Anyone who saw the Iraq documentary Gunner Palace, which found Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein embedded in a unit of American soldiers, will remember the scene of a 2003 raid on a Baghdad home, and the defiant man claiming to be a journalist, bleary and backtalking even on his knees. The scene ends with the man—Yunis Khatayer Abbas—and his two brothers being carted off for questioning; they were under suspicion of harboring bomb-making materials as part of a conspiracy to assassinate the visiting Tony Blair. (No materials were found in the home.) Eighteen months later, the film-makers reconnected with Yunis through a reporter who had used him as a “fixer.” They discovered that he was indeed a journalist, and had spent nine months in prison (much of it in Abu Ghraib) following that night in 2003 before being released with no charges. Tucker and Epperlein had the subject of their next documentary.
In only 76 minutes, using intensely reflective, often mordant interviews with Yunis, extensive footage that he collected of the war and his life, still photos, the corroborating statements of Benjamin Thompson (a guard at Camp Ganci, a tented offshoot of Abu Ghraib, where Yunis and his fellow prisoners suffered and in some cases died from the miserable conditions), and a slick interplay between Yunis and comic-book counterpoints, the filmmakers have crafted a unique and stirring indictment of the Abbas family’s not uncommon experience, and the travesty of the U.S. detention system. Structured in titled chapters, with captions razoring out key phrases, and a self-consciously snappy soundtrack, the filmmakers create a forward movement and slightly ironic tone that suit their subject perfectly; Yunis, as he imploringly reminds us, is the Iraqi people, but he is also steeped in Hollywood references, pulling analogies for the U.S. occupation from Rambo and Dirty Harry. When Yunis occasionally falters, it’s not because English fails him; in recounting a story as hideous, incredulous, and nightmarish as this, there are both no words, and hardly words enough.