Award-winning filmmaker Rory Kennedy premieres "The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib" documentary at Sundance

January 29th, 2007

Sundance Abu Ghraib film shows America's dark side

By Mary Milliken
Sat Jan 20, 4:04 PM ET

When documentary film maker Rory Kennedy wanted to make a movie about why ordinary people commit extraordinary acts of evil, the images of U.S. soldiers torturing detainees at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison kept coming back to haunt her.

The result was “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib,” one of the most talked about documentaries at this year's Sundance Film Festival and one that appeals to a public at odds with U.S. policy on the war in Iraq.

As Kennedy — daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy and Ethel Kennedy — interviewed soldiers and witnesses to the abuse in the fall of 2003, she concluded it was the product of a system fighting terror after the 9/11 attacks rather than a few maverick individuals.

“It is not just about Abu Ghraib, it is about America and who we are as a country,” Kennedy told Reuters on Saturday on the sidelines of the festival.

As a member of America's most famous political family, the award-winning filmmaker said she grew up believing the United States represented human rights and dignity.

“In the last three years, we are now a country that represents just the opposite and we are now known for torturing people,” she said. “That is directly connected to the policies put into place.”

Kennedy is not the only film maker at Sundance with a movie about Iraq. Her documentary is competing against “No End in Sight,” a film that aims to expose a chain of critical errors, denial and incompetence in the Iraq war. And last year, the documentary “Iraq in Fragments” won some of the festival's top awards.


Kennedy called her latest film her most challenging, beginning with the emotional strain of “living day in and day out” with the now famous photographs taken by soldiers of hooded, naked and sexually humiliated prisoners.

She interviewed 15 people who either participated in the torture or witnessed it. She did not have access to three low-ranking soldiers who are serving time in military prisons.

“What each of them told me is they did it because they were told to do it and everyone else was doing it,” Kennedy said.

“This was in stark contrast to what was coming from the administration and the investigation, which were all saying 'this was not systemic' and 'these were nine bad apples on the night shift'.”

She also tracked down six former Abu Ghraib detainees, who were interviewed in Turkey for security reasons. Five of the six asked not to be identified.

Kennedy tried but did not succeed in convincing officials from U.S. President George W. Bush's administration and the military to talk, instead relying on their comments to the press and congressional hearings.

She said she hopes the documentary creates pressure for further investigations into the abuses of Abu Ghraib and also spurs changes in standing policies that she says sanction torture.

“I hope with a new leadership in Congress we will revisit some of these ideas and hopefully change direction in this country,” said Kennedy.

The youngest child of Robert Kennedy, Rory Kennedy was born after her father was assassinated in 1968 but says his legacy of battling injustice has had a strong influence on her work and on this film.

“It seems unjust for 11 low-ranking soldiers to be held accountable for what seems to be the work of people much higher up the chain of command,” said Kennedy.

“That injustice is probably something my father would have fought against and in someway motivated me to do this film.”

The documentary produced by HBO will be shown in theaters and on the HBO network in February.

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