EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a daily December series that will feature new or previously published interviews, profiles and first-persons of some of the year’s best filmmakers, writers, actors and actresses. This edition is an interview with Gotham Award winning “The Oath” director Laura Poitras that was originally published during the Sundance Film Festival.
Director Laura Poitras’ documentary “The Oath” is the second installment in a planned trilogy that includes her previous film “My Country, My Country” (2006), which was nominated for an Academy Award, Independent Spirit Award, and Emmy Award. “The Oath,” which is screening as part of the Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. Documentary Competition, “is the interlocking drama of two brothers-in-law, Abu Jandal and Salim Hamdam, whose associations with al Qaeda in the 1990s propelled them on divergent courses.
Poitras on becoming a filmmaker…
I guess what lured me into filmmaking was spending as much time as I could growing up in movies theaters. There is still no place I’d rather be than watching a movie in a dark room with a bunch of strangers. I’m aware that the industry is looking for new models to distribute indie films, and that the model of theatrical distribution is in jeopardy, but the idea breaks my heart.
Poitras on how the project came about and making the film…
I was first interested in making a film about Guantanamo in 2003 when I was also beginning a film about the war in Iraq. I never imagined Guantanamo would still be open when I finished that film, but sadly it was – and still is.
Originally, my idea was to make a film about someone released from Guantanamo and returning home. In May, 2007 I traveled to Yemen and that’s where I met Abu Jandal, Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguard, who drives a taxi in Yemen. I wasn’t looking to make a film about al Qaeda – I really wanted to tell the story of someone innocent returning from Guantanamo, but the story changed when I met Abu Jandal.
In addition to working as bin Laden’s bodyguard and guesthouse emir, Abu Jandal was responsible for recruiting his brother-in-law, Salim Hamdan, to Afghanistan. Hamdan was later captured in Afghanistan and sent to Guantanamo. He is the film’s “missing” protagonist. His story unfolds in his absence.
Themes of family, guilt, betrayal, regret, loyalty, absence, etc, are not typically things that come to mind when we imagine a film about al Qaeda and Guantanamo, so the story compelled me. It was a way to grapple with the traumatic events of the past nine years on a human level.
Although I met Abu Jandal early in the filming, it took a long time to shoot the film. I rented a house in Sana’a (the capital of Yemen), and spent 2 years traveling back and forth. In Yemen, I worked with journalist/co-producer Nasser Arrabyee. The approach was patience and trust. If I were on assignment, I would have been fired long before the film could have been shot.
Although there are lots of “big themes” in “The Oath,” in the end, it is a psychological study of Abu Jandal. The complexity of this portrait and how it unravels is a testament to the work of editor/co-producer, Jonathan Oppenheim.
With Hamdan’s story, we wanted to evoke the emotional pain of his absence. This was important not just for this story, but also for the bigger issue of Guantanamo. DP Kirsten Johnson found ways to evoke this emotion in images of absence. If I have one goal in this film, it is to make audiences feel the emotional impact of Guantanamo.
This is definitely the hardest film I’ve ever worked on. Working in Baghdad was much easier by comparison. The sensitivity of the issues in this film added a level of stress and anxiety that I’ve never experienced. Everyone who worked on the project took on this intense pressure.
Poitras on screening the film at Sundance…
I don’t know what to expect. “The Oath” touches on many political and psychological nerves, and it is hard to know how it will be received. I hope it opens a space to grapple with issues that have been too narrowly defined on all sides of the debate. As a nation, I don’t think we’ve begun to come to terms with 9/11 and its repercussions (Guantanamo, the invasion or Iraq, legalization of torture, etc.).
Poitras on her influences and future projects…
I read a lot of DeLillo while I was in Yemen. The anti-hero and terrorism themes in his work were appropriate company. During editing, I saw a retrospective of the Dardenne brothers at the FSLC, which reminded me to trust the intelligence of the audience.
I plan to make a film about the 9/11 trials. It will be the third film in a trilogy (following “My Country,” My Country” and “The Oath”) about America post 9/11. I’m also working on a project to gather documents and artifacts from Guantanamo.
Previous Honor Roll 2010 Entries:
December 9: “White Material” Actress Isabelle Huppert
December 8: “Blue Valentine” Director Derek Cianfrance
December 7: “The Social Network” and “Never Let Me Go” Actor Andrew Garfield
December 6: “I Am Love”‘s Tilda Swinton and Luca Guadagnino
December 5: “Waste Land” Director Lucy Walker
December 4: “Restrepo” Directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger
December 3: “Another Year” Actress Lesley Manville
December 2: “Please Give” Director Nicole Holofcener
December 1: “Winter’s Bone” Director Debra Granik