Ghosts of Abu Ghraib
HBO // Unrated // $24.98 // June 5, 2007
Review by Randy Miller III | posted May 24, 2007
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"It is easy to ignore responsibility when one is only an intermediate link in a chain of action."
- Stanley Milgram

It's certainly not the first window into 2004's Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal, but Rory Kennedy's Ghosts of Abu Ghraib (2007) is more than a gallery of graphic, provocative photographs and tell-all confessions. This scathing documentary attempts to shed light on what really took place three years ago in Iraq's most notorious correctional facility, several months after Saddam Hussein's capture and roughly one year after "Mission Accomplished". Since then, the dust has settled, public outrage has (partially) cooled off and those responsible for the Iraqi prisoners' physical, psychological and sexual torture have been brought to justice.

Or, perhaps they haven't.

We're given plenty of retrospective comments during Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, including several by members of the 372nd Military Police Company who were directly responsible for most of the torture. To their credit, they are open and honest about their actions, though their reliance on the military chain of command ("We were just following orders...") provide some of the documentary's most chilling moments. More so than seeing photographs of prisoners stripped naked, blindfolded and chained, while members of the MP posed happily for the camera. More so than learning the harsh "interrogation" methods and the animal-like treatment that ensued beforehand. More so than realizing that roughly three-quarters of the Iraqi prisoners were completely innocent.

The documentary's main argument, though, isn't for the innocence or guilt of these soldiers; it's for the accountability of those higher up the chain of command. These soldiers were singled out as the sole causes of the abuse, while plenty of evidence suggests that they might have been instructed by their superiors. Interestingly enough, the repulsive photographs are passed off as a necessary evil, since the story likely wouldn't have entered the public eye otherwise. Bookended by powerful footage from Milgram's most famous psychological experiment, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib reminds us that this type of cruel and unusual punishment---implied or otherwise---isn't exactly unusual. This time, unfortunately, actors weren't involved and the abuse wasn't staged.

The disturbing photographs and video footage can't help but remain a partial centerpiece, however, and what's here has been presented completely uncut (which will keep this documentary out of most classrooms, unfortunately). Paired with additional comments by other MP guards, outside analysts and Iraqi prisoners---given false names, of course---Ghosts of Abu Ghraib paints a powerful portrait of moral apathy, irresponsibility and abuse of power. It's certainly not for all audiences, but those who can stomach reality are encouraged to participate.

Presented on DVD by HBO, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib is a compact release that doesn't quite cover all the bases. While a pair of interesting extras adds plenty to the relatively short main feature, the technical presentation isn't exactly HBO's best effort in certain regards. Let's take a closer look, shall we?

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib has not been enhanced for 16x9 displays (despite what the packaging advertises). This is an unfortunate and glaring error on HBO's part, though it doesn't necessarily hamper the visuals a great deal. The color palette appears natural and black levels are solid, while a significant portion of the material---from stock footage to low-resolution digital videos---only looks as good as the source material will allow. Still, the lack of anamorphic enhancement brings the overall rating down a point.

The included Dolby Digital 2.0 mix (available in English or Spanish) is a plain-wrap affair, but it gets the job done. Recent interviews sound clean and clear, while a few earlier sequences only suffer due to source material limitations. Closed Captions are provided during the main feature only, though certain scenes include burned-in English subtitles.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

Seen above, the animated menu designs are basic and easy to navigate. The 78-minute main feature has been divided into 12 chapters, while no obvious layer change was detected during playback. This one-disc release is housed in a standard black keepcase and includes no inserts of any kind.

Bonus Features

Only two extras have been included here, but they're both engaging and appropriate. First up is a feature-length Audio Commentary with director Rory Kennedy, who provides an interesting retrospective chat about supervising the production. This obviously isn't a technical affair: Kennedy shares her personal opinions about the incident and the public backlash it spawned, as well as her impressions of the interview subjects. It's certainly an interesting chat, so fans of the film should definitely lend an ear. The other extra is a collection of Unseen Footage (36:51, presented in 1.78:1 non-anamorphic widescreen), which includes extended interviews with several of the guards, inmates and outsiders. This collection is also worth a look, though it's easy to see why a few didn't make the final cut.

Final Thoughts

Scathing and provocative, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib isn't exactly light weekend viewing...but it's certainly worth seeking out. The evidence---including photographs, video footage and personal confessions---has been organized in a skillful manner, presenting a passionate case for justice without the heavy-handed aftertaste. HBO's DVD package is unfortunately a bit lacking in the visual department, though a pair of interesting extras helps to round out this stand-alone release. Ghosts of Abu Ghraib may not the most polished DVD in recent memory, but the strength of the material carries more than enough weight to justify a purchase. Recommended.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.

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