Both intimate and epic, mysterious and clear-eyed, Laura Poitras's The Oath examines the legacy of 9/11 through two unfortunately linked Yemeni men. Abu Jandal is the jihadist, a soldier who left Yemen to travel to Afghanistan where he became an al-Qaida member and one of Osama bin Laden's personal bodyguards. He invites his brother-in-law, Salim Hamdan, to the country where he becomes bin Laden's personal driver. So why at the movie's start is Jandal driving a taxicab through Yemen and discussing jihad with young Yemenis while Hamdan, who was simply a low-level employee in al-Qaida, on trial in Guantanamo?
That question tugs at us as we watch Poitras's astonishing and essential documentary, which opens in May from Zeitgeist Films. While telling a factual story about the political, legal and intelligence issues informing our war against al-Qaida, Poitras also draws a complex, novelistic portrait of two men whose intertwined destinies tell us more about this conflict than most newspaper articles ever could. Hamdan is never seen in the film; he is locked somewhere inside the anonymous Guantanamo prison buildings that are photographed with a disquieting beauty by d.p. Kristen Johnson. We hear through recited voiceover his sadly eloquent words, however - letters to his family waiting at home in Yemen. As Poitras follows Hamdan's Guantanamo trial as well as his Supreme Court case challenging the authority of the Bush administration's military commissions, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, she cuts back and forth to Jandal's more inward journey as he grapples with the personal legacy of his fealty oath to al-Qaida and his knowledge that he is responsible for his brother-in-law's imprisonment. In emotionally involving, formally provocative filmmaking, Poitras argues for our human understanding of these two men, but in doing so she also refuses to simplify them; she turns Jandal and Haman into psychologically complex characters whose mysteries, if we could unlock them, might offer a way out of our post-9/11 policy cul-de-sac.
The Oath is Poitras's follow-up to her Academy Award-nominated My Country, My Country, which told a story of the military occupation of Iraq by focusing on a Sunni doctor and political candidate whose practice becomes engulfed by the victims of that conflict. The Oath premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where Johnson and Poitras were awarded the Excellence in Cinematography Award. It traveled to the Forum at the Berlin Film Festival, the True/False festival (where it won the True Vision Award) and New Directors/New Films. I spoke to Poitras by phone a few weeks before her film's opening in theaters.
THE OATH DIRECTOR LAURA POITRAS.
So many documentaries start by establishing the authority of their characters so that the audience believes them and trusts what they say. You have taken almost the opposite approach, withholding key details about them until later in the movie. How did you come up with this structure? I was interested in this approach because when I met [Abu Jandal], he was presented to me in one certain way, and then as I learned more and more there was a certain kind of unfolding of his past. [Editor] Jonathan Oppenheim, who did Paris Is Burning and Children Underground, and I felt that [Abu Jandal] was a character with something to hide. We wanted to take the audience on a journey where they think they know where he is coming from and then his backstory, as we slowly unravel it, makes them rethink what they know about him in the present, including his defense of the 9/11 attacks. It makes them question, "What actually is his motivation for defending them now? Is it that he has something to hide? Is it that he believes [what he's saying]?" We wanted the viewers to always be questioning. It's a pretty classic trope of narrative storytelling to have these sorts of reversals or reveals - it's the "unreliable narrator" - but I think it isn't used that often in documentaries.
How did you meet Abu Jandal? I went to Yemen with a lawyer, David Remes. At that point I think he had 12 Yemeni clients [in Guantanamo], and some of them have since been released. I was looking for a story about somebody returning home there from Guantanamo, and I filmed his trip. We met a bunch of families, and then he went home and I continued working there for the next couple years. On the second day in Yemen I was asked if I wanted to meet Salim Hamdan's family. Of course I said yes - it was a year after the famous Supreme Court case. Then I met Abu Jandal, and it kind of blew my mind that this guy was driving a taxicab. What did it mean that he was free and driving a taxicab while we're imprisoning people who probably had no direct contact with bin Laden? I was immediately compelled. It was rich story material, I could sort of piggyback into the taxicab as a narrative or visual trope, and there were all these psychological subtexts I could play with. A guy driving a taxicab in and of itself isn't particularly interesting. A guy who was bin Laden's bodyguard, who's free in Yemen driving a taxicab? That's really interesting. Jonathan and I wound up working really hard in terms of calibrating what we anticipated to be the audience's relationship to him and the questions [we knew the audience] would ask, like "Why is he free?" and "Why does she have this access?"
Did you always restrict yourself to Yemen? Did you explore other countries? I pretty much felt like Yemen would be an interesting place to set the story, and so many Guantanamo prisoners are from there. I figured that when prisoners were released they'd be going home there. That turned out not to be so true. Most of the first prisoners released went back to Saudi Arabia. But also, as it's often reported, Yemen is the ancestral homeland of bin Laden, and it's just a fascinating country.
How did your relationship with him evolve? And over what period of time was your relationship? Even though I met him on my first trip, it took a long time to shoot the film. Immediately I was like, "So, do you think I could put a camera in your taxicab?" [laughs] He was resistant for a long time. After the first trip I just did some other filming and was meeting lots of families. I was still searching around for what story I would land on. And then I made another trip back to Yemen and said, "Hey, can I get in your taxicab?" It didn't happen that trip either. And then I went back and rented a house in Yemen and spent two years going back and forth. I had a lot of patience. I would go for a month and I would come back with not a whole lot of footage and go again.
How about on a personal level - how did your relationship with Abu Jandal evolve over time? As you can see, he talks to media, so he's not shy. But I needed a different kind of access, and that took a long time to get. I made a film in Iraq about the war [My Country, My Country] and he looked at that. I think that film kind of gave me a level of access that was different than what he gives to typical media. But it was slow. Usually I would contact him through a producer I had there [in Yemen]. I mean, [Abu Jandal] is al-Qaida, and I was already on a watch list when I went to Yemen. I had to be careful in terms of communication - like, I'm not in direct contact with him now. We had to be cautious and also stay under the radar.
ABU JANDAL IN THE OATH.
Why do you think Abu Jandal agreed to talk to you? I mean, obviously he's attracted to publicity. But was it deeper than that? I think he wants to still have some relevance. I think he's somebody who wants to get his position or word in. He's a bit of a player. He wants to say what he believes. I think he's also got something to hide, and I think he's trying to constantly set the story straight. But he's maybe, I think, creating more problems for himself in a certain way. It's pretty extraordinary how open he is. Everybody is shocked that he speaks so freely, and that he's, you know, walking [laughs] and that somebody hasn't taken him out - the Yemeni government, the U.S., or the younger generation of al-Qaida. It's not just a mystery for us Americans; it's actually a mystery for people who really know this universe well. He's clearly media-savvy and trying to control his image and message. But across the board, everybody in national security will tell you he's a very important source for information about al-Qaida. Less so now - I mean, his information is old, but when he was originally interrogated, what he said was important stuff.
What's happened to him since the movie? I'm not in direct contact with him. I think he's got an office, and I think he's been trying to set up this institute to retrain guys who've gone to fight jihad and get them some practical skills so that they can transition back into normal life. But nobody actually wants to fund that. I think he has these ideas, you know? I think he's taking some business-school classes, but I think he's in a tough position because of his background to get a job.
Has he seen the film? He has seen the film.
Do you know what his reaction was? Well, you know, again, I'm not calling him up and saying, "Hey, how's it going?" It was through an intermediary. The first rumors I was getting were negative, and that he was very upset. Then the second thing I heard was that actually he was happy with the film. He said the strength of the film is that it showed the human dimension of this conflict, and that it exposes that he's against the policies of the West and not the people. But I don't know - he might need to distance himself from the film because of some of the content.
Did you go to Guantanamo? Kirsten Johnson, our cinematographer, and Jonathan, the editor, did the Guantanamo shoot while I stayed in Yemen.
Being on the U.S. travel watch list - that's a dimension I hadn't even thought of. How did that impact your practice of making this movie? [laughs] Well, you know, I assume everything is listened to, including this interview. That's how it impacts how I did this work! If you're talking to any lawyer who's representing Guantanamo [prisoners], you basically assume you are getting caught in the net of people who are being monitored. And the question is to what extent? Is it just electronic monitoring? Are they really paying attention? We always kept multiple copies of footage in different places. I didn't want to be subpoenaed - that was certainly a concern. And when I travel I experience difficulties. Returning back to the States, I'm always met at the airplane by Border Patrol folks who question me. So yeah, it's a particular way of working.
When were you added to the travel watch list? I got flagged on the list in the summer 2006 after I finished My Country, My Country. It was before I'd even begun work on something about Guantanamo and al-Qaida. So [this film] certainly raised the stakes in terms of subjects that touch on nerves, subjects that are going to flag interest by the government.
Did you ever expect to get Salim Hamdan on camera? When we started filming I certainly didn't think he was getting home any time soon. I thought, "Okay, well, he's going to get sentenced and I'll finish the movie." It was always shot with the sense that he would be a ghost in the film, and that we would have one protagonist who was missing. That was actually an important [emotional] element. I spent a lot of time with families in Yemen, and there were people missing. You could feel their presence. We all know how many Iraqi civilians are dead, or how long we've detained people at Guantanamo, but we don't really have a palpable relationship to those facts. I feel it's my job as a filmmaker to translate those experiences on a more emotional level. And so with Hamdan's story, we're using the [voiceover recitation of his] letters to go beyond the image of guys in orange jumpsuits, to [create] an emotional connection to this [idea] of "being gone."
Did you ever try to film Salim Hamdan? I wanted to and he declined. The filmmaker in me would have loved to have witnessed that moment [of his release] and the reunion, but I also have respect for his decision not to engage the media. I think it's probably the right decision not to talk to folks. And it's not just me he hasn't talked to. He hasn't talked to Al Jazeera. He just hasn't done interviews.
I read your statement on indieWIRE where you referenced Don DeLillo and the Dardenne brothers as influences. At what point in the filmmaking process do influences like these come into the movie? Don DeLillo's work I loved for years. I brought both Underworld and Libra to Yemen and read them there. The antihero and the themes of terrorism are just so resonant in his work. He has almost predicted certain things. There's just something very ominous in his body of work pre-9/11. Underworld has just such a fantastic nonlinear structure. I think [his influence] allowed Jonathan and I as artists to tell the story in a way that didn't conform to something more generic, to really let it unfold in complicated ways. And then in terms of the Dardenne brothers, I just love their open-endedness. They're basically saying, "We believe that the audience is smart, and we want them to do some work here." I think that's something we [as filmmakers] too often forget.
So this is the second film in a trilogy about the aftermath of 9/11. Yeah.
What can you tell us about the third, and how it will draw from or be influenced by the two films you completed? In terms of process the way it always works is: you say, "Okay, I'm starting a film," you have certain ideas, you go out and start to make it and then everything kind of gets turned on its head. And so I assume that's going to happen again with this one. I'm interested in the 9/11 trials if they actually happen in Federal court on U.S. soil. Not really the trials themselves, but what might happen around them. If they end up as military commissions at Guantanamo I won't be so interested. I'm also interested in looking at something on domestic surveillance in the U.S. In either case I'm interested in doing something in the U.S. as the final part to this [series].
What about formally as a film? You've spoken here about how the first film differed from the second. Is there a new approach you are thinking about for the third? It's probably too soon to say. I mean, I've also thought about trying to do something as a narrative. I'm not quite sure. But, I wouldn't have been able to make The Oath without having made this film about this really saintly Muslim doctor in Baghdad, you know? Having made that film allowed me to make The Oath, which is much darker and more politically incorrect. It's a more complicated film in terms of how you leverage it - like, I'm against Guantanamo, okay? I want Guantanamo to be closed, but this film could be leveraged against that wish. You could say, "Oh, well, they're all crazy fanatics and we should throw them all in jail." I know I'm treading in much darker territory, more complex territory, in terms of filmmaking and storytelling in this one than I did in the last one. So they're related. In terms of what I'll do the next time, I'm not sure. I mean, I'd like it to sort of develop in some sort of a different direction that will build off of these other two films.
Tell me a little bit about your relationship with your editor, and how on a practical level that plays out. All the collaborators who worked on the film are incredible. Jonathan, who's the editor, he started working on it while I was still in the field. I was back and forth to Yemen and psychologically it was just a lot to carry. How was I going to make a film about this guy? How was I going to tackle somebody who is so complex? In a sense his charisma is his personality so how were we going to not let him run away with the film? So [Jonathan and I] were editing and then I would go to Yemen and come back and we'd keep working. There was a lot of back and forth. One of the real contributions that he brought to the film later in the process was this [idea of] exposing the filmmaking process, which is typically something I don't like to do. I like my films to be stories, to take the viewer on a journey. And we know that [in early cuts of this film] the viewer was spending a lot of energy wondering about the camera, saying, "Why is there a camera in the room?" Audiences were having a hard time connecting to the story. So then we started bringing in these [moments] where [Abu Jandal] lies about the camera and about what it's doing in the taxicab. Those more self-reflexive elements to the film that break the narrative wall came in later in the editing process.
One last thing. In one of your interviews you commented on the multiple meanings of "the oath" and said one was whether or not you as a filmmaker had broken your oath to your subject. Could you elaborate on that? Well, I mean, there's a point in the film that, you know, Abu Jandal asked me to take something out, and not only do we not take it out but we also show him asking us to take it out. We also probably revealed things about him that wouldn't be his choice to reveal. I think that the film is basically a film about loyalty and betrayal, and so that relates to me too. Loyalty and betrayal between the filmmaker and the subjects. [Jandal's] loyalty towards bin Laden and also Hamdan. Our government and [whether it's a] betrayal of our trust in terms of how it's conducting itself. So those are just a few of the things we wanted the audience to grapple with.
PRODUCTION FORMAT: HDV and MiniDV 24p.
CAMERA: Panasonic DVX100A (24p Advanced), and Canon Vixia HV20 mounted inside the taxi.
EDITING SYSTEM: Avid Express Pro. Online conform to HDRS (23.98) on Quantel IQ. HD titling generated on the Avid Symphony Nitris.
COLOR CORRECTION: Pandora Pogle Evolution at PostWorks.
MY COUNTRY, MY COUNTRY
For Poitras's 2006 film, nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar, she spends over eight months in Iraq to chronicle a Sunni Arab doctor as he runs in the '05 elections.
THE ROAD TO GUANTANAMO
Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross mix drama and doc to examine the TiptonThree, three British Muslims who were held in Guantanamo Bay for two years and released without charge.
In this ravishingly shot film, director Mahmoud al Massad offers an intimate look at a Jordanian father living in Zarqa, a breeding ground for recruits to the jihadist cause and birthplace of al-Qaeda's Abu Musab al Zarqawi.