Michael Tucker’s sound bites are typical of most independent documentary filmmakers. ‘What do I need funding for?’ he asks without a trace irony when discussing budgets. And although his first film, 2004′s Gunner Palace, was a commercial success because of its theatrical release, he admits he likes the confines of the TV hour. ‘It’s good to have limits up front, because it forces you to focus more,’ he says. As a relative newcomer to the doc scene – his second feature film, The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair, has its world premiere this month at the Toronto International Film Festival – it’s possible Tucker simply hasn’t yet learned his lines. What’s more likely, however, is that this is a filmmaker willing to break the mold.
Until a recent move to upstate New York, Tucker and his co-director and wife, Petra Epperlein, ran their prodco Nomados on a farm outside of Berlin, isolated from the big media hubs. An architect by training, Epperlein is methodical and organized – the planner of the duo. After a meeting at the 2003 Realscreen Summit led to Tucker’s first opportunity to go to Baghdad, it was Epperlein who asked the critical question: what story are you going to tell that other people aren’t telling? ‘There are so many films on Iraq now and there are only so many slots and strands. The only way to survive is to make something that really stands out,’ says Tucker, who handles the more intrepid duties of filmmaking, while Epperlein acts as editor and critic as well as contributor. ‘I think this is the most brutally competitive thing I’ve ever done,’ he adds.
The observation is indicative of the team’s savvy approach to filmmaking, which is to take council with sales reps and commissioning editors in order to really understand what the market is demanding, and then make sure their film fills that gap, while staying true to their unique voice. A raw, verité glimpse of the early days of the war in Iraq, Gunner Palace follows a company of soldiers living in a bombed-out compound that once belonged to Uday Hussein. The Prisoner picks up where Gunner leaves off, but hindsight and experience make the pair’s sophomore effort much more pointed. In a crisp 54 minutes, it tells how Iraqi journalist Yunis Abbas was wrongfully interrogated and imprisoned by American forces for plotting to kill British Prime Minister Tony Blair. ‘When you get into this subjectmatter, you have to call a spade a spade,’ says Tucker. ‘I really feel [Abbas'] anger. You can jump around all you want and say it’s not political and it’s impartial, but this is what happened to him. At some point, you can’t avoid the politics of it.’
Thom Powers, the programmer of TIFF’s Real to Reel program, contends that just as Gunner led the wave of observational docs that flooded the market at the beginning of the war, Prisoner signals a trend towards docs that aren’t afraid to be critical of what’s happening in Iraq. ‘The war has been going on for three years, so people can now start to break it down analytically,’ he explains. ‘Tucker is in a good position to do that because of his previous film; this isn’t the work of a filmmaker who’s in Iraq for the first time.’
In a twist of fate, Abbas’ arrest was captured by Tucker during filming for Gunner Palace in September 2003, becoming one of that doc’s most disturbing scenes. On his knees with his hands tied behind his back, Abbas makes a plea directly to Tucker: ‘Please, I am journalist.’
‘That was haunting,’ admits the director, who grew up around the army (his father did three tours of duty in Vietnam), and is himself a former US soldier. ‘To be standing there while all this unfolded, I really felt a certain amount of responsibility. But I didn’t even know his family name.’ It wasn’t until an American journalist who had worked with Abbas recognized him during a screening of Gunner in New York that Tucker was able to track him down in May 2005. By then, Abbas had spent nine months in Abu Ghraib, but had been released and was back in Baghdad. Though both men were nervous of the other’s intentions – Abbas was unsure of Tucker’s allegiances and Tucker was unsure of Abbas’ emotional state – they agreed to meet in Baghdad. ‘He repeated what happened during the arrest almost verbatim,’ says Tucker. ‘I realized then that he had a remarkable story to tell and a great ability to tell it.’
In addition to home movies and photos shot by Abbas before his arrest and Tucker’s own footage leading up to that event, the film uses a comic book motif to help illustrate Abbas’ verbal account of events. Hand drawn by Epperlein, the drawings have the slightly sinister feel of early Batman comics and elevate the film both stylistically and emotionally. ‘A lot of imagery from the war, especially from Abu Ghraib, is almost pornographic; it’s lost any sense of human connection,’ says Tucker. ‘This approach personalizes it.’ Additionally, Tucker shot all the interviews with Abbas handheld, so they would feel more intimate. ‘I really want to humanize his plight so that people can get beyond the war on terror and beyond that this happening in Baghdad and imagine that it’s happening in their house, to their family,’ he explains. ‘People need to be held accountable for this stuff. Yunis really wants Tony Blair to apologize to him. And why not? He ruined his life.’
At press time, Prisoner was in final negotiations with BBC4′s ‘Storyville’ strand for an undisclosed sum. New York-based Cinetic Media and Submarine (Josh Braun) brokered the deal having worked with Tucker on Gunner Palace. A US distributor was not yet in place, but Annie Roney of San Francisco-based Roco, also a Gunner vet, was onboard as Tucker’s international sales rep. As for the film’s budget, Tucker’s best guess is US$1.99, or the cost of a box of videotapes, though he later adds he spent $10,000 to arrange the interview with Abbas, which was conducted outside Iraq for security reasons.
‘I have a 1999 Macintosh G4, four FireWire hard drives that cost $1,000, and two beat-up Canon cameras, and we’ve made films that have shown all over the world. In the US, Gunner has done over $600,000 at box office, sold nearly 150,000 units in dvd sales, and has done really good TV sales. That’s pretty amazing for a film that was made in my living room,’ says Tucker. ‘What do I need funding for? What you need is the critical feedback from international buyers and sellers. And you need a peer group that will tell you your film sucks or doesn’t.’
Next, Tucker hopes to do a fiction film about the war and is already writing a screenplay. He also has a war-related book in mind, as does Epperlein: she’s at work on a graphic novel that’s based on her experiences growing up in East Germany. Together, they’re pitching a series for kids that explores other cultures around the world. But rather than go after tv sales, they’re investigating branded content opportunities for online distribution. It’s a bit off-script for a couple of doc-makers, but that’s just the way they like it.