Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Mar 18, 2010 11:45 am 
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Jihadi brothers-in-law, once close to Bin Laden, with different fates

Salim Hamdan of the Supreme Court case Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld is in a sense the silent protagonist of Laura Poitras' The Oath. He is a notable figure, arguably an embarrassment, of the US "War on Terror" rarely seen or heard from in this documentary about jihadism, 9/11, and the Guantánamo Bay prison, but nonetheless important. Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld was the habeas corpus case. The decision against the government and for Hamdan gave Guantánamo defense lawyers, and citizens disturbed by post-90/11 rights violations, tremendous hope. It found that military tribunals of detainees violated both the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Convention. But three months later Congress under Bush administration pressure passed the Military Commissions Act, allowing the prisoners to be tried by that format. Hamdan was tried again. He was not found guilty of terrorism, only of material support, and was released back to his home country, Yemen, in five months (having already been held five years). Since then, he has refused to make any appearances or give any interviews. In Poitras' documentary there are readings from Hamdan's letters, a tape recording, and a grainy short film of his original arrest, no direct appearance or interview. Poitras does cover the story of Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld and the military commission, in particular showing press statements by Lieutenant Commander Charles Swift, Hamdan's remarkable young defense lawyer.

Hamdan was Osama bin Laden's driver in Afghanistan. He went there with fellow jihadi Nasser al-Bahri. Al-Bahri, who chose the nom de guerre of "Abu Jandal," became the al-Qaida leader's bodyguard and self-declared "hospitality emir," running his guest house where new arrivals were processed. Since Hamdan and Abu Jandal married two sisters at the instigation of al-Qaida, they are brothers-in-law (Abu Jandal's children call Hamdan "uncle").

The living voice of The Oath is Abu Jandal. When the 9/11 attacks occurred, Abu Jandal had been in prison in Yemen successfully undergoing a kind of re-education, and Ali Soufan of the FBI and Robert McFadden interrogated him, using peaceable methods and gaining his confidence. Abu Jandal was shocked to learn that the attacks were carried out by many of the men he had met at Bin Laden's hospitality house, and was prompted to give many details about al-Qaida as he knew it to the FBI. He was subsequently released and set up as a taxi driver in San'a, Yemen's capitol.

Poitras shows Abu Jandal at home with his young son, Habib; talking to young acolytes, whom he indoctrinates in a kind of peaceful jihadism; and driving his taxi, where a camera was mounted. He shows himself to be a kindly, intelligent man -- as apparently, so is Hamdan. The filming was done over a two-year period, and toward the end of it Abu Jandal reports Hamdan is (like other Guantánamo ex-prisoners as we know them) now a changed man, very inward and anti-social, trusting only men he was detained with. Abu Jandal himself has become buried in debt, has had to sell his taxi to raise money, and may lose his house. There's a moving scene in which he teaches Habib a passage from the Qur'an about keeping to the straight path no matter what, when there is a slight desperation in his voice. Before this he has occasionally described himself as sleepless, fearful for his family and himself because he is resented for what he did, and guilty about his friend Salim Hamdan's sufferings due to his Guantánamo incarceration, because he inspired both of them to go to Afghanistan and offer their services to al-Qaida and Bin Laden.

So this well-shot and well-edited documentary is primarily a portrait of Abu Jandal, a former jihadi who has turned away from advocating violence, a man who recognizes the value of striking at the heart of America's symbols of power as the 9/11 attacks did, but would not advocate or participate in any such actions.

This is the second of a planned trilogy by Laura Poitras. The "oath" of the title is the al-Qaida loyalty oath both men took. The film makes use of its own material, and also files such as the Guantánamo-related press appearances, an ABC interview with Abu Jandal, a "60 Minutes" piece based on lengthy interviews with him, and a searching Yemeni TV interview. Most of the film is in Arabic. Poitras refrains from taking a stand, but has said elsewhere that America needs to see "Islamic radicals as real people," and has pointedly called 9/11 and the US reaction "twin tragedies." This is conceived as the second part of a trilogy. The first was My Country, My Country, a look at the US occupation of Iraq from the perspective of an Iraqi doctor. The third is to focus on the 9/11 trials.

Poitras' aim with The Oath was to make a film about a released Guantánamo prisoner, but she shifted to Abu Jandal (adding in the parallel story of his famous brother-in-law) when she got to Yemen and met him. He is an interesting subject, but the inclusion of so much other material somewhat detracts from his portrait. This subject of a jihadi in limbo and in economic straits is also treated in Mahmoud al-Massad's 2007 [url=""]Recycle[/url] (shown at the San Francisco film festival of 2008). Both Salim Hamdan and Abu Jandal remain puzzling figures, committed to jihadism and al-Qaida, at one time anyway, yet curiously gentle, sweet men; so close to Bin Laden, yet so uninvolved in planning or execution of any terrorist acts.

Included in New Directors/New Films and shown at Lincoln center and MoMA in March 2010, The Oath, like Lixin Fan's Last Train Home, was recently bought for US distribution by Zeitgeist Films. Both were successes at Sundance. The Oath won the Best Documentary Cinematography award there.

Opened at IFC Center, NYC, May 7, 2010. NY Times review. On June 18, 2010 The Oath began playing at two Landmark theaters in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Lumiere in San Francisco and the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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