An Iraqi Kafka

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Courtesy of Nomados LLC / Red Envelope Entertainment

The Prisoner Or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair

Question: Can a film symbolically contain all the elements of a vast, complicated and enigmatic tragedy within the microcosmic story of a single individual accidentally caught up in the ghastly mess of — for convenient example — the Iraq war?

Short answer: No, not normally.

Longer answer: A modestly mounted, but curiously poignant little documentary called The Prisoner Or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair, which somehow — quietly, devastatingly — shows and tells you more than you may perhaps want to know about the dehumanization implicit in the mighty, blighted Iraqi adventure.

Yes, you read that jokey-sounding title correctly. That font of wisdom, American "intel," somehow gains the impression that the British prime minister, about to make an uplifting visit to the war zone, has been targeted for assassination. Therefore, a squad of American soldiers, acting on a bad tip, goes barging into the home of one Yunis Khatayer Abbas, looking for bombs, or bomb-making equipment, or anything that may incriminate him and his family in this dirty deed. All they find is a locked ammunition box that proves to contain shampoo and party decorations. What Abbas and his brothers — one of them a university student, another a doctor — get is a mess of trouble, a year of incarceration and sometimes brutal interrogation before they are set free.

Yunis, who mostly narrates this story to filmmakers Michael Tucker (Gunner's Palace) and Petra Epperlein, is a gentle, patient and tolerant soul; on the face of it about as far from being a fanatic as it is possible to be. He is a member of the striving, secularist Baghdad middle class (or what's left of it), working as a trusted, English-speaking freelance journalist and TV cameraman, without, so far as we can tell, an ideological thought in his head. This is a matter he keeps trying to explain to his captors, who are not paying the slightest attention to him. They believe their intel, not the evidence of their own eyes and ears.

Eventually Yunis, after enduring a ritual beating, is imprisoned (along with his siblings) in Camp Ganci, a satellite of the notorious Abu Ghraib prison. Ganci houses prisoners who have no intelligence value — it seems to be simply a place to file and forget American mistakes — and its population mainly sits around sweltering in the deadly desert heat, without adequate food, sanitation or medical attention. Now and then, insurgents subject it to mortar fire, randomly killing some of its inhabitants, who from time to time riot in protest over their treatment. If there's a grace note to be found in this grim tale it is provided by an American guard, a former real estate agent named Benjamin Thompson, an open-faced innocent who cannot believe that the nation whose uniform he wears can enforce the sub-human conditions he witnesses at Camp Ganci. He's not a sophisticated witness, but he is clearly a good and honorable man, recognizing a soul mate in the bedraggled form of the gentle Yunis.

Eventually Yunis and his brothers are released, but they are offered no more explanation of that action than they were of their original arrest. Someone does say he's sorry for the mistake, an apology that doesn't quite cut it with Yunis. The filmmakers also tell us there is no record whatsoever of Yunis in his captors' files. Bureaucratically speaking, he's just another non-person, no different from the millions who have been reduced to that status by other totalitarian systems during the last hundred or so years.

The difference between Yunis and the more anonymous victims of tyranny is that he is alive and talking, while they are dead and silent. What he is saying, by implication is a lot: that you must not wage wars like the one that has developed in Iraq with troops who don't have enough translators to understand the local language and have no desire to listen to what's being said to them anyway; that the blind reliance on half-baked "intel" is a bad idea, especially when its backed by a moronically bullying attitude (co-director Tucker was, by happenstance, the cameraman accompanying the raid on Yunis's house), that there is nothing approaching justice (or even simple sensitivity) in the way that the day-to-day business of war is conducted in Iraq; that the shame of this war's conduct will burn our memories for decades to come.

The Prisoner is a wee little movie, only 72 minutes long, and it is very minimalist in approach — three interviews, a little action footage shot by Yunis and Tucker, with comic book cartoons (by co-director Epperlein) filling in the visual gaps in the story (a much more honest approach than using impersonal stock footage and a lot of pompous narration). But this punctiliousness, this refusal to inflate, grants it a large measure of persuasive power. You believe it precisely because it makes no claims it cannot document and, more important, because you imagine yourself in his sandals, trying desperately to prove your innocence to people who have no interest in that topic.