For anyone seriously interested in gaining insight into terrorism and jihad, Laura Poitras’s new film, “The Oath” is a must-see. The Martha’s Vineyard Film Society presents this remarkable documentary on Saturday, June 12, at the Katharine Cornell Theatre.
“The Oath,” which won a Best Cinematography Award at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and was also nominated for a Grand Jury Prize, is the second of a three-film series planned by Ms. Poitras. Her first in the series, “My Country, My Country,” about an Iraqi physician-politician, was nominated for an Oscar in 2007. The soundtrack features world-class music composed by Osvaldo Golijov and sung by Dawn Upshaw.
“The Oath” takes a close look at the views and life of Abu Jandal (Nasser al-Bahri is his real name), Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguard. At the same time, the challenging and complex film parallels Mr. Jandal’s story with the legal case of his brother-in-law, Salim Hamdan, who served as Osama bin Laden’s driver before his arrest and incarceration at Guatánamo Bay.
In fact, the film opens with scratchy black and white footage of Mr. Hamdan kneeling and initially hooded as he undergoes military interrogation at gunpoint. A Yemeni citizen, Mr. Hamdan claimed he merely needed the $200 monthly salary for driving bin Laden. He became notorious as the first Al-Qaeda operative tried by military tribunal under the Bush administration.
Mr. Hamdan’s defense lawyer, Lt. Commander Charles Swift, took his client’s case to the Supreme Court in Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld and won on the grounds that military tribunals were unconstitutional. Congress quickly legalized the tribunals through the Military Commissions Act, Hamdan was convicted of providing material support to al Quaeda, and he completed his sentence in Yemen after seven years incarceration at Guatánamo.
Director Poitras originally set out to make her film about the Hamdan case, but the rules governing Guatánamo detainees and Mr. Hamdan’s unwillingness to be interviewed inspired her to turn instead to his brother-in-law Jandal, born of Yemeni parents but a Saudi citizen. The opening arrest scenes of Mr. Hamdan, moody shots of the sky over Guantánamo and excerpts from his letter home may seem like artifacts of Ms. Poitras’s initial intention, because the film is really more about Jandal, his motivation for making jihad, his relationship with his young son Habeeb, and his ambiguous dialogues with young Yemenis that may or not be for Al-Qaeda recruitment purposes.
The retention of these scenes is important, however, because they carry the film’s analysis to a deeper level. If the parallels between the brothers-in-law — it was bin Laden who told them to marry their sororal wives — at times seem frustratingly unbalanced, they demonstrate how the treatment of these two jihadists by Western and Middle Eastern cultures differed.
Mr. Jandal, who was making his living as a taxi driver in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital city, at the time of filming, is an affable, articulate, even charismatic figure. The audience sees him frequently driving through Sana’a and chatting with passengers. He claims responsibility for recruiting his brother-in-law into Al-Qaeda and agonizes about it. He philosophizes with visitors about Al-Qaeda and jihad.
Arrested by the Yemeni government after the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, Jandal spent three years in prison there and was released after reeducation, in which he took an oath vowing, in effect, to give up jihad. After 9/11, he was questioned extensively by the FBI and became an important source of information about the hijackers — without any form of torture.
Before she is finished, Ms. Poitras has given the notion of an oath a highly set of nuanced meanings. Both Jandal and Mr. Hamdan took oaths when they joined Al-Qaeda. As a stipulation of his release, Jandal took another oath promising not to kill foreigners or oppose the government. For Lt. Commander Swift, the equivalent comes through his vow to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the U.S.
Because of its complexity, “The Oath” can be hard to follow, a problem compounded by often hard-to-read white subtitles, but the rewards make it worth the effort.
The audience is left to ponder the many ways in which an oath has validity, how it varies by individual and by culture and, ultimately, what is the meaning of justice in wartime.
In other movie news, playing Monday, June 14, is the 1942 Alfred Hitchcock classic, “Saboteur,” offered by the Film Society as a benefit for the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. American History scholar Sheldon Hackney will introduce the film.
“The Oath,” Saturday, June 12, 8 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. Tickets $8; $5 members. Doors open at 7:30 pm.
“Saboteur,” Monday, June 14, 8 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. $8; $5 for members. Doors open at 7:30 pm. Additional information at mvfilmsociety.com.