Film Therapy: The Reader and Standard Operating Procedure

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Spoiler
Alert: high-level character and plot or story information for The
Reader and Standard
Operating Procedure
.

Coming
to Terms

The newly released
indie film, The Reader, is the latest feature concerning
the holocaust. It is an emotional powerhouse, with great subtlety
in the script, editing, and performances.

Set in the
post-war period from 1958 through the mid-'90s, we see individual
German characters, and the society from which they came, attempting
to come to terms with what they did — and why they did it — or stood
by and allowed it to happen. The people whose guilt is to be determined
were low-level personnel characterized as "a few bad apples."
Who participated, who led, who knew, and how responsible were they?
Over sixty years after the events, Germans — indeed Germany — still
struggles with its role.

Here, in mid-December,
under cover of the holiday rush, our Senate Armed Services Committee
released its findings
on torture practices
in recent US operations and their authorization
by members of the Bush Administration.
The report explicitly rejects the "bad apples" thesis:
"The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody cannot simply be attributed
to the actions of "a few bad apples" acting on their own.
The fact is that senior officials in the United States government
solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined
the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized
their use against detainees. Those efforts damaged our ability to
collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened
the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority. .
." (p. xii).

In the 2008
documentary, Standard
Operating Procedure
, filmmaker Errol Morris (The
Fog of War
) interviews Abu Ghraib's "bad apples"
themselves. We come to understand the command
climate in which these low-level soldiers were placed; the other
agents (and agencies) to which they were subordinate; and how the
rank and gender of these soldiers, in that structure, led them to
do what they did — and how their involvement differed in important
ways from what we thought we saw in the pictures.

In
post-war Germany, public trials were held, and the entire nation
was allowed the chance to understand what had happened on their
watch. Over six decades have passed, and the emotional and intellectual
processes continue.

While the specific
actions of our two nations differ, the weight of conscience hangs
heavy, for those of us in the US who know what has happened on our
watch. Based on U.S. box office receipts, about 29,000 people saw
Standard Operating Procedure. How many people are aware of
the senate's torture findings? Will the broader US population ever
be given (or take, or demand) the chance that the Germans have given
themselves?

PS: See these
excellent films; they are much richer and broader than I've described.
(There are no real spoilers above.) S.O.P. is available through
Netflix. Be sure to re-watch it with Morris' commentary turned on,
if you're interested to know what students of documentary film theory
101 learn in the first week of class.

January
3, 2009

Lyn
Gerner [send her mail]
has spent over 21 years in high-performance computing. Most recently,
in lieu of a mid-life crisis, she's obtained an MFA in Science and
Natural History Filmmaking at Montana State University-Bozeman.

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