CATEGORIES Documentary, Independent, SXSW, Theatrical Reviews, Cinematical Indie, Reviews, SXSW Film Festival, Cinematical
Whatever you might think about the war in Iraq, it has created an entire subgenre of films in the past few years, mostly documentaries. We've seen films focusing on U.S. soldiers in Iraq, films shot from the point of view of ordinary Iraqi citizens, films about Al Jazeera's coverage of the war, and last year I even saw a documentary about USO comedians entertaining troops in Iraq. The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair is one of the latest in this series, and it's at the opposite end of the spectrum from the comedians' point of view. The documentary examines the experiences of a prisoner of war sent to Abu Ghraib.
Yunis Abbas is a longtime journalist and photographer in Iraq. In 2003, U.S. military invaded his home on the grounds that it was a suspected terror cell. Abbas and his brothers were thought to be making bombs to assassinate Britain's prime minister, Tony Blair. Abbas spent nine months in Abu Ghraib even though no evidence could be found to support the allegations, and the U.S. was aware that he had no useful information to impart about terrorism plots.
The Prisoner consists primarily of interviews with Abbas as he tells his stories. His voiceover narration is sometimes accompanied by still photos or video that he took before his imprisonment. The difficulty for me, however, was the way in which the filmmakers decided to deal with events for which they had no footage, like Abbas's time in prison. Animated sequences in a comic-book style fill in the gaps. The animated sequences jar with the overall tone of the film; perhaps this is intentional, but it didn't work for me. I found them to be distracting and annoying. Did we really need to see nipples on the female soldier sent to interrogate Abbas and his brothers? Sometimes the animated images portrayed various pop-culture figures in a joking way and again, that diminished the effect of the story. The film also uses comic-book fonts, but then switches occasionally to more traditional fonts, which is probably only distracting to typography geeks.
Abbas himself has a fascinating story, although sometimes he is a little difficult to understand. He tried to write about his experiences as much as possible while in prison -- when he couldn't get paper, he wrote on his boxer shorts. Sometimes he wrote about Abu Ghraib on cigarette foil, which was them smuggled out in prisoners' mouths and given to press or others to publicize. This is contrasted with quotes from President George W. Bush and other military and political figures, making claims such as "If they were innocent, they would not be at Abu Ghraib." Prison guard Benjamin Thompson is also interviewed -- he tried to befriend Abbas during his imprisonment, and worked to improve prison conditions.
The Prisoner gives us a good idea of the terrible conditions at Abu Ghraib. The film is also able to show us how one Iraqi family was affected by U.S. military intelligence activities -- what obviously has turned out to be an error. The material is excellent, and needs wider exposure through films such as this one, but I wish the style of the documentary had been different. I would have preferred a clearer narrative that was easier to understand, without all the comic-book gimmicks. Despite those faults, The Prisoner is worth seeing. The movie opens this weekend in a limited number of cities, including Austin, Chicago and San Francisco. In addition, Vanity Fair has published an excellent article from co-director Michael Tucker about Abbas, Thompson and the making of The Prisoner.