The conflict that began for us on 9/11 – once called the “War on Terror,” redubbed “Overseas Contingency Operation” by Obama administration officials – has had more movies made about it during its run than any other war. Hardly surprising, given the current technology and the variety of delivery streams.
But there’s something else to it. If you’ve partaken in the outpouring of documentaries as well as fictional features about the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, you may have felt a sense of ambivalence growing with the years. What’s really going on? Initially, it was easy to draw sand-lines, with Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al. on one side and sensible, responsible humans on the other. But al Qaeda represented a third side we never knew quite how to measure, and general ethical high ground has been impossible to find in the crossfire, particularly once Obama took office, the conditions in Iraq began to improve (or have they?), the fighting in Afghanistan got hairier, and al Qaeda’s secret plots have surely multiplied, keeping the battle lines good and muddy.
It’s this gray zone that Laura Poitras consciously occupies in her new film The Oath (2010), newly out on DVD. In 2006, Poitras made the one indispensable feature on the Iraq occupation, My Country, My Country, which covered the war-torn waterfront but focused on a Sunni activist-doctor and aspiring politician named Riyadh, a clear-thinking, educated Everyman on a quiet crusade in and around the Sunni Triangle to repair whatever damage he can in the run-up to the 2005 elections, and to get as many Sunnis to vote as possible – even if it’s not for him.
It’s a project that even takes him and Poitras to the fences around Abu Ghraib: “We’re an occupied country with a puppet government,” Riyadh says to the pleading prisoners. “What do you expect?” But Poitras, traveling alone, also rides with the Kurdish militia, records U.S. military briefings, attends outraged public hearings, listens in on security contractors trying to make sense out of chaos, sits in Sunni living rooms as shells fall in the street. As documentarians flubbed the war over and over – indulging rationalizations, pitying homesick U.S. soldiers in their Bradleys and caring little about dead Iraqis, etc. – Poitras was scrupulous and brave and morally true.
The Oath is just as grown-up and unpatronizing – Poitras is hands-off, and the ambiguity of her story is its very point. Her discovery here is Abu Jandal, a sleekly handsome Yemeni taxi driver who happened to be Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard, and a fervent jihadist, for much of the ’90s. As we meet him, he is something of a minor celebrity, hosting a salon for jihadists once a week in his living room, granting TV interviews and engaging Poitras’s camera with daring enthusiasm. It appears that perhaps he’s using Poitras as she’s using him, and considers himself to be the attractive, reasonable media face of jihad, here to tell the world why it’s a righteous fight and why 9/11 was an act blessed by Allah.
But as disturbing as that would be, it’s not that simple, and Poitras lets the facts accrue gradually. Jandal’s conscience is burdened, especially by his brother-in-law Salim Hamdan, whom he recruited and who spent seven years in Guantánamo, eventually and famously becoming the first prisoner to face the military tribunals and the focus of the landmark Supreme Court decision brushing back George W. Bush’s creeping power grab. Hamdan’s narrated letters are littered throughout the film, and the arc of his case gives the movie its spine.
Yet again, Jandal’s situation is more complicated by background, his rehabilitation by the Yemeni government years earlier, the conflict of his advocacy of jihad and his guilty abandonment of the cause, his voluminous divulgence of al Qaeda secrets to the FBI in 2001, and his present-day lust for the limelight. He cooperates with Poitras’s camera (even lying to his taxi passengers about the dashboard set-up in his cab) and yet speaks of the need to meet America on the battlefield. Jandal cannot sleep or find peace in the world as it is now, where principle, responsibility and action never coincide or even touch one committed to being both a devout jihadist and commited family man.
Big-issue films, particularly documentaries, always implicitly hold the promise of a singled, resolved point of view – we watch them because we hope they’ll make complex things simpler and easier to grasp. In a way, it’s an infantile position to take, and rhymes uncomfortably with how and why most Americans choose their political leaders.
Poitras aims higher, and The Oath has the texture of a great contemporary novel, where the narrative unearths questions, not answers, and the confusions of modern life is a necessary given. It’s an essentially apolitical film, as it would have to be in such a muddy intercultural chaos; Poitras never engages Jandal’s opinions, just his character. (He celebrates 9/11 as necessary, but the FBI files Poitras quotes portray him as “breaking down” when he was told he had hosted the hijackers in Afghanistan. And then he spilled his guts about bin Laden’s safe houses and weapon caches.)
Still, by hewing exclusively to a jihadist’s perspective, the film breeds questions in your head about the supposed differences between terrorism and “justifiable war,” how little it matters to dead civilians, and how equally ignorant both westerners and jihadists are about the “righteousness” of their war-making. The conversation is one you have with yourself, however – Poitras just tips the first domino, and waits for this one man to decide what’s right.