The Prisoner, or How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair
The Prisoner, Or How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair is a quiet film. By this I mean that there is no hyperbole, no drama, just one man’s story about how he was falsely arrested and imprisoned for nearly nine moths by the American forces in Iraq. His story is a simple one, detailing faulty intelligence, a prison system based on an assumption of guilt, and finally his anti climatic release, accompanied by a “Sorry” from an American general.
It reminds me of Kafka’s The Trial, even down to the epithet of “dog,” that an American guard repeatedly hurled at Yunis during his interrogations. Fortunately, Yunis was released rather than executed “Like a dog!” and he tells his story to Michael Tucker, who filmed Yunis’s initial arrest in 2003 while shooting Gunner Palace.
Unlike Josef K. in The Trial, Yunis is never brought before a judge, nor does he have a lawyer, since apparently he has no rights. What good is a lawyer when you are arrested, presumed guilty just because you are arrested, and there is no judge or jury?
Yunis is arrested, interrogated, and finally released. During his stay at Ganci 6, a camp next to Abu Ghraib, for prisoners deemed of “low or no importance,” there is no hope of justice, just survival—the odds, however, are not good as the food is rancid, there is disease, and the resistance frequently hurls grenades into the camps, which then erupt into riots and shooting by the U.S. guards in a futile attempt to keep order and calm. Yunis is by training a journalist and was imprisoned as well under Saddam Hussein. In both instances of imprisonment, there is no trial, and upon release, he simply returns to his family and civilian life.
Abu Ghraib is internationally synonymous with humiliation and abuse: both forms of torture, one psychological, the other physical. As I watched Yunis speaking, I was struck by his dignity in the face of degradation. Again I was reminded of Kafka’s novel and Herr K’s final lament, “Like a dog!“ Imprisonment without due process—without the assumption of innocence—robs people of their dignity and humanity. Perhaps dignity is one emotion that separates us from animals, or is it our elaborate legal system?
Yunis maintains his dignity throughout the telling of his story. As he speaks you see that for him his dignity is more important than refuting the false accusation, which amounts to nothing less than plotting to kill Tony Blair. At the end of the film he quips that he and Tony Blair are forever inseparable, connected like twins separated at birth by history: one a powerful man, the other an anonymous man swept up by events, quite literally a mere number in the machinery of U.S. policy in Iraq and our war on terrorism.
I’d like to think that Yunis’s story is unique, an anomaly, an aberration; that like Herr K’s trial, it was all a mistake. Yet the film suggests that all of Camp Ganci was populated by other Yunises: even his two brothers were yanked from their homes by American soldiers in the middle of the night, after a wedding party, loaded onto trucks, and sent for interrogation. When they did not supply confessions of their guilt or corroborate the evidence gathered by INTEL, off they went to Abu Ghraib or Ganci, which at one point had a population of 6,000.
No, Yunis was not unique. He most certainly was not alone. Due to his training as a journalist, he could speak English, a skill that he put to good use at the camp, working with the guards, and one in particular, Specialist Thompson, to keep the peace. If it were not for Thompson, the veracity of Yunis’s story would be questionable as there is no official record of prisoner number 151186 in detainment.
Thompson’s testimony lends the film its powerful objectivity. Specialist Thompson, a new recruit and former real estate agent, finds himself at Ganci. He describes the deplorable conditions and the efforts that he made with Yunis’s help to ease the physical discomfort and keep calm in block 6 among rampant fear of attack, hunger, and sickness due to malnutrition and lack of sanitation. Thompson’s testimony regarding Yunis’s imprisonment and his role in helping to keep calm and order among the prisoners paint a picture of people in dire circumstances and tell how two individuals managed to penetrate the metal fence between guard and prisoner for their common good.
Yunis’s story is one of quiet victory: His freedom is restored, and he receives an apology from the American general. The presence, however, of Thompson and his willingness to talk on camera about his experience at Ganci remind one that while bureaucracy under the guise of any ideology can be inhumane, and that guards can and do abuse prisoners, there are individuals who do not succumb to the lure of power because they have a gun or the anonymity of a uniform.
Tucker and Epperlein’s film is powerful because it does not exaggerate, seek to accuse, or manipulate the viewer. Yunis tells his story in a stoic voice, occasionally pausing as he seeks to find the best English word, at one point even resorting to Arabic. He does not cry but he smokes continually. His voice is even and soft.
As an American viewer listening to his story, I experienced the emotional complements of Yunis’s dignity: shame, guilt, and embarrassment. He never criticizes America or the American people, being very precise to distinguish between the army as an instrument of the American government’s policy in his country and America as an ideal and its citizens.
Yunis is generous, even funny when he quips that the Americans have mistaken him for Rambo, given what he is accused of plotting. The comment is even funnier as he is physically slight, with glasses and a goatee speckled with gray. He is clearly no gun toting terrorist or assassin, just a journalist, a son, a brother.
See the trailer at http://www.apple.com/trailers/independent/theprisoneror/trailer/.
Elizabeth Sheldon is a media executive who works in New York City as Vice President of Lorber HT Digital. She is the recipient of three National Endowment for the Humanities Television & Radio Grants and a frequent industry speaker and writer. She has an M.A. in Germanic Languages & Literatures from Princeton University and as a Fulbright Scholar she researched and produced a film on the effects of reunification for east German women. She attended Humboldt University in Berlin and received her B.A. from Mills College in Philosophy. She lives in Princeton with her husband and son.
Works by Elizabeth Sheldon
Film Review: The Prisoner, or How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair