Early in Laura Poitras' outstanding documentary, The Oath, we learn that one of its subjects, Abu Jandal, a cabdriver living in Yemen, was Osama bin Laden's bodyguard in Afghanistan. Listening to this handsome, articulate, analytical man with liquid brown eyes go on — and on and on — you wonder why (or whether) he wasn't also a high-ranking member of al-Qaeda.
Certainly it's no surprise to hear that, in his heyday, Jandal (the name, he jovially offers, means "death") was known as the "Emir of Hospitality." Warm, polite, and garrulous, he spills the history — or, perhaps, revisionist history — of his work with bin Laden, whom he regards as the father he never had. He reminisces about his journeys back and forth across the porous national borders that tolerate or shelter radical Islamists, his imprisonment by the Yemenis after the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, and his apparent rehabilitation.
Today, Jandal moonlights as a — possibly self-appointed — recruiter of young Yemenis to jihad, which he defines so variously and in such voluminous detail that your head hurts. He's a devout Muslim and a loving father who coaches his adorable young son to hate America. He declares his opposition to the 9/11 attacks one day, then retracts the next. Will he also renounce his jihadist oath to bin Laden? Maybe. Does he still work for al-Qaeda? Maybe.
So who is Abu Jandal, and why does he talk so much? Why is he on Arab news shows and 60 Minutes? Why, for that matter, is he spilling the beans to an American independent filmmaker? The Oath is a film about a man who is an enigma — and about the confusion, not the clarity, that is the aftermath of 9/11. Poitras is a patient observer of the telling details that deepen the contradictions of her subject, and is disciplined enough not to ram home their significance. Pausing in midlecture on infidel America, Jandal offers American cookies to his recruits, saying they are made with "sincerity and conscience." His little boy, pressed to join Dad watching political television, gives the show a diplomatic minute, then asks for and receives exasperated permission to switch to Tom and Jerry.
Poitras' terrific 2006 film, My Country, My Country, followed an Iraqi physician and aspiring politician on his daily routine, documenting how the American occupation eroded his energy and his democratic impulses, leading him, finally, to leave the country. The second in a projected trilogy of films plumbing what Poitras believes is the insufficiently examined legacy of 9/11, The Oath doesn't lack for point of view. In its roundabout way, this usefully meandering documentary probes the enduring stain of Guantánamo on its victims and on America. Poitras keeps adding layers to Jandal, who complicates his winding confessional (if that's the word for an account so filled with braggadocio, public relations, and astute commentary) by admitting his guilt over betraying his brother-in-law, Salim Hamdan. Jandal recruited Hamdan to al-Qaeda, where he became bin Laden's driver and ended up in the Guantánamo Bay prison for seven years before being brought to trial on frighteningly Orwellian charges of conspiracy "to commit ... offenses triable by military commission."
Hamdan's story — revealed through news footage, letters, the testimony of relatives barred from his trial, and pointedly repeated shots, for want of better access, of the clouds above the detention facility — is The Oath's second thread. Though we never see him, Hamdan is now famous as the man whose military lawyer brought a successful suit against Donald Rumsfeld, only to see Congress enact a new law in order to press further charges.
For Poitras, Hamdan's ultimate release is secondary to the fallout of his ordeal for American justice and democracy, and its consequences for radical Islam. Are Jandal and Hamdan, both now back in Yemen, symbols of al-Qaeda's resilience or irrelevance? Poitras doesn't answer this question — and, indeed, who could? After all their travails, Jandal has nothing left to do but talk, while for Hamdan, who stays resolutely out of the public eye, there's nothing left to say.
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