POV: Tell us about The Oath in your own words.
Laura Poitras: There are two stories in the film. The primary story is about Abu Jandal, who was Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard. Abu Jandal is free — he drives a taxi in Yemen — and his story slowly reveals how he became involved with bin Laden. Abu Jandal’s story is linked to the story of Salim Hamdan. The two men are married to women who are sisters, and Abu Jandal also recruited Hamdan to go to Afghanistan. Hamdan was arrested right after 9/11 and sent to Guantánamo. He became the best known Guantánamo prisoner and the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. Hamdan was the first person to stand trial in a military commission.
My work is always grounded in stories about people and attempts to look at bigger issues through these personal stories. This film is an opportunity to look at Al Qaeda, Guantánamo, interrogations and post-9/11 events through a story about a family.
POV: What drew you to this subject? What’s a nice girl from Massachusetts doing in the midst of Al Qaeda operatives?
Poitras: That’s what my mother wants to know! After 9/11, I had, like a lot of people, a sense of despair. I thought, what direction is this country taking? So in the fall of 2003, I decided to make a film in Iraq. I wanted to find out where we were going and what we were doing as a nation. I wanted to document what was happening, because I think we’re going to be grappling with what’s transpired since 9/11 for generations. So it was simultaneously an opportunity as a documentarian to go to Iraq and make a record of what was happening and also to say something about what was happening as an American and as an artist.
So the journey started in Iraq, and then I became very tempted to make a film about Guantánamo. While I was making the Iraq film, My Country, My Country, I didn’t imagine Guantánamo would still be open by the time I finished. It’s been eight years since Guantánamo was opened, and there’s no end in sight. So I definitely knew that I wanted to focus on Guantánamo. I was originally looking for a story of someone being released from Guantánamo and returning home to Yemen. So I went to Yemen, and on my second visit there I met Abu Jandal, who was bin Laden’s bodyguard. I wasn’t looking to make a film about Al Qaeda. I was looking to make a film about Guantánamo. But Abu Jandal’s story was so compelling that it was hard not to tell that story.
POV: How did you first meet Abu Jandal?
Poitras: I was in Yemen with a lawyer who was meeting Guantánamo families. The person we were working with was making introductions and said, “Do you want to meet Hamdan’s family?” Of course, I knew about Hamdan’s case, so I said, “Yes.” Abu Jandal is Hamdan’s brother-in-law, and I met him, and he clearly had a very compelling story.
I had to be very patient to get access to the story. Abu Jandal is clearly somebody who is very media savvy and who doesn’t mind the attention. So we needed to get below his message and find something truthful about him as a human being, and in the end he actually has many contradictions within himself, which is what’s so interesting about him. I spent two years going back and forth to Yemen to capture that story.
POV: Abu Jandal is an incredibly complex and slippery character. He is very intelligent and persuasive and a loving father. But there are times when he seems untrustworthy, when he could be trying to manipulate viewers. How do you handle that as a filmmaker?
Poitras: He’s definitely a slippery character, and he’s also very well trained and very media savvy. So our goal was to reveal that to the audience. There are times where we reveal that he’s clearly a good liar and not to be trusted. But then we also needed to get to certain levels of truth. That was our goal: tell a story and reveal him in all his complexity.
I don’t know that you ever really go to the bottom of this guy. I think he’s somebody who has something to hide. He has a tainted past and he is trying to set the record straight. There’s definitely a question of what his motives are for participating in the film. I think he’s motivated by a certain level of guilt. I think he’s motivated by a certain level of ego. He saw the film I made in Iraq and I think that he respected the work and the depiction of the Muslim population in that film.
POV: So, how did Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard become a taxi driver in Yemen?
Poitras: That’s one of the essential questions of the film. So many people were sent to Guantánamo , and many of them had no association with Al Qaeda. But here’s Abu Jandal, and he’s free and driving a taxi. Not only that, but his house is actually in the shadows of the U.S. embassy. So when I would go to his house, I would have to first go to the U.S. embassy, go through some roadblocks and then get to his house.
He was really fortunate in the sense that if he’d been captured in Afghanistan, my guess is he would have been “disappeared” and taken to one of the C.I.A. black sites. But he happened to have been in prison in Yemen before the 9/11 attacks, and he was in prison up until 2002. So I think because he was in Yemeni custody, the United States didn’t go after him.
Still, he was clearly in the real inner circle in Al Qaeda, and the fact that he’s driving a taxi is perplexing and surreal. That’s part of the story that I’m telling in this film. I want the audience to be thinking, what are we actually doing in this “war on terror”? Why are people who seem less culpable being held at Guantánamo indefinitely, while people who are perhaps more culpable are free?
POV: Hamdan chose not to participate in the film. Can you tell us more about that?
Poitras: Hamdan was at Guantánamo, and we always imagined that he would be a ghost in the film, that he would haunt the film. Guantánamo is a place that we Americans know very little about. So, how do you conjure the place and the sense of isolation there? So we wanted Hamdan to be a ghost for the audience so that the audience would feel his absence in a way similar to the way his family feels his absence.
His storyline is narrated through both letters and court affidavits that describe his capture and imprisonment. We actually didn’t have the expectation that he would be released, so it was quite shocking that he was eventually sent home. He chose not to participate in the film and, of course, I would have liked to include his presence in the film. But at the same time he was always the person we wanted the audience to miss. So for him not to be there was okay.
POV: How has the process of making this film informed your opinions about the American response to 9/11?
Poitras: 9/11 changed the course of this country. What I’m trying to do in both The Oath and My Country, My Country is not just to have a theoretical debate about the American response, but actually to go abroad and see what’s happening to the people who are directly involved. In My Country, My Country, we go to Iraq. I think the Iraqi population is a victim of the American response to 9/11, and I wanted to see the repercussions and human consequences of that response.
In The Oath, we’re returning to the scene of the crime in a certain sense. Here is a guy whose job it was to protect bin Laden, and yet he betrayed him when he learned about 9/11. As a filmmaker, I was interested in Abu Jandal’s story because I think we need this kind of insight. We need to understand what the threat of Al Qaeda is, and we need to learn more about the threat that’s been created as a reaction to our response to 9/11.
I would argue that there’s a whole new generation of people who were children on 9/11 and who are very angry at the United States now. They’ve grown up with the occupation of Iraq; they’ve grown up with the Abu Ghraib photographs; they’ve grown up with the existence of Guantánamo. The American response to 9/11 has become almost a recruiting tool for this kind of terrorist network that is very decentralized right now. I think it’s very unfortunate, because one of the lessons of the film is that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Abu Jandal was read his Miranda rights and was interrogated, and he actually talked. Yet years later, we are disappearing people, torturing people and imprisoning them for years. In our response, we took something that was actually containable and made it so much larger and so much more dangerous than it was.
I hope the film gives us insights into roads not taken, and insights into anti-American hatred and what could potentially diffuse it. What we need to understand is how to diffuse that hatred. Al Qaeda attracts young people, and we need to figure out how to prevent it from attracting young people. Unfortunately, when you think about it, if there’s a 16-year-old who hates America now, he or she was radicalized not by 9/11, not by Osama bin Laden, but by the events that have transpired since then. He or she was radicalized by the American response to 9/11.
Guantánamo still exists. How is it possible that we have become a country that legalizes torture? And what’s shocking is that for politicians, it’s a political liability to argue for the closure of Guantánamo. It’s scary and shocking that we created this site, and what is also scary is the fact that it is not making us safer at all.