It’s no surprise that Middle Eastern-set tales of war, religion, families torn apart and the jumbled intersection of all three have become rich documentary fodder over the past decade; nonfiction filmmakers, as much as anyone else trading in the feature narrative realm, go where the stories are. The worst of these movies goad and poke, playing merely to audience expectation about what feelings their subject matter should elicit. With The Oath, though, director Laura Poitras does something remarkable, and in its own way instructive and important: she constructs a three-dimensional portrait of a ex-jihadist who, nearly a decade removed from the commencement of the war in Afghanistan, still hasn’t found what he’s looking for, and in some ways remains more confused than ever.
Though imprisoned at the time, Abu Jandal (above) became an important figure in American intelligence circles in the wake of the September 11 terror attacks. As Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard and a self-proclaimed “emir of hospitality” for Afghan jihad recruits, he personally met and hosted all of the 9/11 hijackers, even though he claims (and there’s good reason to believe) he had no operational foreknowledge of their plan.
A nominally reformed family man (after serving more than two years in Yemeni prison, for charges stemming from the bombing of the USS Cole, he was released in 2003 as part of a government reeducation and reintegration program), Jandal is a taxi driver in Yemen when we meet him. He doesn’t make a great first impression. One glimpses some of the salving effects of domesticated life (Jandal waking up his
son Habeeb for 4:30 a.m. prayers, and instructing him in religious ritual), even as one winces at the pictures of an infant with an AK-47. Almost immediately, Jandal emerges as a bundle of contradictions, extolling the “stain” upon America’s reputation rendered by the World Trade Center attacks while also popping a Coke, a detail the director doesn’t miss. Later, he explains why, despite having fought on the front lines in Bosnia, he would not have participated in a “spectacular” attack like 9/11, even if asked by bin Laden; the next day, he reconsiders, and asks the tape of that interview to be deleted.
The offscreen foil for much of Jandal’s inner tumult is his brother-in-law, Salim Hamdan, bin Laden’s personal driver and the first Guantanamo Bay prisoner to face America’s controversial military tribunals. The pair’s intertwined personal histories, and Jandal’s lingering guilt over his role in Hamdan’s fate, act as prisms which allow Poitras to explore and contextualize a world that has largely confounded Western media — that of the aggrieved and politically voiceless Muslim working poor.
Poitras, helmer of the Oscar-nominated My Country, My Country, constructs The
Oath largely as a psychological character study of Jandal, so the natural ebbs and flows of one’s opinion of her subject seem to matter relatively little. She works in file footage (Jandal on 60 Minutes,
etcetera) alongside new interview material, but also lets audiences see him in a more natural and relaxed habitat, holding forth with younger Yemeni Muslims, some of whom might be sympathetic to a life of dedicated jihad. On a certain level, the educated, reflective Jandal seems to have a bit
of a narcissistic streak; he appears to like the attention that his erstwhile
association with bin Laden provides. Yet his regret and concern for Hamdan is genuine, as is a seemingly burgeoning realization that guns and violence do not solve everything.
In so tracking Hamdan, the film also provides an overview of the flaws in America’s schizophrenic treatment of war-on-terror detainees (Congress adopted a retroactive “material support to terrorism” felony charge after the 5-3 landmark 2006 Supreme Court decision in the Hamdan v. Rumsfeld case). The Oath‘s objectivity, its greatest narrative asset, naturally limits its potential commercial reach, since reactionary forces even beyond the reach of FOX News still peddle this brawny, mock-patriotic notion that the faintest strokes of grey morality give “aid and comfort to America’s enemies,” as if either complacency or contentment can themselves pack a C4 cap or trigger a dirty bomb, or were somehow in abundance in Afghanistan on September 11.
What one is left with in The Oath is a stirring, engaging film that elicits more questions than it answers. Near the end of the movie, we learn that the actionable intelligence
from Jandal’s (non-coerced) debriefing, spread out over two weeks, was so
important to the United States learning more about bin Laden and
Al-Qaeda that the very start of the war in Afghanistan was delayed in
order to allow for it to continue. We also see Jandal talk broadly about human rights, and then moments later argue against Al-Qaeda ever being drawn into the political process, saying, “When you accept the other as he is, then you’re in agreement with his infidelity and lowliness.” His fuse seems still lit, basically. So what gives? Radicalism isn’t just a flame to be snuffed out, the movie posits, perhaps unnervingly to some. After all, both water and fire are sometimes used to fight fire. (Zeitgeist, unrated, 96 minutes)