“Do you want to be a jihadist or a mechanic when you grow up?” This startlingly frank question dissects a fireside chat between Yemeni cab driver Abu Jandal, once Osama bin Laden’s key bodyguard, and his reserved young son as they quietly talk during the opening salvo of Laura Poitras’s engaging documentary The Oath. The child squirms in his seat, looks at the camera, and laughingly utters his disturbing answer, as if this was just another coming-of-age moment shared between father and son.
The interaction speaks to Poitras’s overall goal of capturing an intimate and disturbing perspective on Islamic fundamentalism, an alternate mental reality from a direct source closely tied to the infamous 9/11 mastermind. But The Oath is not just concerned with Abu Jandal’s contradictory insight into the evolution of Al Qaeda, foreign oppression, or Middle East politics, but also his deepening guilt regarding the capture of his brother-in-law, Salim Hamdan, a man known to be bin Laden’s longtime personal driver. Hamdan was arrested in Afghanistan in November 2001 and later detained by the American military at Guantanamo Bay on terrorism charges until his release in 2009. Jandal’s conflicting loyalty to ideology and family pushes this side story to the forefront of an already bursting arena of political and social subtexts, bringing international concerns about torture and wrongful imprisonment to a singular and personal level.
While much of The Oath follows Jandal and his life driving the streets of Sana’a, Yemen, meeting with potential jihadi’s and conducting television interviews about “the loyalty oath” within Al Maida, Hamdan remains a faceless subject, represented only by voiceover narration of his short letters from prison. Exterior shots of the prison at Guantanamo instill a deep sense of isolation and longing, and Hamdan’s pleading words are only interrupted by footage of press conferences and interviews conducted by his defense team, who further echo his pleas of innocence to an uncaring institution of force.
Poitras spends a goodly amount of time with Jandal, partially because of her lack of access to Hamdan, but mostly because her key subject is a fascinating mirror of angry diatribes, charming monologues, and regretful memories. Jandal discusses his elaborate involvement in extremist groups in Bosnia and most essentially his father/son dynamic with bin Laden that apparently filled a void left by an absent patriarch. He confirms that this type of relationship was a universal draw for many angry young men looking to regain a sense of self-worth in the face of Western dogma, finding bin Laden’s presence their savior.
But Jandal’s fundamental beliefs about terrorist activities are far more complex than most Western media outlets and politicians are comfortable to admit. This is a man from Al Qaeda’s inner circle who spends one entrancing interview admitting that he wouldn’t have participated in the 9/11 attacks out of ideological principle. Jandal believes he should fight the Americans on the battlefield, soldier to soldier, and Poitras hovers on his face as the full ramifications of his answer settles in. In a shocking reversal, the very next day Jandal demands that Poitras delete the entire aforementioned interview, sending a shockwave of fractured doubt into every interview that follows. Ultimately, Poitras weaves the stories of these two men together in a brilliantly seamless fashion, dovetailing the devastating absence of Hamdan with the lingering pain of Jandal’s self-made prison of guilt.
The Oath never gives any easy answers regarding the inherent and lasting tension between fundamentalist beliefs and family values, but it gives a human face to each side of the coin. This is a film reliant on the hard questions Western media outlets don’t always want to admit exist, and the revelatory answers that can resonate with a carefully observed sense of international relations and human rights. While a violent undercurrent consistently remains underneath the façade of Jandal’s often friendly and contradictory answers, Poitras never denies him a representation that takes his specific human experience into consideration. This makes The Oath an essential nonfiction bridge to better understanding the cost of living each day deeply entrenched in a personal war on terror, no matter which side you’re on.
The Oath is shot entirely on handheld digital video, and the transfer captures the crisp depth of Sana'a's bustling streets and layers of activity. Color schemes are adequately matched, and even the talking-head interviews are well lit and composed for maximum emotional affect. The sound design is consistently loud and clear, mixing local music with long dialogue sequences effortlessly. The complex overlap of ambient sound design never drowns out the character's stirring confessionals.
Zeitgeist has included about 30 minutes of additional footage, including B-roll taken in the streets of Sana'a, random conversations between Abu Jandal and his taxi customers, and extended portions of key interviews in the film. These clips are short, but provide added dimension to Jandal's beliefs on the killing of innocents, his imprisoned brother-in-law, Salim, and his time waging jihad in Bosnia and Tajikistan. A theatrical trailer for the film is also included.
The Oath looks deep into the eyes of the enemy, and while his surface may be that of a modern terrorist, the soul of Abu Jandal is something far more challenging and heart-wrenchingly human.