The story of two men who meet in Yemen in the mid-1990s and join Al Qaida, only to end up taking very different paths in life, Laura Poitras’s The Oath is constructed more in the manner of a political thriller than an ordinary documentary.
The protagonist is Abu Jandal, Osama Bin Laden’s bodyguard and self-described ‘Emir of Hospitality’ from 1996 until 2000. He was arrested and jailed after the suicide attack on the USS Cole in October 2000, and when he was released in 2003, he established a normal life for himself and his family, working as taxi driver in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a. His peaceful life was not possible for his brother in law Salim Hamdan, who served as Osama Bin Laden’s driver before being captured and sent to Guantanamo Bay.
The story unfolds through conversations with Jandal, and follows him as he drives around looking for work and playing with his cute son. Hamdan’s story is heard through his letters that he sends to Jandal and through his US defense team. Hamdan’s story is well known: after emerging victorious in the landmark Hamdan v Rumsfeld, which ruled that Hamdan’s Guantanamo Bay’s trial violated the Geneva Convention, the Military Commission Act of 2006 was passed which came up with a new crime – providing material support to terrorism – which Hamdan was found guilty of.
The story is well known, but why this documentary works, and why it is important, is because it tries to get into some of the complexities of the issue. Hamdan, no doubt, suffered an injustice, but director Laura Poitras wisely chose to focus on the more ambiguous issue of Jandal.
He claims to feel a terrible sense of responsibility for getting Hamdan involved with Al Qaeda. But he also seems to feel a sense of pride in his time at Al Qaeda: he talks about how he welcomed the jihadis that would later attack the World Trade Centre when they arrived at the camp in Afghanistan, and asks his son if he would prefer to be a mechanic or a jihadi, smiling when he chooses the latter.
He is an excellent speaker and incredibly charismatic, and appears to welcome media attention – he even did an interview with America’s 60 Minutes. But as the film progresses, we get deeper insight into his story which muddies the water. While he’s more than willing to talk to eager young men about his time with Bin Laden, we learn that he gave up information to the FBI willingly after September 2001, and the information that he gave led to Hamdan’s arrest. He proudly shows off pictures of his son next to an AK-47, but then says he denounces the taking of innocent life.
Ultimately, it’s hard to know how to feel about Jandal. He has a sparkle in his eye that will encourage the cynic to say he’s taking the director for a ride, but he speaks with such clarity and conviction that you want to believe him. This ambiguity is the film’s greatest strength, propelled by Jandal’s force of character and married to the strong sense of injustice permeating the film due to Hamdan’s experience.
Film detailing the outrages of Guantanamo Bay are nothing new. But such sustained dialogue with a former frontline jihadi are, and the intimacy Poitras is able to capture with this unlikely celebrity means it is an unmissable part to the story of post 9/11 America.