Imagine a Franz Kafka story with illustrations by Frank Miller, and you’re ready for “The Prisoner, or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair,” a riveting account of an innocent bystander who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and winds up somewhere much, much worse. Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein, the same filmmaking pair responsible for the critically acclaimed “Gunner Palace,” offer another stark and unsettling look at post-Saddam Iraq in a documentary that could generate impassioned responses from op-ed writers and talkshow hosts while attracting serious interest from critics and venturesome ticketbuyers.
Following up on an incident Tucker witnessed during the filming of “Gunner Palace,” the co-helmers vividly and imaginatively render the misadventure of Yunis Khatayer Abbas, a freelance Iraqi journalist and cameraman who was rounded up by U.S. soldiers seeking bomb-makers aligned with a terrorist cell.
Despite protestations of their innocence, Abbas and his three brothers were spirited away to the Baghdad Police Academy, where they were brutally “interviewed” by Army interrogators. His captors peppered him with disorienting queries about seemingly inconsequential matters — What was his favorite color? Did he like Harrison Ford movies? — when they weren’t physically manhandling him. When he was finally told he and his brothers were suspected of plotting to kill British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the latter’s visit to Iraq, Abbas couldn’t help laughing out loud at the absurdity of the charge.
But Abbas’ captors didn’t laugh. Instead, they shipped him off to Abu Ghraib prison.
Given the lack of a filmed record of Abbas’ nine months as a prisoner, Tucker and Epperlein must rely heavily on archival footage, homemovies and, of course, much talking-head testimony. To structure and connect these elements, the filmmakers audaciously employ more than 150 comicbook-style illustrations that serve to enhance a narrative that is as much fantastical nightmare as true-life horror story.
Abbas was fortunate enough to be incarcerated in a section of Abu Ghraib — Camp Ganci — where prisoners “with no intelligence value” were held, enabling him to avoid many of the more horrific abuses later documented by U.S. Army investigators. (Of course, that begs the question of why someone suspected of plotting an assassination was held there.) But Abbas was even more fortunate to befriend a humane captor, Army Specialist Benjamin Thompson, whom the Iraqi journalist refers to, without a trace of irony, as “the Good Soldier.”
“The Prisoner” is most fascinating as it cuts between interviews with Abbas and Thompson, challenging auds of all political stripes to rethink many assumptions about Abu Ghraib in particular and the Iraq War in general. Abbas comes across as more thoughtful and witty than embittered as he recalls the darkest days of his imprisonment, which he attempted to surreptitiously document. (He laughs, but does not smile, as he displays the underwear he scribbled notes on when he was denied paper.) Thompson comes across as unaffectedly decent and deeply troubled by the poor treatment of Iraqi prisoners under Army control.
Aud is left with the impression that, under different circumstances, the two men might have become close friends — and thateven under these circumstances, they still somehow bonded. “The Prisoner” is in many ways a justifiably angry film, simmering with moral outrage. But it is also — surprisingly, maybe even amazingly — hopeful. That may not be what some auds expect or even want in a pic about Iraq right now. For others, however, that will be more than worth the price of a ticket.