The second film after 2006's Oscar-nominated My Country, My Country, in a proposed trilogy on the war on terror, Laura Poitras' The Oath casts a laser beam on two Osama bin Laden associates and their post-9/11 fortunes. Though this talking-head documentary's press notes try to position it as a political thriller, it is not that. In a way, it is a postmortem as these brothers-in-law's dreams of jihad meet the brick wall of reality. The film screens at the San Francisco International Film Festival in advance of its May 7 release. With only a limited theatrical run planned, box office returns look to be light.
At the outset, The Oath does indeed look like it will turn into a thriller, as Poitras opens with two indelible images. The first is footage of an early interrogation of Salim Hamdan—bin Laden's one-time driver and one of the first Guantanamo prisoners to face a military tribunal. We meet Salim when he, the prisoner, has his head in a sack. In the other scene Hamdan's brother-in-law, Abu Jandal, playfully asks his sweet young son if he wants to be a jihadist or a mechanic when he grows up. "A jihadist," is the tyke's answer.
That strong start soon gives way to something more mundane as Poitras compares and contrasts the fates of the two men. Jandal emerges as a charismatic and contradictory figure. The former bodyguard to bin Laden, Jandal describes himself as Al Qaeda's "emir of hospitality" for his role in welcoming new jihadists into bin Laden's camp. He now makes his living as a cab driver in Yemen. He still defends his old boss and debates jihad, as we see him do with a group of young men. At the same time, some in Al Qaeda circles consider him an infidel for abandoning the life. His most genuine moments in the film are those with his boy and when he talks about the guilt he feels for bringing Hamdan into bin Laden's circle.
By necessity, Hamdan remains a cipher, although his letters from Guantanamo, which are read over the soundtrack, give some idea of what life is like for those imprisoned there. A portrait develops through the perspectives and voices of those who know him, Jandal, his military lawyers, and his wife and young daughters. It seems likely that he was exactly what he claimed to be—nothing more than a driver—but the absence of his voice is a weakness in the film.
Poitras includes interviews of Jandal for the TV news show 60 minutes and other media, and spends some time following Hamdan's legal struggles through the tribunal, but the main focus is on Jandal. He speaks for himself, and to some extent Hamdan, and his old comrades in Al-Qaeda. How much of his words are true is anyone's guess. He is certainly intriguing, but one also guesses that he is an unreliable narrator. Hamdan's story is much more compelling, but again the lack of his participation in the documentary is a real drawback. By focusing on the human aspect of Al-Qaeda, The Oath does give the viewer something to think about, but the film is unsatisfying, raising questions and providing too few answers.
Distributor: Zeitgeist Films
Director/Producer: Laura Poitras
Running time: 96 min.
Release date: May 7 ltd.