When US director Laura Poitras landed in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, she didn’t quite know what lay ahead. The director of the Oscar-nominated Iraq documentary My Country, My Country (2006) ended up spending two years with jihad-dropout Abu Jandal: Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguard and the brother-in-law of Salim Hamdam, an Al-Qaida driver who’s awaiting military trial in Guantánamo Bay.
The Oath intertwines the two men’s life dramas, exposing a web of complex human psychologies that will, Poitras hopes, help us understand the forces at work behind the terrorist organisation. The film ran in the Forum section of this year’s Berlinale.
The Oath is the second installment in a planned trilogy. What triggered this particular film?
When I finished my film about Iraq, Guantánamo was still open. I was looking for a family where the person would be released soon, because my story was going to be: “How do you come back from that place, psychologically?” So I went to Yemen to meet the families with a lawyer, and on the second day I met Abu Jandal…
So you didn’t know of the existence of your protagonist until you actually got to Sana’a?
I thought I would meet with the wife and kids of Guantánamo detainee Salim Hamdam, but there was his brother-in-law Abu Jandal, who was responsible for recruiting him. This guy was probably closer at that point to Bin Laden than anyone we had at Guantánamo, and he was a driving a taxicab! And he was willing to talk! Within a minute of meeting him, I thought, “This is kind of mind-blowing.”
Did you decide to do a film about him right away?
A part of me didn’t want to tell that story because it’s so politically incorrect. How do you make a story about someone who’s a terrorist? You’re going to piss off the human rights people; you’re going to piss off the Right. It was a bit intimidating.
So what prompted you to…?
They’re human beings. I mean, we need to know what we’re up against, right? We’re not up against stereotypes – we’re up against actual people. People who have kids, who have conflicts, who disagree about things. It’s important that we understand that. The west actually wants to make the world safer and not sustain the hatred towards the U.S. So I feel like by showing him as a person, as a human, we can have a better understanding of what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong.
What was Jandal’s motivation to be in the film?
It’s very complicated. I think there are a number of reasons. I think he wants to engage in a dialogue, in his position now – since he’s not on the battlefield. He wants to get his opinion out: to say, “This is who I am. This is what I believe in.” I think he was actually feeling guilty about Hamdam. And I brought him My Country, My Country. That allowed him to understand the way I work.
Did you pay him?
Now that Jandal’s dropped out of the Al-Qaida family, he’s kind of a pariah…
Yes, here you have someone who feels he has lost something of his place in the world… and at the same time, there are many things threatening him: the Yemeni government, the U.S. government, the younger generation – some people think he talks too much, that he’s a traitor. He’s trying to navigate all these different forces in order to survive. So there’s always a question of whom he’s speaking to and what the bottom truth is.
Why did he quit Al-Qaida?
I asked that question many times and I always got a different answer. I think he had a disagreement with the organisation. Still, he wasn’t able to answer that question in a way that I felt was satisfying.
Do you think his two years in a Yemeni prison reformed him?
His release was pragmatic: he wanted to get out of jail and the Yemeni government wanted him out too. I think he did change in jail – he spent much of the time in solitary confinement. He didn’t want to go back and fight. It’s also because he has a wife and kids and responsibilities. This is a movement that feeds off of young people. Young people get involved and they get very radicalised, but at some point they cycle out. Some people want to get along with their lives, to get married. Some people stay in and become radical terrorists or whatever you want to call them.
Why did you open the film with Jandal playing a propaganda game with his son? [“So, do you want to be a mechanic or a jihadi?”]
That scene was important because the relationship to his son was very complicated. You think, ah, he’s teaching him these horrible things, and on the other hand he’s very loving, it’s very touching. With his character, we want to take the viewer on a journey. First we perceive him as being evil. And then it becomes more complicated. You think maybe he’s just trying to save face – this is a fallen person. When I was working with translators, they said, “He’s too smart to be a jihadi: he’s such a good dad.”
He also comes across as a very charismatic man… you show him coaching those young men as if they’re his ‘fan club’.
One of my collaborators in Yemen says guys like him are heroes for the younger generation. He is a very charismatic person. When you look at the dynamic he has with those young guys, you can see the way he worked in Afghanistan. You can imagine how Al-Qaida worked – how they recruited people. He’s a real people-person!
He actually tells them to get an education, but he also engages in a somehow convincing rant that justifies 9/11 from the jihadi perspective – and then the next moment, he says he doesn’t believe in violence against civilians.
There are some contradictory statements, but I think some of them are mostly about saving face. The key is the part at the end of the film when he’s being interrogated by the FBI, where we get quotes from his immediate response to 9/11. I think he was shocked by the attack.
He actually says he doesn’t agree with the 9/11 attacks on camera, but immediately afterwards asks you to delete the scene – yet you made a point of showing you didn’t. Why?
Here is someone who was very close to Bin Laden: how could you not ask a question about 9/11? His response provided insight into how the organisation works, the internal divisions – there are people who didn’t agree with that kind of strategy – and also the division between the younger and older generations.So, he says he doesn’t agree…
But maybe Jandal doesn’t want someone to think he doesn’t agree. you betrayed his trust…
Some people thought I shouldn’t have included it. But I think if a person in power says something on the record, as a journalist, it’s your job to not let that person control the situation. If Bin Laden said, “Take it out”, of course you wouldn’t. This is a person who was in the inner circle. He’s very clear when he says, “I’m answering now as myself, not as the organisation.” And I felt also that allowed me to do it, because when he says, “I wouldn’t have participated”, he speaks only on his own behalf.
How close did you get to him? Did you get to know him better, or did you simply go even deeper into ambiguity?
You often get quite close to people in a story. This was much more at a distance. At the same time, the access was extraordinary. He was driving his taxi and he let down his guard in a certain kind of way that, as a filmmaker, I find amazing – even though you don’t ever feel like you’re talking to someone completely trustworthy. It was a struggle for me. It took a lot of time, a lot of patience. There was a lot more I wanted, but didn’t get.
Salim’s story shows the judicial system that surrounds Guantánamo, which is pretty amazing if you’re not familiar with it. you see Salim, an ex-Al-Qaida driver, get a pretty lenient sentence.
The military jury was very sensitive to the concept of chain of command, the idea that he was following orders. A civilian jury would have given him a much harsher sentence. Even though I’m against the idea of the military tribunals, I believe that, ironically, he benefited from them.
The U.S. kills, jails and sometimes tortures people, but at the same time they give full defense rights to Guantánamo inmates. Salim’s military defense lawyer is extraordinary!
I know – when you think of military trials you think of firing squads, and then you see the military lawyer and think, “My god, we should all be so lucky to have a lawyer like that!” And the jury ends up being much more lenient than a civilian jury would have been. I didn’t think Hamdam was going to be released. I thought it was a bit shocking. But I don’t think he’s dangerous – I think he wants to have a normal life with wife and kids.
I’ve read that you had trouble with the U.S. government… but you were also invited by the U.S. military to show your film to recruits.
I think it’s a case of one hand of the U.S. government not knowing what the other hand is doing. They put journalists on watch lists, but they also reach out to us because we have information that they know is useful to them. I’m still on a watch list. I am sure this conversation is being listened to.
This conversation is being taped?!
You’re calling from overseas, I’m sure… I have a bunch of Yemeni visas in my passport, so let’s see what happens when I land in Berlin! Every time I land in the U.S., border agents with guns take me aside. I try to be humorous about it. They’re not threatening ever… Of course, if I didn’t have white skin or had a passport from a Muslim country, I couldn’t do the work I’m doing. Too many people have been fucked up and caught on the wrong side of America’s efforts to grapple with this problem. The risks are great for me, but far less than for most people.
When your film premiered at the Sundance festival, it was – ironically – the anniversary of the day Obama promised to close Guantánamo [January 22].
I thought my second film was going to be released at a calmer time when people would be a bit more rational, but after the failed bombing at Christmas, the U.S. media has gone back into this crazy, panicked, post-9/11 mentality. On the one hand, it creates interest for the film; on the other, it’s like a feeding-frenzy. I’m expecting a lot of hate mail!