RFK's daughter campaigns for American accountability with Ghosts of Abu Ghraib

Worth a thousand words: 'Ghosts of Abu Ghraib'

Worth a thousand words: 'Ghosts of Abu Ghraib'

Park City, Utah—

The new documentary Ghosts of Abu Ghraib appears haunted by the 1960s, this even beyond its direction by Rory Kennedy, an old-school lefty filmmaker who also happens to be RFK's daughter. Offering a historical perspective on the American war crimes that took place at the Iraqi prison in the fall of 2003, Kennedy's film opens with stark black-and-white footage of a 1961 clinical study in which Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram proved that humans—or at least Americans—are disturbingly well-disposed to inflict pain on others when ordered to do so. One participant in the study can be seen momentarily hesitating to administer what he believes are high-voltage shocks. (The screaming "victim" of the experiment was a hired actor.) Then, like all his fellow subjects, the man proceeds to flip the switch when told by an authority figure that someone else would take responsibility.

Ghosts of Abu Ghraib (screening at the Riverview in advance of its HBO premiere) makes the point that almost any of us could be pressured into giving a beating, but it takes a boss like Rumsfeld to give the order. Kennedy didn't manage to get the former defense secretary to answer questions on camera, although her interviews with American military officers and their Iraqi victims at the prison are incriminating enough—and not in the ways we might expect.

I talked to the documentarian last month in a Park City hotel bar while her movie, which she had just introduced to a sold-out audience at the Sundance Film Festival, was screening in a theater down the block.


City Pages: That archival footage from 1961 is jaw-dropping—particularly the moment when the "torturer" appears to feel justified in the knowledge that someone else is in charge. Is this what happened at Abu Ghraib?

Rory Kennedy: I think obedience to authority is one of the more significant contributing factors to why people do unconscionable things. So much of what happened at Abu Ghraib came from the top down, and yet the people in authority haven't taken real responsibility, nor have they been held accountable. That footage [of the 1961 test] is very poignant in this sense. It shows that most of us, when we're told by someone in authority to do something horrible, will go ahead and do it.


CP: Do you think the mainstream media is partly responsible for that lack of accountability?

Kennedy: The mainstream media took the [Bush] administration's position on the crimes as the truth, which is another kind of obedience to authority. Reporters need to go the extra step in order to get to the real sources as opposed to simply disseminating White House press releases.


CP: But most reporters are just obedient underlings—the prison guards of establishment journalism. If there's an incestuous relationship between government and news, the sort that puts real investigation of events such as Abu Ghraib at risk, then who's responsible?

Kennedy: Historically speaking, I think it goes back to Ronald Reagan—and to [Bill] Clinton, to some degree—for changing the communications laws and the Fairness Doctrine. News divisions now are motivated by money, by selling stories as opposed to telling stories. When the public airwaves began, they were meant to be public—to get information out, to help people vote and help them make decisions based on facts. If Americans are deciding which policies to support based on unbalanced, untrue information—or a total lack of information—then we're in trouble.


CP: Do you see documentary filmmaking as a kind of alternative journalism, then?

Kennedy: Absolutely. And that's the reason why documentaries are popular, Michael Moore's films and An Inconvenient Truth in particular: They give people what they're not getting from news. It shouldn't be the case that people would need to see my film in order to find out what really happened at Abu Ghraib. That kind of story should be on the news every single night.


CP: The horrors of war were on the news every single night during Vietnam—which wasn't convenient to those who wanted to continue the war.

Kennedy: That's right. I think a lesson was learned from [press coverage of] Vietnam, and we're still paying the price for it.


CP: You're from a strongly political family. Do you think that, just as documentaries are journalism by other means, they're also politics by other means?

Kennedy: To some degree, yes. When I made the decision to start making documentaries, a big motivation for me was the sense that I could be a social advocate. I wanted to do work that would impact people and policies. When I looked around at the various options available to me, I felt that documentaries were an important way to communicate issues to people. You can have enormous impact by being in electoral politics. But personally I love making films and telling stories.


CP: Ghosts of Abu Ghraib was produced largely by women, which is not unusual among current documentaries. Is it your sense that women have much greater access to documentary production than to narrative feature production?

Kennedy: Definitely. I'd say 95 percent of the executives I've worked with on documentaries over the years have been women. Granted, that's just my personal experience, but I think it's indicative.


CP: Since the government and the military continue to be dominated by men, the gender dynamics behind the scenes of the film seem to give it another layer of opposition. And they help make your interviews with the women who were complicit in the torture appear really complicated—as the situation undoubtedly was for them.

Kennedy: Janis Karpinsky, who was brigadier general in charge of prisons and took a good deal of blame for what happened at Abu Ghraib, feels she was scapegoated by people—by men—in higher positions. Did her being a woman contribute to that scapegoating? Probably so. There was a strongly sexual element to the torture at Abu Ghraib—the interrogators ordering [military police officer] Megan Ambuhl to stand and watch an Iraqi prisoner shower naked, things like that.


CP: Gender aside, do you think there's a sense in which your interview subjects—the military police and interrogators—are confessing to your camera?

Kennedy: I think of confession as being the first time that a person admits to something. All of [the subjects] had previously admitted to what they had done and had served time [in jail]. So I think what they're trying to do [in the film] is explain why they did it. And for me, that was the main motivation of the film: to try to communicate that explanation to an audience. I'm as guilty as the next person of judging these people for what they did. But hearing from them really changed things for me. As soon as I met [MP] Javal Davis, I felt immediately disarmed—just to see him as a human being despite his behavior, which seemed so inhuman.


CP: You hoped this feeling would translate to the audience?

Kennedy: Yes. And I think it does. You look at [Davis] and you say to yourself, Oh, yeah—this person has eyes that I can connect with, a face I can relate to. And then beyond that are the circumstances of the torture—that it was authorized verbally and in written form, in signed memos. It's important for people to acknowledge the chain of command—especially people in the military, because I think there are conditions in war that are conducive to torture, conditions that can be anticipated and therefore prevented through policy change. My feeling is that, as Americans, we're ignoring the signs, pushing them under the rug and making ourselves vulnerable to this kind of thing happening again.


CP: Based on your interviews and your research, do you have a sense that there's a future for the Geneva Convention in American war policy?

Kennedy: On paper, it looks quite good what the administration did recently with the Military Commissions Act: There's a commitment to not torturing people, to treating them with dignity and respect. But there's also a lot of smoke and mirrors. The military isn't allowed to torture, but they're allowed to use evidence obtained through torture. And then there are entirely different rules for the CIA. You ask, Well, what are those rules? And they say, We can't tell you what those are. You understand.