What would you do if you were mistaken for a terrorist and shipped away on a mandatory vacation to Abu Ghraib prison? Chances are you would be more than a little pissed about it, and looking to vent your frustrations to the world. The documentary The Prisoner or: How I Planned To Kill Tony Blair is that cathartic outlet for Yunis Khatayer Abbas, an Iraqi journalist who was falsely accused of plotting to assassinate the long-standing U.K. Prime Minister.
Naturally, the scenario was a complete farce, an excuse for American soldiers to burst into an innocent Iraqi home with oversized guns and round up civilians for detainment. It truly is a horrifying tale--and something that happens fairly regularly under the Bush regime--yet hearing about it is far more affecting than seeing it unfold onscreen. The Prisoner is ironclad proof that an interesting story does not always translate into an interesting documentary; there's a little thing called filmmaking skills that also come in handy.
Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein, the duo that previously collaborated on the war-themed Gunner Palace, handle Yunis' story without any hints of grace or dignity. They mistakenly take a heart-wrenching story with zero mainstream accessibility and try to turn it into something that people can enjoy.
That's right, enjoy. The re-enactments are done in super-slick comic book fashion, told as though he were the hero in the latest graphic novel. James Bond music plays when people are prancing on the beach. Yunis, coming off like Borat's more responsible but less charming brother, jokingly refers to himself as Rambo on a few occasions. And of course, a comic sketch flashes of the machismo character whenever his name is mentioned--a helpful guide, if you will.
Could such a devastating story possibly be handled worse? There is nothing funny about torture, wrongful imprisonment and food laced with rat feces being served to innocent people losing months of their lives in a tent surrounded by barbed wire. Yunis' story should have been handled as a cautionary "it could happen to you" tale that really pulls us into this man's life, not one that leaves us stranded in a sea of tonal confusions.
When the film gets serious, which it does in between the botched attempts at humor, Tucker and Epperlein make the mistake of just pointing a camera at Yunis and letting him ramble. A large portion of the movie consists of watching him talk about his experiences, kind of like an extended episode of '60 Minutes'. The problem is that he is prone to repeating himself; one could start a drinking game over how many times he declares "I am a journalist" as a way to express his lack of guilt. And when footage is shown of his initial capture, even that gets displayed twice.
As a result, The Prisoner feels like a lingering run-on sentence without a message. While it fails as a documentary, the flipside is that it could easily be turned into a powerful narrative film if placed in the hands of a competent director and a necessary screenwriter. What happened to Yunis is undeniably horrible, but watching him go through the motions of this movie is like witnessing his torture all over again.