The Oath (2010)
The approach of Laura Poitras’ documentary The Oath (2010) is akin to having your cake and eating it too. And your neighbour’s. And the next one as well. Split between two geographies and worlds – Yemen, where Abu Jandal – erstwhile Al Qaeda member and Bin Laden’s bodyguard – drives the streets for a living, and Guantanamo Bay, where Salim Hamdan – Jandal’s brother-in-law and a driver in the same organization – is imprisoned by the US government on charges of “supporting terrorism materially” – The Oath attempts to indirectly examine both the alleged indoctrination of young Jihadis for the purpose of suicide bombing and the Bush regime’s seemingly opaque and opportunistic justice system. Cutting back and forth between conversations with the loquacious, confident and charming Jandal and the uninhabited, melancholy premises of the detainment facility where Hamdan is held, Poitras establishes a parallel between the two men: both are prisoners over whom the possibility of death looms every instant and who, paradoxically, find safety in the very jails that hold them. (Jandal, placed high on Al Qaeda’s hit list, seeks refuge in the prison of TV images while Hamdan ghettoizes himself out of fear after he returns). “I’m a soldier, I’m not a martyr”, says a hypocritical Carlos in Assayas’ latest work. Jandal maintains the same, even though he sees no wrong in blowing up passenger planes. Poitras does enough to build on Jandal’s self-contradictions to paint a portrait of him as a conflicted buffoon whose only oath of loyalty is to life – not God, religion or political cause. But then, the film’s agenda doesn’t stop there. Poitras is liberal enough to dispel the conservative notion of Jihadis as mean killing machines and to label all her subjects as being “merely human”, but she’s also selectively neocon in that she develops a Freudian sketch of Islam and Jihad which does nothing to challenge the equally-distorted western perception of these larger institutions. This self-serving worldview notwithstanding, The Oath makes for an intriguing watch in the way it keeps stressing the gargantuan role that the visual media has come to play in our daily lives and administrative systems where the presence of a camera is the sole screen that separates memory and forgetfulness, justice and tyranny and life and death.