dispatched to Abu Ghraib, which had been hastily converted for its new task. Ten of thousands of political prisoners may have died there under Saddam Hussein. Interviewees vividly recall their eerie first impressions, which never quite went away.

Sgt. Charles Graner (who received the longest sentence) began directing –presumably under orders from higher officers — his young M.P.s in the practice of what soon amounted to physical and psychological torture. Among the deaths at Abu Ghraib, however, so far only one has been ruled a torture-related homicide.

The scandal began to break when one horrified soldier saw photos of the night-shift abuse. He turned them over to a superior. Eventually, “60 Minutes” and other outlets spread the word. Spin-doctoring commenced.

U.S. soldiers interviewed still seem dazed and shamed by their acts. Others interviewed include some of the now-free detainees (several seen semi-obscured), retired military commanders, human rights activists, scholars and journalists. News footage and “home movie” Abu Ghraib materials further blend to create a disturbing sense of two wars — one packaged for public consumption, the other subterranean, often illegal by international law.

Forceful, direct doc is well-turned in all departments.

Popular on Variety

Ghosts of Abu Ghraib

Production: An HBO Documentary Films presentation of a Moxie Firecracker production. Produced by Rory Kennedy, Liz Garbus, Jack Youngelson. Executive producers, Sheila Nevins, Diana Barrett. Co-producer, Gil Shochat. Directed by Rory Kennedy. Written by Jack Youngelson.

Crew: Camera (color, HD cam), Tom Hurwitz; editor, Sari Gilman; music, Miriam Cutler; sound, Margaret Crimmins, Greg Smith. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 19, 2007. Running time: 78 MIN.

With: With: Alberto Mora, John Yoo, Scott Horton, Mark Danner, Alfred McCoy, Col. Janis Karpinski, Rear Adm. John Hutson, Javal Davis, Megan Ambuhl, Israel Rivera, Roman Krol, Gen. Janis Karpinski, Ken Davis, Tony Lagouranis.

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