Interview: Michael Tucker on The Prisoner, Or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair (2007)

theprisonerWhile making the Iraq-based documentary Gunner Palace in 2003, cameraman Michael Tucker was embedded with U.S. soldiers raiding what they thought was a bomb factory. What they found was four brothers in their family home – and no evidence. One brother spoke straight to Tucker’s camera. He didn’t seem angry at the soldiers in his garden but bitterly disappointed. Now Tucker tells the rest of his story.

He was Yunis Khatayer Abbas, an Iraqi journalist working for CNN and other foreign stations. He had been tortured as a dissident under Saddam Hussein and initially welcomed the Americans as liberators. He had no links to the insurgents. Yet, instead of being released, Yunis disappeared into the machinery of the occupation. For nine months, he and two of his brothers were held without charge at Camp Ganci, the low-risk section of Abu Ghraib. With the same clarity that he held the camera’s attention in Gunner Palace, Yunis explains the increasingly bizarre and terrible treatment he and his fellow inmates suffered. Yet he also praises the humanity of American guards who tried to provide some comfort to the prisoners.

(A version of this story previously appeared at

Richard Whittaker: You went on several house raids. What was it about Yunis that struck you?

Michael Tucker: I’ve been on raids where they were pulling guns out of the walls, and I’ve been in places where they didn’t find anything, and the people there were guilty, so we didn’t rush to judgment. But we knew it felt a bit odd to us that nothing was found in that house. Just when we finished filming, the whole Abu Ghraib thing came out. You’d see those pictures of detainees, and all I could think about was Yunis and his brothers, who I knew were taken under sketchy circumstances. Shortly after Gunner went theatrical, we got a phone call from someone who recognized Yunis and said they’d worked with him in Baghdad. We had to go back, find this guy, and tell his story.

RW: You reuse footage of the raid from Gunner Palace. How different was it, seeing it from Yunis’ point of view?

MT: When we first met, we watched that footage. He was sitting there, and suddenly, he couldn’t even look at it. He stopped speaking English, would only speak Arabic. It seemed for the first time he really deconstructed it. All the little details, like his father standing there in his underwear. It attached a new meaning to the footage and forced me to look through tapes from before the raid. There were things I’d never heard before that, just by listening closer, added a whole new layer.

AC: Just before screening an early cut at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, you were contacted by Ben Thompson, one of Yunis’ guards, who substantiated his claims. How surprised were you when he called and agreed to be in the film?

RW: We were floored. We knew, listening to Yunis’ tapes, that he spoke of five or six soldiers that were good. We’d done some searches, but we didn’t know exactly which unit was guarding his compound. But we worried [if] the audience [would] believe Yunis’ story, so the Abu Ghraib sequence at Toronto was very different. Suddenly Thompson appeared and said, “I know those guys. They are like my brothers, and I love them dearly.” So we got him to Toronto, and he spoke eloquently about what he went through. He gives the audience an anchor, so any suspicions about Yunis are alleviated. Thompson tells us a story that we haven’t heard before, that there’s a moral struggle going on for these soldiers. There’s a good way to handle people, and his message is that you don’t need a manual to figure it out.

RW: This, with Gunner Palace and Ali Baba and the Merchant of Baghdad, is your third movie about Iraq. What keeps you coming back?

MT: People tend to lump these films together, forgetting that the war is a work in progress. Gunner Palace is about the first year of the war. The Prisoner is about taking the “us” out of it. We’ve seen footage of raids and people being detained, but there’s something condescending about it. We’re discussing 25 million people, and it’s still about us. People don’t realize how much we have dehumanized these people, but because it’s not sensational, people aren’t outraged about it.

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