When Your Star is Osama's Old Bodyguard: Talking to The Oath Director Laura Poitras

Unlike typical, ham-handed documentaries about "controversial" figures, The Oath, which opens this week at the IFC Center, paints a portrait that's genuinely, persuasively, and intelligently ambiguous. The disarmingly charming and handsome subject is Abu Jandal: formerly "Osama bin Laden's bodyguard" and the host at an Al Qaeda guesthouse, and now a cab driver and, well, youth mentor in Yemen. Filmmaker Laura Poitras wove together her Yemen interviews of Abu Jandal with rare archival footage and letters from a better-known post-9/11 name, Salim Hamdan—as in, the Guantanamo prisoner of the Supreme Court case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, not to mention Jandal's brother-in-law.

Poitras, whose sensitive My Country, My Country (2006) is the rare post-invasion Iraq documentary to convey the feel of living there, calls The Oath an "antihero bad-guy movie." And Abu Jandal's challenging, evolving subtleties of character and ideology warrant repeat viewing. I spoke with Poitras in March, a couple of weeks after The Oath premiered in New York at New Directors/New Films.

This is a movie that fries your circuits when it comes to judging character, right from the early scene where Abu Jandal is teaching his adorable son to do morning prayers.

We kind of wanted to fry the audience's circuits. It's a bit of a mindfuck, but he is. Here's this guy who's a terrorist, who protected bin Laden, and who's actually a good dad. And they go together. We want them not to be able to go together, but they do. It's very deliberate that there's a push-pull in terms of how you're relating to him: he's a bastard, he's evil, he's a liar, he's charismatic, he's intelligent, he's a good dad.

If you read something like Don Delillo's [novel about Lee Harvey Oswald and the JFK assassination] Libra, we're totally fascinated to read about [Oswald's] relationship with his mother, and how did he get to be the guy to shoot Kennedy. There's a fascination with bad guys and people who commit bad acts and acts of violence. We're fascinated with those characters and have the capacity to juggle those contradictions and juggle the psychological underpinnings. But somehow with documentary—I'm not sure if it's the stakes are higher because we're dealing with the reality of people who committed acts of violence or are involved with groups who do. Or if it's a genre question: that audiences want things to fit into neat victims or victimizers. We have less capacity to deal with complexity than we seem to have for a novel or fiction movie.

I guess people always look for a moral center in a movie, or a simulated moral center.

I guess—why, for instance, is No Country for Old Men entertaining? Or a film like Taxi Driver

There's also the idea of needing to sympathize with your enemy.

Not sympathize, but know. Anyone in national security, intelligence, or military operations has no problem wanting to know the inner workings of the people they’re up against. It’s the public that want to keep that at bay, in fear, so you can engage in whatever acts in whatever occupied countries. But ultimately the people who are actually trying to figure out solutions are very interested in exactly these kinds of details—how does he raise his kid, what does he say, how does he talk to these young guys.

What was your sense of those info sessions Abu Jandal holds with young men interested in jihad? Sometimes he seems to contradict himself.

Part of the film is he’s contradicting himself, and he’s very savvy in terms of the media. He tries to manipulate his image and the information. These are followers of his and they go to him. My producer there described it as: “They’re on fire.” A little bit of a push and they would have gone to Iraq, to fight the American occupation. And they were getting that kind of push in the mosques. And Abu Jandal was saying no, stay here, it’s pointless, you’re being used as fodder, get an education, you need to understand religion. So as surprising as it probably is for Americans, you can understand him as a moderate force. He was also enjoying being a mentor to these guys. And his sessions were really interesting for me, because I think they were as curious about me as I was about them. They were like, what, there is an American woman here working alone, and she went to Iraq?

The guys were always there, and every time I would go to his house, there was a different set of guys there. They would go and hang out in his living room. We know very well there are things that are probably said when I’m not in the room. But I think the short answer is that he was telling them not to go to Iraq when there were a lot of forces telling them to go. When there were a lot of forces telling them to go, and there were a lot of young guys who were going and were perceived, sadly as martyrs.

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