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The Oath—Laura Poitras’s new film premiers

[ Edited ]

I saw Laura Poitras’s The Oath last night.  It, unfortunately, is only showing at a handful of theaters over the next few months—screenings are on the linked site.  Hopefully it will get a little more interest from some festivals followed by a wider release.  I mention it because it’s playing in NYC over the next week or so, and I know we have some residents who are members here.


Poitras’s documentary tells of two men, brothers-in-law, whose lives diverge in vital ways.  Abu Jandal (a nom de guerre), the film’s main subject, swore an oath of fealty to Osama bin Laden, eventually becoming a bodyguard and an emissary of new recruits—the “Emir of Hospitality,” Jandal chuckles.  Salim Hamdan, Jandal’s brother-in-law, and one of his recruits, was the subject of the SCOTUS decision, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, regarding military commissions.   


But the film isn’t really about military commissions, or Guantanamo, or U.S. detention abuses, or even Hamdan really.  The film is about Jandal—a charismatic, handsome, thoughtful, engaging, often eloquent Yemeni taxi driver and father, who happened to have been (or perhaps still is, it’s difficult to know for certain) a mujahid.  Jandal is a charmingly unreliable narrator, a man who breezily assures a wary passenger that the camera on his dashboard is out of batteries and not recording. 


That comfort with deception is a little more complex, and perhaps unnerving, when we witness Jandal explaining to young men contemplating jihad the symbolic significance of 9/11 to the cause, all the while assuring the camera that he is ideologically opposed to civilian murders for that same struggle.  He’ll speak against the infidels, and tell his son to run to the store for a Western soda, because Western products are made with “sincerity and conscience.”  In many ways it’s hard to know exactly where Jandal’s own sincerity lies. 


Jandal is a whore for the cameras.  We see him interviewed on Arab television, 60 Minutes, not to mention the eager, garrulous subject for an American independent filmmaker.  But for all his limelight lusting, and his unreliability as a narrator, Jandal does not need to exaggerate his involvement with Al Qaeda.  Even as he tells of being mere meters from bin Laden, Poitras shows a home recording of bin Laden speaking to a small gathering, and sure enough, there is Jandal.  He tells of his imprisonment in Yemen following the USS Cole bombing (thus, his absence from Afghanistan following 9/11), and Poitras offers pages and pages of transcripts from FBI interrogations following 9/11, which took place during that imprisonment.  In fact, Jandal provided so much reliable information—including Hamdan’s name—that the invasion of Afghanistan awaited the completion of his interview.


But, even as it becomes evident that Jandal is something of a higher level member of Al Qaeda, though not involved in 9/11, it becomes equally clear that Hamdan is not.  As the film unfolds, and the world learns that the government has very little connecting Hamdan to terrorism (Congress literally had to create a new charge—providing material support for terrorism—in order to successfully try Hamdan) the audience learns that Hamdan was not much more than an out-of-the-loop driver, looking for a monthly salary. 


The audience never meets Hamdan.  We learn of him only through his letters to Jandal; his wife’s struggles awaiting his trial; his daughters’ (one of whom Hamdan did not meet until 7 years after her birth) letter and picture to their absent father; and his attorneys’ statements leading up to and during his trial.  Reviews I read prior to seeing the film noted Hamdan’s absence as a weakness in the film.  I disagree.  Hamdan’s absence is certainly palpable.  Yet, it seems evident the absence was intentional.  It is, after all, Poitras’s only extended political statement in this film. 


Yes, there is a moment when we learn that Jandal spilled everything after only a few hours of non-coercive interrogation by the FBI—an unspoken criticism of the U.S.’s use of torture.  A moment when the military attorney defending Hamdan heavily criticizes the process of military justice, and the after-the-fact creation of the minor charges of which Hamdan was finally convicted—“if there was justice Mr. Hamdan would have been completely acquitted.”   A moment when a Times reporter mocks—Well, it’s hard to think of any one lower—in response to the U.S. prosecutor’s emphatic assurance that Hamdan is not low-level, that there are certainly Guantanamo detainees lower.  But these are really only fleeting moments. 


What the audience dwells on is Jandal, his guilt for his responsibility in Hamdan’s detention and absence from his family, and the very human lives so harmfully impacted by U.S. foreign policy.  And further still, the absence of the life most profoundly shaped. 


And this is really key to Poitras’s power as a documentarist.  In My Country, My Country, her subject, Riyadh Ahmed, is both a serene, contemplative doctor in a free clinic, and a fledgling politician—an Iraqi Islamic Party candidate for the Governor’s Council in Iraq’s first election following U.S. occupation.   Again, Poitras’s film is a character study of Riyadh.  A man who eloquently advocates against the Party’s boycott of the elections, in response to U.S. military aggression in Fallujah, urging that participation was vital during the formation of the country’s new government, regardless of the U.S.’s sins.  A man who finally resignedly acknowledges “we are a suicidal people, it is our destiny,” but who asks his daughters who they voted for, even when he knows the boycott has already doomed the Iraqi Islamic Party’s chances.  In a very different way, Riyadh is as complex a character as Jandal.


But from the context enlightening these very intimate character studies, Poitras frames vital international issues, developing some of the most essential and critical work directed at U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.


Here's a brief interview with Poitras on The Oath.