The Oath: Life after al-Qaeda
What she meant to do, Laura Poitras said,
was to make a movie about the homecoming of a Guantánamo Bay
prisoner. That was before she travelled to Yemen in 2007 and met
Nasser al-Bahri, known by his nom de guerre Abu Jandal.
Al-Bahri - cabdriver, former bodyguard of Osama Bin Laden bodyguard
from 1997 to 2000 and brother-in-law of the famous Guantánamo
prisoner Salim Hamdan - is the focal point of Poitras's documentary
Three years in the making, it tells parallel stories of Hamdan's
legal battle to win his release, which included a landmark victory
before the US Supreme Court, and of Abu Jandal's life as a reformed
"jihadi" in Yemen.
The Oath is the second installment
of a planned trilogy that includes Poitras's previous film My
Country, My Country, which was nominated for an Academy Award
in 2006. Abu Jandal and Hamdan's story is told through
observational footage, as well as media reports and sequences shot
in Yemen and Guantánamo.
Early on in the film, Abu Jandal is shown
talking to his two-year old son, and reminiscing over old pictures.
One of the pictures shows the boy when he was two months old, laid
out on a bed next to an AK-47 rifle. Abu Jandal picks out a picture
of Hamdan, whom he had recruited when he was working for Bin Laden.
At the outset of the film, Hamdan is imprisoned in Guantánamo, and
Abu Jandal works as a cab driver in Yemen. Hamdan used to be a
driver for Bin Laden, and was the first man arrested in connection
with the September 11 attacks. He is this film's "missing"
protagonist; his story unfolds in his absence.
The Oath alternates between scenes
of Abu Jandal driving his cab and picking up fares in the streets
of Sana'a, and off-screen readings of Salim Hamdan's letters from
the successive jails where he is incarcerated. While Abu Jandal's
segments display a gritty, documentary feel (they are often shot in
his cab), Hamdan's narration has an elegiac, desolate feel, with
long, aerial travelling shots and landscape shots to accompany his
reading. In Sana'a, Abu Jandal is shown holding meetings with young
men curious about al-Qaeda and jihad, asking for information
regarding the latter, and wanting to know about his interaction
with Bin Laden. It turns out that Abu Jandal is a major
spokesperson for the Dialogue Program, which aims to reform former
The Oath moves away from easy
clichés and preconceived notions regarding Osama Bin Laden and his
methods of recruiting young men for jihad; the film treads an
uneasy path, one that is expository rather than propagandistic. Abu
Jandal is quoted as saying that he found in Bin Laden the kindness
and affection that was lacking in his own father. Asked the uneasy
question about whether it was right to destroy the World Trade
Center and kill so many innocent people, Abu Jandal replies that
innocent people are being killed in greater numbers in Iraq and
Palestine. A strange logic, maybe, but one that rallies his
listeners to his side.
The film's most interesting encounters,
however, take place between Abu Jandal and his son. Poitras's
discreet camera lingers on the boy's face as his father attempts to
educate him in the correct manner of praying. The child is
evidently baffled, yet his father maintains supreme patience with
him, the same patience he displays when talking to the press or
would-be jihadis. One wonders how Poitras was able to come within
such close proximity to Abu Jandal and his family.
"Although I met Abu Jandal early on in the
filming process, it took a long time to shoot the film. I rented a
house in Sana'a and spent two years traveling back and forth. In
Yemen, I worked with journalist Nasser Arrabyee. The approach was
patience and trust. I think it's important to understand these
people as human beings, and not as the stereotypes presented in the
media. This film hopefully provides insight into how al-Qaeda
works, and the divisions within it."
Poitras went on to say, "I think that
America is doing everything wrong in terms of how it's responding
to the threat of al-Qaeda. They are basically radicalizing the