An interview with the director of 'The Oath,' about Osama bin Laden's driver and bodyguard
Laura Poitras' documentary "The Oath," which opens for a Northwest Film Forum run June 18, paints close-up portraits of Osama bin Laden's driver Salim Hamdan and bodyguard Nasser al-Bahri (aka Abu Jandal).
Special to The Seattle Times
'The Oath'Opens Friday at Northwest Film Forum. For showtimes and a review, see Friday's MovieTimes or go Thursday to seattletimes.com/movies.
One of the first images in Laura Poitras' "The Oath" is of Osama bin Laden's driver, Salim Hamdan, being interrogated in Afghanistan, shortly before he was sent to Guantánamo Bay in late 2001.
She won't tell how she found the footage, which looks blurry and suggests low-grade videotape.
"There are some things in the film that I can't reveal the sources for," she said when she brought the film to the Seattle International Film Festival last month. (It opens June 18 for a regular run at Northwest Film Forum.)
Nor did she want to dwell on the kind of "enhanced interrogation techniques" suggested in that scene.
"As a filmmaker," she wondered, "how do you get past that kind of alienated, alienating, kind of humiliation footage and connect it to a person? It was important to us in the editing that he's not just a guy with a bag over his head. He's a father and a husband."
"The Oath" is the second film in a trilogy that began with Poitras' "My Country, My Country," which dealt with Iraqi elections and earned an Oscar nomination for best documentary of 2006.
Before she made it, she thought elections were absurd: "How do you hold elections under an occupation? That's a very American preconception. But then I ended up spending time with a guy who put his life on the line to do this. And then he sent his kids to put their lives on the line."
"The Oath" focuses on Hamdan and bin Laden's bodyguard, Nasser al-Bahri (aka Abu Jandal). She's still doing research for the third film: "The thing I do want to do is bring the third part to the States, to bring it home."
Her emphasis in "The Oath" on Abu Jandal was "somewhat accidental in the sense that I went to Yemen, and I was definitely interested in making a film about Guantánamo, but then I met Abu Jandal, and it became a film about al-Qaida and 9/11.
"That isn't what I set out to do, but Abu Jandal was so fascinating. That doesn't happen every day." She was especially drawn to his dramatic, sometimes contradictory statements about jihadism, including his slippery view of 9/11. At times he seemed to justify the massacre; at others he condemned it.
Although she didn't find him entirely trustworthy, and she felt intimidated by his jihadist lectures to young men, she didn't think he would do her harm.
Poitras was forced to tell Hamdan's story more obliquely because she was prohibited from filming inside Guantánamo. She used his letters and atmospheric shots of Guantánamo to suggest what he was experiencing.
"I come from sort of an art-school background," said Poitras, who thinks that viewpoint helped. "You had certain challenges. How do you give it an emotional weight in his absence?"
It also took some effort to get Abu Jandal to open up, "to really get a deeper kind of access," she said. "I would get a little, then I'd go for a month before coming back. It was pretty slow. I rented a house in Yemen for two years and went back and forth."
Abu Jandal ended up revealing things that aren't always easy to watch. The scenes in which he teaches his 5-year-old son to blame America for his country's problems are especially chilling.
"I was very interested in that relationship, in both its extremes," said Poitras. "This is indoctrination, but then there was the tenderness ...
"It's sort of the beauty of humans: that they surprise you, that they confound you, that they undo your preconceptions. That's why I love doing this kind of work. You're not recapping past events but you're in the moment as people are making choices. To me that's sort of the heart of drama."
John Hartl: firstname.lastname@example.org
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