Prisoner Or How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair

Reviewed by Tim Grierson

Following up their acclaimed Iraq War documentary Gunner Palace, filmmakers Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein again explore the conflicts personal toll in The Prisoner Or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair, a nicely restrained retelling of one innocent Iraqis detention and eventual shipment to the infamous Abu Ghraib prison.

With its short running time, this docu exhibits a pared-down approach that allows its righteous indignation to grow slowly and make its points without resorting to manipulative tactics.

Narrated by Iraqi journalist Yunis Khatayer Abbas, The Prisoner takes us through his wrongful detainment when U.S. forces smashed into his home in September 2003 on suspicions that he and his three brothers were hatching a plan to assassinate British Prime Minister Tony Blair during a visit to Iraq. Despite his insistence that hes a journalist and not a terrorist, Abbas and his brothers are taken away and interrogated for months. Eventually, they are transported to Abu Ghraib, the site of documented prisoner abuse, while waiting to hear of their fate.

Though The Prisoner builds its narrative around Abbass on-camera recollections, Tucker and Epperlein also utilize Tuckers footage as an embedded reporter during the war and Abbass home movies. Abbass arrest was part of the footage culled during the making of Gunner Palace.

But the films most intriguing and effective devices are understated comics-style illustrations that visually complement the narrators tale and corroborating interviews from American soldier Benjamin Thompson, who served at Abu Ghraib where Abbas was held.

Drawn by Epperlein, the illustrations resemble the noir-heavy look of graphic novels with their sense of dark foreboding. Such a potentially incongruous visual element could risk overshadowing or cheapening the harrowing true story documented, but instead the drawings add to the films aura of surreal terror. Epperleins drawings are often straightforward representations of events described by Abbas. But as opposed to the anonymous stock war footage that so often accompanies Iraq documentaries, the illustrations help separate the film stylistically from many other accounts of the Iraq War.

In its incorporation of a narration by an innocent man wrongly imprisoned, The Prisoner most closely resembles Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross The Road to Guantanamo, which chronicles the woes that befell three British Muslims who were sent to the Cuban prison without ever being charged with a crime. However, while that film suffered criticism for its propagandistic one-sided look at the incident, The Prisoner gains credibility by including interviews with Thompson, who worked in real estate before heading off to Iraq to serve at Abu Ghraib.

Abbas refers to him as The Good Soldier, and the viewer can see why immediately–Thompson has such a warmth and kindness that he runs counter to the stereotypically out-of-control, stupid American soldiers often captured in anti-war Iraq documentaries. Thanks to Thompsons participation, The Prisoner offers a more balanced look at the now-legendary Abu Ghraib, substantiating the horrific conditions but also demonstrating how both vindictive and reasonable American troops looked after the prisoners.

The well-rounded portrayal allows the films anger at Abbass treatment to be more justified–the audience hears from a soldier who can confirm the hardships but can also provide insight into the foolish mindset of his superior officers who considered the holding of innocent Iraqi civilians acceptable as long as America was winning the War on Terror.

Throughout, Tucker and Epperlein show a welcomed self-control while laying out Abbass Kafkaesque nightmare, rarely using music to underscore a particularly shocking or sad turn of events. Instead, Abbas just recounts his tale, occasionally seizing up with emotion but mostly speaking in measured tones. The Prisoner shows an impressive amount of faith in its subjects to carry the story forward, knowing that individual moments will have stronger impact by not overselling them.

Because there have been so many documentaries about the injustice of the Iraq War, seen from many different angles, Abbass story, while sickening, doesnt seem all that exceptional any more. But this aspect further validates the filmmakers choice to take a low-key approach to the material. Without sensation, The Prisoner honors its journalist narrator by eschewing cheap theatrics, instead focusing on the facts at hand.

Credits

Running time: 72 minutes

Directors: Michael Tucker, Petra Epperlein
Production company: Pepper & Bones Films
US Distribution: Red Envelope Entertainment, Truly Indie
Producers: Michael Tucker, Petra Epperlein
Writers: Michael Tucker, Petra Epperlein
Editor: Michael Tucker
Photography: Michael Tucker
Additional Photography: Yunis Khatayer Abbas