The Oath (USA)
The second in filmmaker Laura Poitras’ trilogy exploring post 9/11 America and its policies (after My Country, My Country), The Oath is a bleak but fascinating trip into the mind of Osama bin Laden’s ex-bodyguard, Abu Jandal. By limiting her influence to an abundance of text-title cards – there’s no voice-over narration – she lets this Al Qaeda man-turned-taxi-driver speak for himself in copious face-to-face interview footage.
Despite shepherding the 9/11 hijackers on their arrival to bin Laden’s training camp, now, he claims, he “carries a pen instead of a gun”. Later, he dismisses terrorist martyrdom, but claims Islam should “confront them on the battlefield, soldier to soldier”; them, of course, being the Western infidels, whom he claims can nonetheless manufacture goods with “sincerity and conscience”.
Jandal is maddeningly contradictory, provocative and often sympathetic, especially when he speaks of his family and young son. Poitras is not interested in offering explanations for his latter day mellowing; he was reportedly transformed by a re-education program post-imprisonment (‘The Dialogue’), which is frequently mentioned but never explored. Instead, Jandal’s often eloquent and passionate ramblings stand on their own as a complex portrait of a dedicated jihadist also conscious of family security and the civilian careers of young Yemeni youths.
Conversely, what speaks for the film’s other subject, Guantanamo detainee and Jandal’s brother-in-law, Salim Hamdan – heard but barely seen – are the fallacious US policies that would keep him imprisoned for five years without trial, despite a Supreme Court ruling citing Geneva convention violations; as always, for both sides, there’s no such thing as black and white. [JB]