By Benjamin Mercer
Dir. Laura Poitras, U.S., Zeitgeist Films
Though the title of Laura Poitras’s exceptionally well-made new documentary, The Oath, is in the singular, there are a number of solemn vows therein. The central, capital-O oath is pledged by Nasser al-Basri—alias Abu Jandal—a formal declaration of total devotion to Al Qaeda’s leadership. But the same man later pledges to the Yemeni government, after spending years in prison and going through a jihadi rehabilitation program called the Dialogue Committee, that he will not use the country as a base for extremist operations (in return, the government helps him get back on his feet by buying him a taxi). Then there is the FBI interrogator who, hidden behind a partition, testifies before Congress against enhanced interrogation techniques, justifying his speaking out by saying that he “took an oath swearing to protect this great nation.” There are also, of course, the oaths customarily uttered in the courtroom, conspicuously absent in the film because all of the legal proceedings here take place behind closed doors.
At one point, Abu Jandal describes Yemen as a “marketplace of ideologies,” and it often seems during Poitras’s film—her third feature after Flag Wars and the superlative Iraq election documentary My Country, My Country—that the primary effect of the war on terror has been to greatly expand the worldwide marketplace of oaths. If that’s the case, then Abu Jandal is its best customer. The man served as Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard for several years, returning to Yemen in 2000, only to be rounded up and put in prison after the bombing of the USS Cole. He remained behind bars during the 9/11 attacks, which were carried out by several of his acquaintances. But FBI interrogators came rapping on his cell, and using only traditional techniques got him to provide them with all kinds of information about Al Qaeda’s operations. Then, upon his release from prison, he swung back toward radicalism, though a gentler I-hold-a-pen-not-a-gun brand of it, espoused between his shifts haggling over fares. Even when he’s behind the wheel of his cab—of which Poitras occasionally takes the eerie point of view as it crawls through the streets of San‘a—Abu Jandal seems almost proud to be keeping the secret of his militant past.
Poitras withholds the extent of the details divulged to the FBI for a startling late reveal, at which point it seems that Abu Jandal’s only allegiance is to holding others’ attention. This, at least, would explain his fondness for expounding upon his line of thinking to any media outlet willing to listen. In the film we see snippets of a 60 Minutes segment devoted to him and a sit-down on a Yemeni program called Illuminations; Abu Jandal is also paid a visit by a New York Times reporter. And, of course, he’s performing for Poitras’s cameras all the while. Poitras herself even seems to see it as a kind of performance. At one crucial point Abu Jandal reverses himself, asking Poitras to delete footage from the day before in which he said he would not have taken part in the 9/11 attacks if he were called to do so, preferring instead confrontation on the battlefield, the likes of which he experienced firsthand as a young jihadi in Bosnia. Trusting that this about-face provides an insight into Abu Jandal’s psychology that is more essential than keeping her own vows to her subject, Poitras goes against his wishes and shows both the answer and his later request for her to erase it.
But Abu Jandal and his fascinating propensity for shooting himself in the foot only constitute one part of this film; the other portion is concerned with his brother-in-law, Salim Hamdan, though he never actually appears in the film. (We do hear excerpts of his letters, though.) Hamdan was recruited by Abu Jandal and served as a driver for bin Laden, though he was apparently more hired hand than comrade or confidante. After 9/11 he was swept up in Pakistan and taken to Guantanamo Bay. We see Abu Jandal express guilt over the imprisonment of Hamdan, who later won the military tribunal-quashing Supreme Court case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld and finally returned home to San‘a in 2009. But then there’s the damning fact that he let Hamdan’s name slip during that 15-day FBI interrogation. So when Abu Jandal laments the fact that the formerly outgoing Hamdan has returned unable to trust anyone but those with whom he endured detainment at Guantanamo, it’s not hard to see why. Though these interpersonal details prove compelling, Poitras mostly uses the Hamdan angle as a way of examining the legal wrangling at Guantanamo—for instance, the careful dancing around secret testimony at press conferences—and making a case for the rights of detainees. Add that to Abu Jandal’s model interrogator speaking plainly about the inefficacy of torture from behind that congressional partition, and we have a lucid, if at this point not especially eye-opening, argument against camps Delta and Iguana, beautifully shot here for a deliberately incongruous effect.
Like some of the very best documentaries of recent years—Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Sweetgrass, Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes, the collected works of Nikolaus Geyrhalter—The Oath provides a revelatory, and visually compelling, picture of a world previously known but only dimly imagined by Westerners who casually follow world events (i.e., those with a passing interest in international cinema). Unlike those films, The Oath doesn’t take as its chief subject the physical effects of globalization, and its mode is not strictly observational. But it’s filled with unanticipated micro-culture-collisions (the kind that are Geyrhalter’s stock-in-trade): Abu Jandal looking on in increasing disgust as his son watches Tom & Jerry (“They have lots of toys!”), eventually getting the boy away from the TV by asking him to get a book called Running Organizations; a group of young would-be jihadis sitting around sipping from cans of ginger ale manufactured by the infidels; a lawyer exasperatedly saying that Hamdan’s wife was barred from traveling to attend her husband’s trial because she’s married to an accused terrorist.
And then there are the many atmospheric shots of Guantanamo—Kirsten Johnston and Poitras won an award for cinematography at Sundance for a reason—which emphasize its lately little considered paradisiacal qualities: its magic-hour skies, its pristine beaches, and the leisure time enjoyed by those who live and work there (we glimpse hillside joggers and a nighttime baseball game from afar). Poitras’s film goes a long way just on her extraordinary access—to Guantanamo, to Abu Jandal, and to his personal archive of Hamdan-related documents. But she really makes the most of her material, something so many embedded vérité practitioners filing feature-length dispatches from Iraq and Afghanistan and back-home anthologists of retrospective Bush-administration finger pointing haven’t done.