Sundance Review: The Oath

There are two things that immediately struck me about The Oath. The first being the incredible access to the main character and the second being that it was made by a woman. I don’t like it when a filmmaker’s gender is unnecessarily remarked upon (let’s face it this only happens when it is a woman) but I can’t help comment on this, as it is a factor in how huge an achievement this film is. Considering how dangerous it is to film in Yemen, with little to no press freedom, and the candid and comfortable nature of the interviews with the main character, is it an exceptional feat that Laura Poitras has pulled off. Factor in the religious beliefs of the people within the film and the culture of the country, let alone the subject matter and I bow down to her skills as a filmmaker.

The Oath is the story of two brothers-in-law, both of whom were incredibly close to the core of Al-Qaeda and notably, Osama bin Laden, and their subsequent highly varying experiences.

Abu Jandal was invited to Afghanistan by Bin Laden after his move from Sudan and would later become his bodyguard. Abu’s brother-in-law Salim Hamdan joined him and was given the job of Bin Laden’s personal driver. Despite their similar beginnings the two men ended up in very different situations. Abu left before 9/11 and has gone on to build a life for himself in the Yemen capital Sana’a as a taxi driver. Salim’s fate would be dramatically worse, having been arrested shortly after 9/11 and sent to Guantanamo Bay, he faced war crimes charges and would be the first man to face the controversial military tribunals.

Filmed in Yemen and Guantanamo the story retraces the journeys of the two relatives, Salim’s experience of 7 years of imprisonment is told through the narration of his letters home and Abu’s through startlingly open, long interviews which chronicle the series of events that led to their situations. Salim’s current situation is never ending court battles and through press conferences we see journalists battle the military as to how a driver could possibly be charged so severely.

In 2006 the US Supreme Court ruled in favour in the landmark case of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. It was a Supreme Court Victory but it didn’t lead to his release, but instead Congress changing the law to create new charges to file against him.

This is a rare and eye-opening insight into the inner workings and day-to-day reality of Al Qaeda. Abu is so open and frank about his experience that I spent the first 30 minutes convinced he was a charlatan and that would be part of the story. You are then confronted by video from a Bin Laden speech at a training camp, mind blowing to see in itself, and Abu is featured in the video confirming his position completely.

Abu’s level of story-telling bravado is, at times, suspiciously flamboyant and as we learn more about him and he reveals the extreme levels of guilt towards the position his brother-in-law he is feeling and you get a sense that this could be a kind of coping strategy, but you are never sure. Abu is a complex character and your feelings towards him are in a constant state of flux trying to determine whether he is genuinely done with the life of a jihadist or whether he just knows what’s good for him.

Seeing this kind of character from such a human, multi-dimensional standpoint is fascinating and destroys many pre-conceived notions about the sensibilities of people involved in jihad. Salim’s physical absence from the film creates a mirrored feeling of injustice to Abu’s freedom, you can’t help but feel the huge disparity in the incarceration of Salim for his role considering Abu’s far greater involvement.

Laura Poitras manages to craft a subtle and intricate plot with so many layers and twists that you never know what to expect and any assumptions you make are usually proved wrong. This is incredible when you realise that this is a film largely based on interviews with one man. The soft pacing creates intrigue and you constantly mentally question what you are seeing and the validity of the people and the situation from all angles.  This is a film adds a level of humanity to ‘the other side’ that will challenge you, it has a huge complexity that shows an aspect of the post 9/11 world rarely seen, but greatly needed.

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