Oct. 09, 2007 - Issue #625: We’ve got an election!
Two docs look at the suffering of war's bit playersThe prisoner in The Prisoner, Or: How I Tried To Kill Tony Blair is prisoner #151186, held for nearly eight months in Abu Ghraib. Yunis Khatayer Abbas and his three brothers were arrested on Sep 23, 2003 for making a bomb intended for Tony Blair on his upcoming visit to Iraq.
Directors Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein caught the arrest on camera in Gunner Palace, their 2005 documentary detailing the 2/3 Field Artillery Unit in Baghdad. Yunis protests he’s a journalist, mutters, “Just shut your mouth in Iraq” after being told to “shut up!” by one soldier, and then he’s hauled off because he won’t stop talking to the camera.
In July 2005, Tucker told Vue that Yunis was “‘the whole focus of my life right now’” and the story was Gunner Palace’s “‘biggest footnote.” That footnote is now, through the recorded memories of Yunis (himself a freelance cameraman after US troops entered Iraq), an appalling exposé of the failure of every kind of intelligence—military, governmental and the most basically human—in the Iraq debacle.
There was no evidence of bomb-making at the brothers’ family home, to which they’d just returned after a party, but Yunis’s videotapes were deemed suspicious. Official reports shown here admit incompetence, the innocence of nearly all detainees in Abu Ghraib’s Camp Ganci, and sub-human prison conditions: dirt, bugs and rat feces in the food, tattered clothing, poor sanitation.
Yunis’s surreal moments of imprisoned hell—jailed by Uday Hussein and shock-tortured in 1998 after he wrote a piece on the embargo against Iraq, then humiliated, spat on and beaten five years later in Camp Ganci—are emphasized with comic book illustrations and people’s words as captions. It’s a cartoonish nightmare with ordinary Iraqis, who’ve only known America through pop-culture TV, becoming trapped in easy stereotypes by the occupying forces.
The most telling moments come out of Yunis’s wordlessness. His snapshots of a fallen Baghdad show vanished Hussein statues, husks of cars, grey clouds of smoke. He can’t talk about the arrest and he says nothing of his last round of interrogations, in Abu Ghraib’s “hard site.” In prison, he refused to stop recording. He secretly wrote observations on cigarette foil that he hid in his mouth and, on his underwear, he wrote the names and numbers of prisoners who died from failing health or in mortar attacks on a prison compound that wasn’t even properly protected.
After being released, at last, in May 2004, Yunis seems to keep himself going by being with his family and finding some sort of laughter, however black and absurd, in what happened. “We hated this war,” he says and then his slightly awkward English perfectly sums up his treatment as horribly typical of what the war has been like for those Bush said it would liberate: “I am Iraqi people, civilian people.” The occupiers who jailed Yunis and his brothers after finding nothing incriminating in their home, though, cannot even admit they took away his freedom for eight months. The Army claims it has no record of Prisoner #151186 on file. John Bul Dau, Panther Bior and Daniel Abul Pach escaped the war in their country, but at a terrible price. Separated from their families as they fled government forces in the south of Sudan, thousands of “Lost Boys” walked to Ethiopia for asylum in 1987, then plodded hundreds more miles south to Kenya in 1991, living in a UN Camp in Kakuma ever since. Christopher Quinn’s and Tommy Walker’s documentary God Grew Tired Of Us can only touch on the deaths, suffering and hunger that these boys experienced, but even the few images and few words about those days are heartrending.
Like The Prisoner, this is a documentary about the scars of war that circles around how strange and incomprehensible a survivor’s fate can be. The three are resettled in America, and we see, through these newcomers’ eyes, that North America really is “a very strange place.” The trio faces searing assimilation pains in a new world so impersonal and individualistic, but they are fuelled by a deep concern for the Sudanese back in the camps and a desire to give back to their people and homeland. And John’s reunion with his mother is, much like her reaction in the airport, beyond words.
This well-meaning doc leaves much unrecorded and unexplained, though. Why were these three brought over and by what organization? What about the other boys they live with? (We’re not even told of Lost Girls until near the end.) How did John and Panther come to afford their own cars after three years? And does the film focus on John because he’s a spokesman for a cause? It’s Daniel who seems the most thoughtful and searching of the three, yet he’s shown the least, perhaps because he still hasn’t found his family. But this film seems wary of a Western viewer quickly growing tired of too much sad, deep truth. V
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