Trust Issues

Andrew Schenker on The Oath

Laura Poitras, The Oath, 2010, still from a color film, 90 minutes.

THERE’S NO OPPORTUNITY for the viewer to position himself comfortably in The Oath. Like many of the best documentaries, Laura Poitras’s film places the audience in an ambiguous and untenable relationship with the movie’s subjects, particularly its central figure, Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguard and current Sanaa-based cab driver Abu Jandal. Drawing on a diverse array of footage, Poitras presents the sly and charismatic Jandal through direct interviews, television appearances with both the American and Arab press, footage the filmmaker shot of Jandal interacting with his son or meeting with young followers, material gleaned from a semihidden camera in his cab, and the words of his testimony before the FBI following 9/11.

Jandal emerges as both a captivating figure and a difficult one to come to grips with. A likable man, struggling to earn a living to take care of his young son while wracked with self-doubt, he’s given up his terrorist past, but his level of commitment to the jihadist cause remains uncertain. With minimal direct authorial interference and a seemingly passive role in interviewing her subject, Poitras lets Jandal shape his own image, and the fascination lies in the moments when that ever-cautious man lets on more than he perhaps intends. In a discussion with a young associate, he argues that 9/11 (which he had no involvement with and officially condemns) was a success, while on Arabic TV, he’s placed in a tight spot when asked whether his loyalty oath to bin Laden still holds.

A counterpoint to Jandal’s segments is the slightly less ambiguous narrative of his brother-in-law Salim Hamdan, a Guantánamo detainee: Upon winning a Supreme Court case granting his freedom, Hamdan was immediately arrested under a freshly created law. Seen only in grainy footage of his 2001 arrest, Hamdan’s story is told through his letters, his defense council’s passionate news-conference exhortations, and Jandal’s words. While it’s easy for the viewer to side with Hamdan, his level of involvement in Al Qaeda remains unclear, with his brother-in-law suggesting that he may have been more than the simple paid employee his lawyer claims he was. It’s this constant uncertainty as to the nature of truth—compounded by Poitras’s dense web of material and her strategic withholding of information—that gives the film its dizzying charge and serves as a welcome antidote to the damaging simplicity of the official us-versus-them narrative.

Part of the annual New Directors/New Films festival, The Oath plays Friday, March 26 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Sunday, March 28 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For more details on the festival, which runs Wednesday, March 24–Sunday, April 4, click here.