SIFF Fights the War on Terror with <em>The Oath</em>

Laura Poitras’ film The Oath won a documentary award at Sundance for its portrayal of two men’s involvement in the War on Terror: Abu Jandal, a Yemeni taxi driver who was Osama Bin Laden’s bodyguard, and his brother-in-law, Salim Hamdan, Bin Laden’s driver who you might know from a little court case called Hamdan v. Rumsfeld

Poitras explores the divergent roads these men’s lives took through interviews with the cagey Jandal, whose political views changed post-9/11, and Hamdan’s letters written from Guantanamo Bay. The film’s final SIFF screening is today at SIFF Cinema at 4:30 p.m., but don’t worry, The Oath will be back in town for a week at the Northwest Film Forum in June. I spoke with Laura yesterday, and here’s part one of that interview. The rest will run before the NWFF screenings.

How did you meet Abu Jandal in the first place?  I know you were in Yemen, but did you just get in his taxi? 

It’s not that good of a story, but it was by accident. I was asked if I wanted to meet Hamdan’s family, and I said sure, expecting it would be his wife and kids, and it was also Abu Jandal. I had my camera on me and I turned it on. He was talking to a lawyer and I filmed it. It doesn’t happen every day that you meet someone who has so much charisma. It was jawdropping. I mean, how is it possible that I’m sitting in a room with this guy and he drives a taxi cab? Why is this guy free and all those other guys aren’t?

Jandal is such an interesting character. At times it’s difficult to read him–how much of what he’s saying is true, how much is boasting, how much is just propaganda. How did you negotiate that territory?

That was the challenge of working with somebody who is so trained, so charismatic, so smart, and so savvy. So that became really what the story’s about: this character where you think you get him and then you’re given more information and you understand him differently. Jonathan Oppenheim, the editor, and I just calibrated what we perceived to be the viewer’s reaction to him. We knew that there would be whole waves of subtext of “Holy shit! Who is this guy, what is he doing free, and what is she doing with him?” And then there’s questions of “Is he recruiting? Is this propaganda? What’s his agenda?”

What we wanted to try to do was take someone who is really and truly charismatic and let him sorta suck you in, in a classic anti-hero kind of way. But then also put up lots of warning signs along the way, and try to get to some sort of–I don’t know if you would say truth–but at least some sort of way to grapple with his contradictions. Personally, I think things go back to [his] interrogation [by the FBI, immediately following 9/11]: Here’s a guy who swore an oath to protect Bin Laden, and he was interrogated, and things were said that were said there [No spoilers!]. That’s a lot, that’s pretty heavy baggage for a person that would then lead to maybe a desire to want to set the record straight. It’s public that the interrogation happened, so that’s his reputation, and I think he does want to justify it.

There’s also the television interview of Jandal, where he’s basically defending his right to change his mind [about terrorism, or at least the tactics thereof]. Yes, he made an oath, but…

It was fascinating and constantly shifting. What an amazing way to talk about these huge issues, that you could get close to 9/11 through somebody’s inner conflict around it. If [Jandal] was a more straight-forward person, it would be a much less interesting story. There’s always the sense of a psychological mystery that we don’t fully understand.

Has he seen the film?

He did. I was nervous about it, because I was hearing rumors that he wasn’t happy, and I think he was nervous too, based on what he had heard about the film. And then he saw it, and he said to say “Thanks to Laura.” When I was expecting a response like, “That lying American who betrayed me…”

I wondered, because of the one scene that he asks you to delete, which you obviously didn’t, as it appears in the film. If he was going to be mad about anything, it’s that.

Yes, that’s sorta my betrayal of him. 

But in a case like this, everything’s on the record. 

That’s how I feel. If I was interviewing a public official about these issues, it’s on the record. Particularly since Abu Jandal is fully capable of consenting. I mean, he definitely surpasses me in terms of intellect. He’s a really smart guy, and he’s a good talker. I felt like in that scene, he tries to distance himself. The response he gives [which he wants deleted] is what we would think would be the “right” response, which then he questions. And that’s just really fascinating.

You wonder about who he doesn’t want to see that. Because he’s walking a very thin line.

I think we all do it. We’re all somewhat contradictory, we’re all trying to set the record straight, we’re all trying to present ourselves in a certain way and trying to make everyone happy. He’s clearly cornered and has burdens that far surpass what most of us ever have to deal with. But I think he’s trying to thread the needle and really deal with multiple forces and audiences to survive, and that’s kinda the story….

I think that what’s he doing now in his life he still defines as jihad. He just turned away from wanting to participate in violence or holding a gun, thinking they went too far in targeting civilians. But he says pretty clearly that [he still supports] fighting soldier to soldier on the battlefield. It’s not a complete redemption of that life.