He didn’t actually plan to kill Tony Blair. But he got thrown into Abu Ghraib for it, anyway.
Dir. Michael Tucker & Petra Epperlein, 2007, 72 min
In 1998, Iraqi journalist Yunis Abbas had a stint in prison under Saddam Hussein’s regime because of his writing. In 2003, the American-led coalition came, promising an end to tyranny and injustice in Iraq. Later that year, Yunis and two of his brothers were arrested by US troops and sent to Abu Ghraib. Their crime? Plotting to kill British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The evidence? Who knows. The Army has never owned up to why they took in Yunis and his brothers. Oh, and they deny having ever detained him.
The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair plays out like a dark practical joke. The film is self-described as “Kafkaesque,” and there’s no better term for what happened to Yunis. Bad intelligence led to an innocent man (What, did you really think for a second that he was actually planning to kill Tony Blair. Come on) getting thrown into an unimaginably bad situation, which was only compounded by further ineptitude. When Yunis relates how his interrogators tried to wrangle the “truth” out of him by questioning whether he liked Indiana Jones, there’s nothing you can do but laugh in horror.
Directors Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein demonstrate a master class in conveying a story when you don’t have much raw footage to work with. The time inside Abu Ghraib is related mainly via semi-animated comic book panels. But they trust most of the story to Yunis alone, along with a few other people involved in his “stay,” to tell his tale.
Yunis himself is a riveting character. I don’t think he raises or lowers his voice the least bit during the movie. He is unfailingly measured and calm, whether he’s talking about videotaping a family reunion or being tortured with electricity. Maybe it’s the journalist in him showing through, and he wants to remain as detached and objective as possible. In which case, he’s the most professional person ever.
The scariest thing about The Prisoner is how it came into being. The directors stumbled upon Yunis and his story while in the midst of making a completely different doc: Gunner Palace. How many more awful stories have gone unfound by prying eyes in the Iraq debacle? The sheer magnitude of the injustices boggles the mind. At one point, an inspector estimates that 9 out of 10 of Abu Ghraib’s inmates had no intelligence value at all.
In many ways, Yunis Abbas can be seen to stand in for all of the Iraqi people who suffered in the war. Embedded in his story are thousands of others, many more victims of one colossal institutional screw-up after another. A chilling, blackly funny allegory for a nation that turned into a piece of bad postmodernism, The Prisoner is hard to watch and harder to shake off.