Disclosure: Tim League co-owns NEON and Birth.Movies.Death.
Risk is out now. Get your tickets here!
Take yourself back to a day in 2003 and picture the world around you. What do you remember? Political unrest? Distrust in those who govern? Uneasiness for what was to come? Do you remember being afraid?
Now, imagine having those same thoughts as a reformed jihadist on the other side of the world. Abu Jandal, the focal point in Laura Poitras’ The Oath, has those same questions. It’s those concerns that keep him up at night.
Poitras’ original intention after 9/11 was to shoot a film based in Guantanamo Bay. In 2003, she traveled to Iraq to gain insight into the notorious prison and those affected by it. She spent time with a lawyer who worked directly with families whose relatives were in Guantanamo. Her story quickly shifted however when she met Abu Jandal, the brother in law to Salim Hamdan, a terrorist imprisoned for working for Osama Bin Laden and who was a possible cohort of the 9/11 terrorist attack.
Yet Hamdan did not want to be in the film. Poitras simply incorporated his letters into the storyline by voiceover. Hamdan acts as a ghost, haunting the shots of Guantanamo with the voiceover of his letters to his family. “I itch from lack of sunshine,” he writes, as the audience watches the sun rise above the prison. The man is in complete isolation with no real social interaction which appears to be cruel punishment for Hamdan, who is regaled as a sociable person.
His presence haunts Jandal too, but again, so many other things plague this former jihadist. Serving as a bodyguard for Bin Laden for a couple of years, Jandal was in the inner circle of the infamous terrorist. Both Hamdan and Jandal looked to Bin Laden for teaching and confirmation in their own identity. “A lot of men missed a father figure but they found it in Bin Laden. I was one of those men,” Jandal explained. “I missed kindness in a father but I found it in Bin Laden.” Upon beginning his job as the terrorist’s bodyguard, he took a training course with Al-Qaeda, gaining skills in firearms, guerilla warfare and typography. Jandal proved that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Today, a taxi driver in Yemen, Jandal is completely cut off from the Taliban but still preaches jihad to any impressionable man who will sit and listen. Footage from The Oath shows Jandal’s interviews discussing his broken vow with Bin Laden on a multitude of talk shows including 60 Minutes. Jandal is clearly looking for someone to listen, someone who will understand him, someone who will redeem him – but not redemption as the west would define it. The film’s first few minutes’ captures Jandal’s lack of emotion when it comes to hurting the American people: “It is no longer a question of destroying cement and glass but you have diminished the pride of an empire that rules the world,” he remarks, clearly apathetic to the horror caused by 9/11. Yet later, in an FBI report, Jandal requests for the FBI to “please tell my warmest condolences to the American people from a terrorist who one day used to work with Osama Bin Laden.” Jandal, who smugly points out that his name means ‘One of Death,’ is an enigma, leaving both the audience and the director puzzled.
Jandal’s cause is one slippery and complex, at least, that is what Poitras determined. In an interview with the New York Times following the release of The Oath to Sundance, Poitras explained, “You have to show the charisma to understand how this organization works. But it also feels like you’re playing with fire because you don’t want to be a mouthpiece for him.”
It’s hard to be a mouthpiece for a man who has yet to define his own cause. It is explained that Jandal got out of Bin Laden’s inner circle before the 9/11 attacks. He was also in prison in Yemen until 2002, a year before he even met Poitras. He’s a man who has been on the inside of one of the world’s most terrifying organizations, a man who has witnessed terror firsthand and who, if not a part of it, desperately desired to be. Yet, in other scenes, we see a good Muslim and father, waking up his young son, Habib, early each morning to complete prayers to Allah. Every attempt Poitras makes to define Jandal results in the man himself doing an about face, redefining himself by sharing a new piece of information that will frustrate the audience.
Maybe that’s the elusive quest for Poitras; to define the indefinable, to defend the indefensible, and to find meaning in that which Jandal proves with his life was truly evil intent.