Review: “The Oath” @ San Sebastian Film Fest 2010

The Oath
Country of Origin: USA
Directed by: Laura Poitras

Any trip to a European film festival would be incomplete without the mandatory anti-Bush documentary, and I was lucky to discover that The Oath took up that charge even two years since W. went back to Texas.

But The Oath was not what I expected it to be – that is, a film intent on proving a point instead of searching for truth and accuracy.  It was distributed by Zeitgeist films (makers of Loose Change), but instead of finding a film laden with conspiracy theories, I was pleasantly suprised by this well-made film by American director Laura Poitras.

Poitras critiques the War on Terror by juxtaposing the contrasting tales of brothers-in-law, Salim Hamdam and Abu Jindal, Bin Laden’s personal driver and his body guard, respectively.

Bin Laden’s driver, Hamdam, was captured in Afghanistan and sent to Guantanamo Bay while Abu Jindal, a man suposedly more valuable than anyone in Guantanamo, is a free man in Yemen.

While Hamdam waits out his sentence in Guantanamo, we spend most of our time with Abu Jandal, who is now a taxi driver in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a where he runs a support organization for former al-Qaeda operatives.  We drive with him through the streets of Sana’a as he explains why and how he got involved with Al-Qaeda, why he so respected ‘Sheik bin Laden,’ and countless insights into how the organization is run.

The film’s strength lies not by dropping controversy-provoking conspiracy theories in your lap, but by taking us into the homes and minds of our self-proclaimed enemies.

I was suprised by Jindal’s testimony – we hear not the zealistic dogma of a die-hard killer, but personal anecdotes from a conflicted and humbled solider.  Jindal discusses his transformation from the inner ring of Al-Qaeda to a ‘reformed’ terrorist working as a cab driver, begging the question – given all that’s happened since 9/11, does his oath of allegience still bind him?

Jindal’s personal testimony reminds us that the bogeymen of the Middle East are not so different than ourselves.  Through Poitras’ lens, we are invited into Yemeni homes, we watch Yemeni youth groups talk to Jindal about the fight against America, and we are even shown young boys explaining why they want to grow up to be terrorists (because ‘the Americans put Uncle Hamdam in jail in Cuba.’)

The camera also moves to the military tribunals of Guantanamo Bay and gives us valuable perspective into the nature of justice being served to suspected terrorists.  I was particularly moved by seeing how little faith Hamdam’s appointed military lawyer had in the very court he was serving.  Charged by the military with defending someone doomed to conviction, his barely-veiled disillusionment spoke volumes about how far tribunals have drifted from true justice.

This film is stripped of the usual intellectual talking heads expounding upon their own theories.  Instead it takes us deep into the lives of two men and brings the debate back down to the ground level – how people feel when their family is directly affected by international politics.

Anyone with an interest in American foreign policy should watch this film, if only to remind us that the War on Terror is ultimately not a war of abstract theories, but one that touches people and families not so different than our own.

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