Laura Poitras’s film The Oath is the second in a trilogy of documentaries that explores post 9/11 America, “The New American Century.” The first, My Country, My Country, was nominated for an Oscar, an Emmy, and an Independent Spirit Award. The Oath, which premiered in Los Angeles on May 14 at Laemmle’s Sunset 5 and is also showing at the IFC Theater in Manhattan, is on its way to garnering similar accolades, having already received prizes at several film festivals.
The Oath follows the stories of two men who are brothers-in-law, having married sisters at the request of Osama bin Laden. One is “Abu Jandal” (his nom de guerre), a charming, chilling man, former bodyguard to bin Laden. Abu Jandal drives a taxi in Yemen and conducts workshops on Islam and jihad for a group of young Muslim men who seem puzzled by Abu Jandal’s convictions and contradictions (a confusion the audience readily shares). Brother-in-law Salim Hamdan, a former driver for bin Laden, is Guantanamo Bay’s most famous detainee, the plaintiff in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the military commissions that created Guantanamo were a violation of the Geneva Convention. However, the Supreme Court ruling did Hamdan no good, and at the time of the film he is spending his seventh year in solitary confinement. To say more would be to spoil. Suffice to say that as a student – and instructor — of the verité form, Poitras gets out of the way and lets the drama unfold.
Keenly observed and beautifully filmed (it won a cinematography award at Sundance), the film is too subtle to tell you what to think, and thus leaves you unable to stop thinking about it days after you have seen it.
Women and Hollywood caught up with Laura Poitras the day before the film premiered in Los Angeles.
Women & Hollywood: The name of this blog is Women and Hollywood, but you were a woman filmmaker in Yemen. That seems like a little more to be up against. What was that experience like?
Laura Poitras: I think that when people see the women all covered, they imagine that it’s an impossible place to work, but it’s actually not that impossible. Being a western woman, you’re allowed to enter into both the male and female worlds. I think it probably made it easier than going there as a western man. I wouldn’t have been allowed into homes as a western man. Particularly the last film I made, in Iraq, I lived with a family, and there is no way that would have happened if I’d been a man. You kind of get a pass into both worlds.
W&H: The next film in your trilogy is going to be based in the U.S.?
Laura Poitras: The next one is looking at repercussions of 9/11. The first one was about the occupation of Iraq, so I went there and spent eight months filming. With The Oath, it was two years in Yemen, back and forth. For the third one, I want to bring it home.
W&H: You describe yourself as a shy person, which I find interesting, considering the dangers you’ve faced just to make these films.
Laura Poitras: I work alone, so I go into the field alone, but somehow when I get a camera in my hand, I become a lot less shy.
W&H: How did you handle the portrayal of Abu Jandal?
Laura Poitras: He’s sort of a mystery, so I wanted the viewer to experience that mystery and not leave things neatly tied up. In a certain way, I’m inspired by fiction, both fiction films and novels. There’s an experience of a good novel that you can’t stop thinking about it, you can’t wait ‘til you can sit down and re-enter it, I think there’s kind of a complexity of human nature that we expect from a novel and I think we should also be expecting it from documentary.”
W&H: I’m duty bound to ask, did you submit this to Cannes?
Laura Poitras (laughing): We’d already accepted the invitation to Berlin, so that was kind of a deal-breaker. There’s a lot of respect for the film in film circles, that it does push some boundaries, that people appreciate.
The Oath will open nationally throughout June and July.
Watch the trailer: