The complications emerging from a life devoted to jihadist revolution are considered with genuine fascination in Laura Poitras’ “The Oath.” As she demonstrated with “Flag Wars” and “My Country, My Country” (the start of her post 9/11 trilogy, “The New American Century,” with “The Oath” as the second entry), complication is nonfiction filmmaker Poitras’ stock in trade. Here, she finds it in the life of Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguard, Abu Jandal, and his most famous Al Qaeda recruit, Salim Hamdan, who is on trial for terrorism. Careful distrib handling could stir theatrical and vid results, with public TV to follow.
Thoughtful documentarians, such as Mahmoud al Massad with his fine 2008 doc, “Recycle,” have been following what happens to radical Islamic jihadists after they leave a life of guerrilla warfare and terrorism. Like al Massad, Poitras discovers that these lives can shift from a sense of glory and certitude to personal and economic insecurity, leading to considerable self-examination.
This isn’t to say that Jandal — nom de guerre of Nasser Al-Bahari — has turned his back on Al Qaeda’s vision of a renewed radical global Islam and a defeated West. But his personal regrets and feelings of responsibility for the fate of friend Hamdan, and his shaky biz as a taxi driver in Yemen’s capital city, Sana’a, have cast a dark pall over his life.
“The Oath” alternates between Jandal in Yemen (repeatedly seen behind the wheel of his taxi) and Hamdan behind bars in Guantanamo, awaiting and then undergoing trial in military court. Since Poitras and d.p. Kirsten Johnson were denied access to Hamdan before and during trial, the film captures his voice through his pained prison letters, narrated by Moustafa Ali and accompanied by stark, oddly beautiful exterior shots of Guantanamo prison. Defended by U.S. military attorney Brian Mizer, whose commitment to serving his client is unswerving, Hamdan claims that he was strictly bin Laden’s driver.
Jandal is first seen in a somewhat deceptive light, as it appears that he’s talking up the ideological justice of Al Qaeda jihadism with young Yemeni men, as if he’s scoring new recruits. Poitras only later reveals that Jandal, arrested in Yemen in the wake of the U.S.S. Cole bombing, earned prison release by participating in the Dialogue Committees, the Yemen government’s program for rehabilitating jihadist radicals. Jandal’s striking charisma and intelligence are clearly what attracted bin Laden in the first place, and Jandal uses it here to inform young men that there’s another kind of life out there, rather than one devoted to terror in the name of God.
He’s his own worst critic, beating himself up over having recruited Hamdan, unable to look Hamdan’s family members in their eyes, and unsure what kind of future he will provide for his young son, Jamal, and his wife (seldom on camera, and even then heavily cloaked). The one reaction Poitras doesn’t manage to extract from Jandal is how he feels when Hamdan writes him to stop doing press interviews and “mind his own business,” though the old kinship is clearly gone. Pic ends on an appropriate note of uncertainty and disequilibrium.
The grime of Sana’a and the artificial order of Guantanamo, as well as the shifting moods on Jandal’s face, are effectively captured by Johnson and Poitras’ lensing. Jonathan Oppenheim’s editing is smooth, using explanatory graphic intertitles for dramatic impact, while Osvaldo Golijov constructs a grim, moody score.