Ray Pride, New City Chicago--Yunis Khatayer Abbas has a look in his eye.
Sad, accepting, honest, serene: American "intel" in Iraq led the Army to believe that Yunis was the key player in a plot to murder British Prime Minister (and one-man coalition of the willing) Tony Blair. None of it was true. Michael Tucker, who co-directed the grunts-on-the-ground doc "Gunner Palace" with wife Petra Epperlein, was on a Baghdad patrol with the soldiers sent to capture Abbas, video camera in hand.
This is how he meets the man he calls Yunis--a journalist, a cameraman, an honorable man, a single individual on his knees in the dirt at gunpoint outside his mother's simple home. His brothers, a student and a doctor, are taken away as well. The plot was not true. None of it mattered. He was sent to a satellite branch of Abu Ghraib called Camp Ganci. A year of interrogation follows. Malign neglect in the direst heat. No apology to follow. One notion seems to reign: "If they were innocent, they wouldn't be at Abu Ghraib."
There are a couple of techniques put to impeccable use in the largely first-person "The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair" which fall outside of traditional boundaries of "documentary," which, of course, is why documentaries fascinate today: the willingness to be frisky, the imperative to be personal and to personalize. Some of Abbas' story is recounted in graphic-novel style, both in lettering and with more than 150 illustrations by Epperlein, which turns out to be a masterful notion, no matter how improbable it sounds. (Even the choice of derring-do surf music works.) It's an inspired choice of stylization, as the feats attributed to Abbas and so many others turn out to be paranoiac exaggerations by unreliable witnesses who will not hesitate to conduct even their smallest misprisions in secrecy. (Variety's reviewer wrote that "The Prisoner" suggests a Frank Miller graphic novel of a Kafka tale.)
The idea that Abbas could have been a great mastermind of a vastly ambitious and complicated mission to murder the English visitor--on a smaller scale, akin to the prisoner who recently confessed to being behind dozens of crimes and conspiracies, including 9/11--is a comic-book conceit in its own right. The bogie, the faceless other, the face among the unseen faces seeking to wreak terror on our "way of life"--as if evildoers were like villains on the television serial "24," needing only a bit of life-threatening torture or physical damage to insure the truth blurts out. But, without reenactments or a jigsaw of stock footage, how does one capture the things that were done to Abbas? Tucker and Epperlein cement their perspective with another touch: cleanly executed, horrific sound design that recaptures the sound of electricity as it has sizzled through the scarred finger Abbas shows the camera, or the echo of water dripping in a cold, dark cell. (The mind is more imaginative about sound than image, which the filmmakers know, but it does not just function as a backdrop to present testimony, but as memory, the prisoner's sense memory that cannot be dismissed.) There are bits of footage for perspective, such as President Bush's announcement of the invasion to come, intoned with the broken staccato of authoritarian cadence, "The tyrant will soon be gone. The day of liberation is near."
Abbas, who speaks of his passion for freedom and a face-to-face confrontation he had with Saddam Hussein and his mad sons, recounts how he persisted as a freelance cameraman: "This is the war, you must do something," and as the film tells us, "He photographed his city as it fell into chaos." A succession of stills makes a pretty terrific montage of Abbas' work as a news photographer. While he has a gift for the iconic more than for composition, the selection includes several bold images that demonstrate a Herzog-like eye for a world of smoke and crumble, a civilization already in ruins. (He compares his video camera on his shoulder to an RPG.) One of Abbas' captors offers his version of the story, and that's the ace up this film's sleeve: his philosophical notions, and Abbas', are bracingly close in their idealism. "After we filmed Yunis' story, we spent two months looking at DOD and Army documents released under the Freedom of Information Act to confirm details of his story," Tucker writes in the film's press notes. "Not only did the documents confirm his story--down to detainee serial numbers written on his boxer shorts--but they also gave us insight into the operational mindset of the Army at the time of Yunis' arrest." Yunis Khatayer Abbas is not a ghost of Abu Ghraib, but a witness.
Tucker and Epperlein have a look as well: a compassionate, forthright gaze that allows this most modest of stories, one miscarriage of justice, to serve as synecdoche for the larger pitch of battle, for minds and bodies and comforting distortions and elisions--Pat Tillman not hit by friendly fire, Jessica Lynch rescued in a non-existent Jerry Bruckheimer-scaled expedition using the latest technology--and vast, implausible-sounding narratives, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as a Zelig of mass slaughter. Wars are comprised of many men, many women. Abbas' serenity, his embarrassment at how this could happen to even one individual, even after this awful time in his life and in his country, inspires. Humanity persists. Goodness and kindness persist. "The Prisoner" is a good and kind film, and in its simplicity, persuasive. Its subject matter is depressing, but it does not despair.