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.
Feature: Bin Laden's Own in the Powerful Documentary The Oath
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 theyre up against. Its 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 detailshow 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 hes contradicting himself, and hes 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: Theyre 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, its pointless, youre 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 Im 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.
But I think he goes both ways in terms of his positionshe also talks about how a peasant can kill a king.
No, I know, its true. Hes under surveillance, so he knows everythings being said. I dont think he thinks he has a lot of privacy. I dont think if they make the choice to go, hes going to get in their way. But I dont think hes actively recruiting. And I think he wants them to be grounded in religion, get an education. But hes definitely not a repentant.
At one point, you show Abu Jandal asking you to delete something he just said. It made me think of how a reporter and a documentary filmmaker deal with situations like that.
In a certain sense, being a documentary filmmaker is different from being a journalist of hard news. If youre doing hard news, you wouldnt include information where you think someone is lying. We wanted to include lies in the film, because we think people are contradictory and they lie sometimes, and then expose how that works. It is a different kind of storytelling mode than investigative journalism, but at the same time there were some journalistic need-to-knows, some pretty big ones, and so it was how to balance those things, how to take you into a psychological portrait, and also make sure that we reveal certain information or ask certain questions.
I asked showed Peter Davis [director of seminal Vietnam war doc, Hearts and Minds] the rough cut, and asked him about it. It was the most debated scene in the film. People said it was unethical [to include it], or that it was necessary because it showed the tension between the filmmaker and the subject It crystallizes something in the film at that moment: you realize hes trying to control the situation, and the filmmaker is sort of betraying him.
How did you find Abu Jandal in the first place?
The contacts came through a lawyer, David Reams, who was representing a dozen Yemeni clients. Hes been active in pro bono Guantanamo work. David introduced me to Nasser Arrabyee, who is the coproducer on the film, the local journalist doing the arranging and coordinating, and he was the one who brought us into Abu Jandals living room. Totally by surprise. I was looking to meet a bunch of Guantanamo families, I was looking to work in Yemen, but I wasnt on the lookout for finding people who were Al Qaeda members.
How did you get the letters that Hamdan wrote to Abu Jandal?
It took a long time and patience, working with Abu Jandal. A lot of the letters were court affidavits, things that we dug up that were on record. In a sense, Hamdans whole character is fabricated from things that are based on his history, but we also set him up as a ghost. In his absence [only Abu Jandal agreed to appear on film], how do you create somebody and create also a sense of longing for somebody whos missing?
That was one original idea: I thought about telling the story about another detainee, and making him absent, and telling the story through the people who knew him. Guantanamo is still open, there are still families that are waiting for their fathers, sons, to come home. We dont really have an emotional connection here in any real way. The challenge was not to just show guys in orange jumpsuits or brutal photographsthings that we know which are very distancing. So that was what we tried to do with Hamdan, through his letters and through this sort of first-person narrative. [pouring coffee into mug] This is a Guantanamo souvenir, actually, from the gift shop.
Given the different political climate, do you think you could have made this movie a few years ago?
Actually, I think I couldnt make this film today. I think there was a window in which it could be made, and I think that window is actually closing because of the Christmas bombing. I would have been shut down. I dont think the Yemen government would let me do the work I was doing. I was being pretty closely watched by the U.S. government. I dont think I would have gotten the access. In this climate, the Yemen government would probably not be wanting a U.S. documentary filmmaker hanging around with bin Ladens former bodyguard. Not the best thing in terms of their wanting to be perceived as fighting terrorism.
Its fascinating that Yemen set up a rehabilitation program for terrorists [which Abu Jandal had to attend].
Its a really interesting place. They had The Dialogue rehabilitation program before the Saudis. The Saudi program is very pragmatic: were going to give them money, were going to buy them houses, and were going to get them married. I think the Yemen program is a little bit more religiously based, but it was also pragmatic. Its a way for a government that knows it has a problem with radicalized militant Al Qaeda sympathizers and wants to stay in power. So they strike a deal. And I think that one of the things thats important to understand about Al Qaeda is that it attracts young people, but people often leave. The Dialogue committee gave some people who were ready to leave a face-saving way to leave. I do think Abu Jandal was transformed not just by The Dialogue committee but by his over two years in prison. He was in solitary for a long time.
Youve talked about The Oath as an antihero movie, and you really vary the visual and narrative textures in ways that evoke fiction storytelling.
In a way, its an experimental movie. We have one protagonist [Hamdan] whos a ghost, who we know just through this voiceover and very limited video. And then [Abu Jandal's] taxi, which was a great visual, psychological metaphor, and also humorous and surreal in so many ways. Weve always sort of joked, oh you could get into a taxi cab, bin Laden would turn up as a taxicab driver somewhere.
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