Interview By David D'Arcy
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.
The Prisoner 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.
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