THE OATH: an intricate and provocative portrait of a would-be jihadist

Abu Jandal, a Yemeni cab driver and former Al-Qaeda member in THE OATH

I’ll be surprised if I see a fiction film at Sundance this year that comes close to the novelistic scope and richness of Laura Poitras’s exemplary documentary THE OATH — or has a character even half as complicated as THE OATH’s main subject, Abu Jandal, a Yemeni cab driver and former Al-Qaeda member.

Poitras’s film, the second in an ongoing trilogy about post-9/11 America (the first was the excellent Iraq doc MY COUNTRY, MY COUNTRY), works on both micro and macro levels. It’s an unnervingly intimate portrait of a would-be jihadist and a sober, intelligent condemnation of America’s wrong-headed war on terror. As a radicalized youth in the mid ’90s, Jandal recruited a young man named Salim Hamdan (who later became his brother-in-law) to join him on a jihadist mission. They ended up with bin Laden in Afghanistan, Jandal working as his bodyguard, Hamdan as his driver. While Jandal left before the 9/11 attacks, Hamdan stayed, and was captured by the U.S. forces in late 2001 and imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. His case instigated a landmark Supreme Court ruling in his favor (Hamdan v. Rumsfeld) but did not secure his release.

Shooting over a two-year period in the Yemeni capital Sana’a, Poitras secured a remarkable degree of access to Jandal, who allows the filmmaker to shadow him in everyday contexts and even endures a few of her pointed questions (presumably it doesn’t hurt that he’s something of a publicity hound). We see Jandal giving interviews to Western media, holding court with aspiring young radicals over bottles of Coke (the context for these meetings only becomes clear later), praying with his son (his wife remains largely offscreen), chatting with passengers in his taxi (in scenes that bring to mind Kiarostami’s TEN); at one point he shows Poitras the video of Hamdan’s post-capture interrogation. Hamdan is the unseen phantom who haunts both the film and his friend; his letters to Jandal are heard over eerie, moody shots of Guantanamo exteriors.

Even more topical now after the revelation that the foiled Christmas Day bomber received his training in Yemen, Poitras’ film goes so far beyond the media’s customary thumbnail sketches of terrorists as to be almost disorienting. (It would make for a great, if perverse, double bill with Chris Morris’ ballsy suicide-bomber farce FOUR LIONS, also showing here). The film’s construction is intricate and provocative: Poitras withholds details about Jandal’s re-education and his post 9/11 interrogation, and keeps our sympathies in constant flux. The boldest and most startling thing about THE OATH is that it presents a jihadist as a complex human being, even a charismatic figure. The implicit question is why we should find that at all surprising.