'The Oath': American Intelligence Gets it Wrong

With The Oath, director Laura Poitras highlights the contradictions and failures of America's "war on terror".

The Oath

Director: Laura Poitras
Cast: Salim Hamdan, Abu Jandal
Distributor: Zeitgeist Films
Studio: ITVS/P.O.V./Praxis Films
Release Date: 2010-09

The Oath tells the story of the sharply contrasting fates of two brothers-in-law, both of whom were involved with Al Qaeda. The film also offers a critique of American choices in the so-called war on terror, in particular the processes used to gather intelligence and bring alleged terrorists to trial in the days and years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

As the film begins in 2007, Abu Jandal is a cab driver in Sana’a, Yemen, and the father of an adorable young son. He’s an articulate and charismatic individual who is equally comfortable chatting with customers in his taxicab, discussing Islam with groups of earnest young men who gather in his home, or being interviewed on a program for the television channel Al Arabiyah. Abu Jandal was formerly chief bodyguard to Osama Bin Laden and knew the men involved in the 9/11 attacks but says he has left that life behind and now abjures violence.

Meanwhile Salim Hamdan, father of two daughters (one of whom he has never seen), has been a prisoner for seven years at the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The name may be familiar: the 2006 Hamdan v. Rumsfeld decision by the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the military commissions set up to try detainees at Guantanamo Bay violated both the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. That decision did not bring Hamdan freedom but it did motivate the U.S. Congress to pass the Military Commissions Act which created a new charge: providing material support for terrorism. Hamdan’s defense attorney claims this charge was invented specifically so the government could convict him of something and he may well be right: when Hamdan stood trial in 2007 it was the only charge of which he would be convicted.

Most of The Oath is involved in filling in the background of these two men, who met in Yemen in 1996, and moving forward with Hamdan’s trial. In 1996 Abu Jandal was a true believer in the goals of Al Qaeda and recruited Hamdan into the organization. Hamdan was an orphan with a fourth-grade education who later said he was glad to accept a job as driver for Osama Bin Laden simply because of the salary it paid. They became brothers-in-law after Osama Bin Laden ordered them to marry sisters.

Hamdan was never a very big player in Al Qaeda, but in 2001 he had the misfortune to be picked up by Afghan forces in Kandahar (he says they were looking for people “to sell to the Americans”), taken into American custody, and subjected to coercive interrogation before being brought to trial. Meanwhile Abu Jandal, who was much more of an Al Qaeda insider, was spared this fate due because he was imprisoned in Yemen on charges of being involved in the 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole. However, he was still was interrogated by the FBI for 15 days shortly after 9/11, producing so much useful information that his conventional interrogation was later cited as an example of why ordinary psychological techniques are more useful than torture in gathering intelligence.

The Oath is never less than fascinating, thanks to a strong vision by director Laura Poitras, excellent cinematography by Kirsten Johnson and Poitras (which won Best Documentary Cinematography at Sundance) and first-rate editing by Jonathan Oppenheim. However its deliberate fragmentation can be confusing as attention constantly shifts between locations and story lines and the film seems to give equal weight to mundane scenes (a family outing, father and son watching television) as to major events. Ultimately it’s a film of many individual moments which offers up a selection of contradictory and conflicting information (much of it from the lips of Abu Jandal) and requires the viewer to come up with their own version of the truth.

I’m grateful that The Oath does not over-simplify a complex situation (the mass media has that market cornered already) but despite regular title cards intended to keep the viewer on course, it’s still easy to get lost in the twists and turns and illogical turn of events. It doesn’t help that there is a major imbalance between the protagonists, with the garrulous, charming Abu Jandal dominating the film while Salim Hamdan, who declined to be interviewed, is seen only in a brief interrogation clip and heard mainly through an actor who reads his words. Cameras were not allowed in the courtroom during Hamdan’s trial and the press briefings were subject to censorship so even that potentially dramatic event loses some of its impact. The result is that although this film is the story of two men, one makes a strong impression while the other, whose story is more significant from a legal and historical point of view, inevitably seems less important.

The print and sound on the DVD of The Oath are sharp and clear. Extras include a four-page insert, trailers for this film and My Country, My Country, (which form the first two parts of Poitras’ planned trilogy about America following 9/11) and about 28-minutes of unused footage shot for the film including extended and often revealing interviews with Abu Jandal.


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