A quietly disturbing, often complex portrait of an Al Qaeda insider and a Guantanamo Bay detainee, Laura Poitras' "The Oath" offers a chilling preview of emerging Middle East battleground Yemen and poignantly questions American policies over the past decade in the Middle East.
Abu Jandal, a former bodyguard to Osama bin Laden who recruited Al Qaeda members and ultimately named names in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, lives free in Yemen today where he drives a taxicab, while Salim Hamdan, a former driver for bin Laden whom Jandal recruited, was held in Guantanamo Bay prison despite questionable links to Al Qaeda.
"The Oath" had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, UT last night exactly one year after U.S. President Barack Obama signed an order to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility within a year. Embarking on the project, Poitras had intended to explore the story of a detainee returning home from Guantanamo, but the scope of her film evolved.
Told through observational footage, media reports and shooting in Yemen and Guantanamo, the film seemed to puzzle some viewers here at the Sundance fest last night, perhaps because Poitras doesn't narrate her story to emphasize point of view. Yet, the more you ponder "The Oath," the clearer its message becomes: America imprisoned a man with little apparent connection to the 9/11 attacks and swiftly released an Al Qaeda recruiter who claims a close connection to Osama bin Laden while driving his taxi in Yemen.
"It's a story about two brothers-in-law and what happens to them," Poitras said last night in Park CIty, "One who basically takes the fall."
Anchored by images of Jandal's everyday life in Yemen, raising his young son and teaching him to distrust America, the film also includes excerpts from letters by Hamdan. It takes on an even more poignant perspective given the recent failed Christmas Day terrorism plot on an airliner headed for Detroit.
The second film in a trilogy, following the Oscar nominted "My Country, My Country," Poitras' "Oath" looks at these two men who were once close to Osama bin Laden getting an inside look at Al Qaeda through the eyes of the two brothers-in-law.
"This is a film that is an inside look at Al Qaeda," she said last, night discussing the film following the Sundance premiere. "This film hopefully provides insight into how the organization works and divisions within it."
If the film is puzzling, it's because it challenges notions of the U.S. post 9/11 strategy and complicates one-note portraits often offered by mainstream outlets.
"I think it's important to understand these people as humans and not as stereotypes as they're presented in the media," Poitras explained yesterday.
Poitras, in a recent interview with indieWIRE, said that the third film in her trilogy will look at the upcoming 9/11 trials. At Sundance, she's spoken out against what she calls the twin tragedies, namely, "Terrorism and 9/11 and America's response to it."
"I think that America is doing everything wrong in terms of how its responding to the threat of Al Qaeda," Poitras elaborated last night in Utah. "They are basically radicalizing Al Qaeda."
Laura Poitras talking about her new film last night at the Sundance Film Festival.