“One month is like a year here”
Documentarian Laura Poitras‘ The Oath is an intriguing film with a lot going on in—sometimes to its detriment. It wants to be an exposé on America’s false imprisonment of suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, a heartfelt look at the guilt of a man responsible for another’s involvement in the Jihad, a commentary on the effect of peaceful interrogation rather than torture, and a portrait of a self-proclaimed terrorist who still aligns himself with the Jihad even if his weapon of choice is now the pen rather than the gun. It also succeeds at all of these aspirations, but doing so makes it a bit schizophrenic at times. Right when we feel like we know someone a new revelation turns our impression on its head with confusion.
That complexity shouldn’t be denied legitimacy, though, considering we as humans are complex beings forever evolving and changing as time and experience weighs on our consciences and actions. So despite Nasser al-Bahri (aka Abu Jandal) holding regular meetings with young Yemenis seeking information on the Jihad and arguing for the death of innocents on 9/11 because they are no more innocent than the Arab civilians murdered in the Middle East, he isn’t necessarily still a terrorist. We may believe him to be in that moment, but it’s tough to continue doing so as more information is uncovered to explain who he was as opposed to who he is now thanks to The Dialogue and a deciphered moral code learned via an FBI interrogation.
Who Abu Jandal was: Osama bin Laden’s personal bodyguard. We don’t have to take Poitras, his, or experts’ word on this once we see him in video by his Sheikh’s side. He wasn’t coerced or recruited to the post either. This was all voluntary. Jandal sought a father figure with compassion and bin Laden supplied it. He took the oath stating he would put Al-Qaeda and his leader before himself and personal gain. He trained, worked a year, and found himself as a sort of concierge to the terrorist organization by vetting newcomers to determine what level of readiness they were. Jandal believed in the fight and still does too, but his battle was always on the ground with his enemy looking him in the eye.
Poitras could have made her film about Jandal and nothing else and it would have been captivating stuff. His history from Al-Qaeda to taxi driver places him in the unique position to really pull back the curtain on what was happening in the lead-up to 9/11. To hear about his rehabilitation in prison thanks to The Dialogue—a deprograming system using the Koran to see the error of the extremists’ ways wherein followers pledge to never kill another human soul again—is fascinating. To see that it worked is even more so. There’s genuine contrition in his eyes when speaking about the plight of his brother-in-law Salim Hamdan, a man Jandal helped find a job as bin Laden’s driver and who spent six years awaiting trial in Cuba.
He’s so intriguing a character that I found myself not quite caring about Hamdan’s fate as far as the story went. Obviously I hoped he’d be found innocent of conspiracy charges created especially for him to be found guilty after a Supreme Court decision awarded him victory against the US government, but the footage of his military lawyers working hard despite knowing their client could never receive a fair trial is stuff that’s in the news and on our minds every day. The sad truth is that we know this story too well and have numbed ourselves to brace for the worst. Where Poitras has something fresh and enthralling is in Jandal accepting all he’s personally done to “rightfully” earn Hamdan’s place in Guantanamo.
It’s this slice of life depiction of Jandal in his taxicab and at home that delivers the film’s most profound moments. Many of his justifications for the Jihad are sound, a lot of the youths looking for guidance through the Jihad are surprisingly conflicted about the violence they know it cultivates, and Jandal’s own tug-of-war about whether he has violated the oath to bin Laden by speaking with the media are crucial to seeing a side of this war we don’t normally have access to witness unfiltered. This man owns his mistakes, supplied the US with actionable intelligence long ago, and has worked to redeem himself in the eyes of his God even if he hasn’t completely expunged the belief system he embraced at bin Laden’s side.
The Oath is therefore best when it shows an uncensored account of the fallibility of man. And that works both from Jandal’s perspective of changing and evolving by realizing who he was in his youth was wrong as well as the US government’s perspective of holding suspected terrorists in prison as guilty until proven innocent. You cannot deny the power of seeing a “monster” like many would label Jandal ask forgiveness when military personnel fully cognizant of Congress creating laws to ensure their actions become legal after the fact refuse to show even the semblance of wrongdoing. Poitras puts a human face to Yemen, Arabs, and to a point Al-Qaeda so we can start learning the facts and searching for answers rather than blindly rage for more bloodshed.
courtesy of Zeitgeist Films