If you're at a loss for what to make of the official US rhetoric on our momentum toward victory in Iraq
, see the documentaries of Michael Tucker
and Petra Epperlein
. They made Gunner Palace
, one of the best docs on the war in Iraq from the point of view of US soldiers two years ago, and they returned to this month's Toronto International Film Festival
with their new doc, The Prisoner, or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair
, the war seen from the point of view of an Iraqi captured by the same American troops.
is a sequel of sorts to Gunner Palace
, the 2004 film that raced to keep up with a single National Guard unit searching around Baghdad for suspected insurgents and bombing materials. For once, embedding worked. The soldiers seemed to have trusted the filmmakers and we got an honesty from young grunts that wasn't straight-jacketed into the recitation of policy talking-points. If you thought there wasn't humor in a war that forced these kids to confront life and death much of the time, you are mistaken. There's an extremely funny side to Gunner Palace
Less of a race than a reconsideration, The Prisoner
follows up on a raid conducted by the same unit in Gunner Palace
. Three brothers are taken from their Baghdad home. One of them, squatting in handcuffs, insists that he is a journalist and keeps repeating "shut up, shut up" when the troops tell him to shut his mouth. In Gunner Palace
, you don't see this man again once he is taken away.
Michael Tucker doesn't see the man until two years later, when he learns that Yunis Khatayer Abbas was indeed a journalist, cameraman and photographer, professional distinctions which didn't keep him from being confined for nine months. A long stay at Abu Ghraib was included in the package. Yunis was also lodged, courtesy of the American taxpayer, in a tent-prison, which put thousands of detainees and their American jailers in the path of insurgent mortar attacks.
Yunis's English isn't great, but it is good enough to describe an extended captivity that - as the saying goes - would be funny if it weren't so horribly tragic. A US Army female interrogator tells Yunis that he was making bombs at home and that his real goal was to assassinate Tony Blair on a Baghdad visit. Yunis is incredulous, even two years after the fact, which gives him and the entire film a sense of numbness as he recalls being battered again and again with baseless accusations from American intelligence officers. (A US lieutenant colonel who discounts the likelihood of any mistaken raids says in an interview with Tucker that the raid on Yunis's house (nicknamed "Operation Grab-Ass") prevented an attack on a "very important visitor.") Comics-style illustrations by the film's co-director, Petra Epperlein, feed into the mood of incredibility and brutal inanity.
The documents that Tucker and Epperlein obtained from the US military are another oddity. They indicate that the Iraqis being detained in Abu Ghraib and other prisons have, for the most part, no intelligence value. Not only are they innocent, but they have no information that the US can use. On the same documents that detail interrogation methods, there are drawings of ghost-like figures with smiles and frowns depending on the interrogation method under consideration. The template seems to draw stylistically from the kitsch smilies that you can download from AOL. Perhaps that's where the military got them. Why the cartoons? Are they supposed to keep interrogators from getting bored as they torture so many innocent people?
Yunis, who now looks a bit like the experimental film pioneer, Jack Smith
, was one of those thousands of innocent detainees. Many are still being held, perhaps more than ten thousand. He and his brothers are released from Abu Ghraib after they are told by a US officer that no charges will be brought against them. Tony Blair can sleep well at night once again, though perhaps he shouldn't. Given the cumulative effect of detention on so many men like Yunis, Blair may not be so popular there.
I spoke with Michael Tucker in Toronto.
How did this film come about?
The film directly came out of making Gunner Palace
. That scene of the raid on Yunis's house is in Gunner Palace
. When the film first screened, it was one of those scenes that really caught people's attention, because here are these brothers, and they're dragged away, and Yunis is so defiant. The cameras are right there, and the soldiers are telling him to shut up, and he just wouldn't shut up. So not only did that stick with the audience, but it stuck with me. And an amazing thing that happened was that someone saw it at the Angelica and got hold of a journalist friend of theirs and said, "Hey, wasn't this our 'fixer' in Baghdad?. At this point, I knew he had been released from Abu Ghraib. When we were making Gunner
, I knew about the intelligence sources. I knew what the raid was about, but we didn't know whether it was an ogoing investigation, we didn't want to say either way, because of operational security, or to potentially finger someone as a terror suspect who wasn't a terror suspect.
The film is less than an hour. Is it made for television? Where do you want it to be shown?
Then the second-most fascinating thing happened. We originally cut it with European television in mind, knowing that's the prime place where we could sell it. Meanwhile all of our reps were telling us that we really needed to make a theatrical version. I didn't feel comfortable trying to pad it, and then two weeks before Toronto started, a young soldier contacted me, and it turned out that he was Yunis's guard in Abu Ghraib for five months. Yunis, in the tapes that we have in our archive, actually talks about this particular soldier and the friendship that they had. This was the first thing that this soldier said, that Yunis and his brothers were his friends. He went on to detail specific incidents that we couldn't confirm before. It's really powerful stuff.
He was extremely courageous to come out and talk to people about the experience. He confirmed everything that we couldn't confirm about Yunis's story, so we just signed a deal with Netflix's new label, and they're going to work on a multi-platform rollout for the winter. The theatrical partner hasn't been announced yet. We're really excited about that. The film played really well in Toronto - not that I was surprised, but people received it exactly the way we wanted them to receive it. We're at a point in the war when people are receptive. They kind of need this type of story, something that's more humanizing than what we've seen.
Why did he come forward?
It's absolutely an amazing story. He found me through Palm Pictures, our last distributor. Yunis left his control in May 2004. The soldier was part of the Military Police unit that relieved the unit that was charged with abuse. They were brought very quickly up there from Kuwait and told that they had twelve hours to relieve those people. They relieved them, and then they began the process of trying to undo all the damage. They took control of the prison - both the hard site and the tented camps.
The conditions in the tented camps were absolutely horrible. It's like a laundry list of Geneva violations. They were subject to mortar attacks, which is against the Geneva Conventions. They should have been in a safe area. They didn't have any shelter from mortar attacks. Dozens of people were killed in these attacks, both American soldiers and prisoners. They were getting hepatitis from the drinking water. People with heart problems and diabetes didn't have medication. They couldn't eat the food. We have a lot of army documents that prove all of that, but what we didn't have was the proof of these things at the individual level. So he sent me an email, saying that he had been Googling Yunis's name since he left Abu Ghraib. A couple of peace groups had written about Yunis, because they knew him from Baghdad, and eventually he found a review from David Poland
of the film, contacted me, and immediately everything clicked.
He was really an amazing find. I think Yunis plays well in the film. He's a wonderful storyteller. He's very credible, and people believe him, but there have been some naysayers, and I think it's absolutely essential to have someone to confirm all of this, who has one foot in the US, and who can say, "I was there and this happened."
Without a doubt, they knew why he was there. They knew what was in his records. It said, "Planning to assassinate Tony Blair." We have his capture tags, we have all kinds of documents, we have people on camera talking about it, but to have someone in the flesh who can verify all that, we won't end up with all the problems that Road to Guantanamo
had, which was that the Tipton Three were not incredibly credible people.
To what extent do you think that was a problem in Road to Guantanamo?
It's a perception problem. People think that if they suspect someone is guilty, then human rights just go out the door, which isn't how civilized people should behave. Even if we have people who are suspected insurgents or terrorists, they deserve full protection under the Geneva Conventions, and if we don't do that, we can't guarantee that our own soldiers and people are offered those protections. That's very fundamental. Look at John Walker Lindh
, the young man who was arrested in Afghanistan. He was duck-taped naked on a stretcher, had obscenities written on his forehead, and I didn't see one person out protesting in the streets - because people thought that he was guilty, and that he deserved it.
It's even worse. Before the US got Lindh and taped him down, he was one of the few who survived being confined in cargo containers and left to suffocate.
The problem with Guantanamo
, though, is that they never successfully answer the question of why they were in Afghanistan. As long as people think that they were going to training camp or going to aid the Taliban, it was very difficult for people to have sympathy for them. Whereas, with Yunis's story, he was in his living room, doing what most of us do every night, with his family. You can actually see it. Because you can see it, and you can hear him describing what happened, and his emotional reaction to that violation, then you really get a sense of the indignity that he suffered. No matter what anyone's politics is, there is this threshold that has to be crossed, where you have someone who is 100 percent credible, where we're not going to run into problems where we have people on the far right saying, "Well, I'm sure he was a journalist, but he was aiding the insurgents." Now we can refute any charge that comes against us. Yunis is 100 percent bulletproof. That's a good thing.