'The Prisoner,' Revisiting A Miscarriage of Justice

Iraqi journalist Yunis Khatayer Abbas during his 2003 arrest, mistakenly implicated in a Tony Blair assassination plot.
Iraqi journalist Yunis Khatayer Abbas during his 2003 arrest, mistakenly implicated in a Tony Blair assassination plot. (Red Envelope Entertainment)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 23, 2007

"The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair," a documentary with a tiny cast of characters and a modest budget, is a microscopic view of a big and ugly war. It follows the arrest, on mistaken grounds, of Iraqi journalist Yunis Khatayer Abbas, swept up in an American raid on what was assumed to be a terror cell in Baghdad plotting to assassinate British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Much of the time the camera focuses squarely on Abbas's face, as he recounts his arrest, interrogation, beating and eventual release. The story is so surreal that it is fleshed out, effectively, with cartoon panels that function as wry commentary (drawn by filmmaker Petra Epperlein).

While it is a small film, it is also a film rich in detail, the kind of detail that simply never emerges in the nightly news accounts of the war. Abbas's face is a study in conflicting emotions, mostly rage, but sometimes rage tempered by a natural inclination to decency and an abhorrence of violence. He was treated like scum through most of his time in American detention, but he also encountered a handful of American soldiers who recognized his humanity. He feels, understandably, rather the way most of us feel when pulled over by a cop with a Napoleon complex and subjected to a stream of condescending abuse -- he can barely contain his contempt.

We get to see much of the first part of his ordeal. Filmmaker Michael Tucker (Epperlein's husband) was along for the ride when Abbas's house was raided by American soldiers in September 2003. We see them repeatedly telling Abbas and his brothers to shut up, in a tone of voice that leaves little wonder why we very quickly lost the hearts and minds of occupied Iraq. It's not terrible abuse, not the sort of thing that happened at Abu Ghraib prison. It doesn't even rise to the level of horror that you can easily find on Web sites like YouTube or LiveLeak, where American soldiers are found shouting expletives, whooping it up as they kill, even pelting a wounded dog and laughing (though one can never be certain of the authenticity of anything found on the Web).

War is a big ugliness. This film is about the little ugliness, the abuses of dignity, the small mistakes that cause huge disruption in the lives of little people. Abbas is heard saying over and over again, "I am a journalist." It is his desperate assertion of humanity, his means of holding on to a sense of personal identity as he is reduced to a number, accused of being a terrorist and tortured. Remove the particulars "America," "Iraq" and "Abbas," and this is a Kafka tale.

Abbas ends up at Abu Ghraib, not at the horrible "hard site" where medieval conditions became a major blow to American integrity and undermined the shrinking rationale for war -- the spread of freedom and human rights. Abbas's time at Abu Ghraib was in a tent facility, surrounded by fences, prey to lethal mortar attacks and sustained by food so lousy that sickness was rampant. It wasn't the scene of pornographic ugliness, just a lot of ugly indifference to the humanity of men like Abbas and his brothers.

Perhaps the most surprising moment in the film is when Abbas speaks with distinct admiration for American soldiers like Benjamin Thompson, who treated prisoners with compassion and respect. It allows the viewer to walk away impressed by Abbas, that he kept some openness, that his anger never overwhelmed his ability to discriminate decency in the midst of all the inhuman treatment.

But the most impressive thing about the film is that it doesn't let the Americans off the hook. Benjamin Thompson is a good guy, but he is never made a redemptive figure. There is no happy ending, no treacly reassertion of the innate goodness of Americans. Abbas is still angry, and any American who worries about how his country is perceived will feel his anger with a keen sense of despair. That's a major accomplishment for a little film.

The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair (72 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for language and mild violence.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company