Laura Poitras had originally set out to make a documentary about Guantanamo Bay, but the offer of an introduction to Salim Hamdan changed the course of the project, which showed this week at the Berlin International Film Festival as The Oath. The film focuses on Abu Jandal, a former bodyguard of Osama bin Laden, who left Afghanistan for Yemen in 2000 and then after September 11 broke the oath he had sworn as a member of al Qa'eda that he would unconditionally obey the leadership, come what may. He was in jail in Yemen at the time of the attacks and then told the FBI what he knew. His information was used to form a strategy to invade Afghanistan.
His story is contrasted with that of Hamdan, his brother-in-law, whom Jandal recruited to al Qa'eda, and who was a driver for Bin Laden before being imprisoned in Guantanamo for several years until he successfully took the then US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld to court over his imprisonment. Poitras, who was nominated for an Oscar for her film about Iraq, My Country, My Country, was working on a movie about Guantanamo when a colleague asked if she wanted to meet Hamdan. Without blinking, she said yes. Soon after she was in Yemen chatting to Jandal, who, unlike Hamdan, was willing to talk to the filmmaker.
She admits: "I lucked out on a more interesting story. There are not that many inside stories into Yemen and al Qa'eda, and it's a far more politically incorrect story. It's not like the documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, where it was a completely innocent guy and we could all rally around that easily. These guys were without a shadow of a doubt involved with al Qa'eda." Poitras almost didn't make it to the Berlin Film Festival at all, she says, after being prevented from boarding her flight in Los Angeles. She explains: "When I got to airport on Tuesday I was told that I was on a no-fly list, so I was almost not able to premiere a film in Berlin because the US government has put me on a no-fly list. It isn't a good sign that the US intelligence is running around putting filmmakers on a list. At the most benign, it's a waste of resources."
She was eventually allowed to board the flight, but only after "lots of high-placed phone calls by lawyers. I was surprised when I was told that I couldn't get on a plane as I'm a US citizen and have a US passport, and all I was doing was going to Berlin to show my movie. What is the scary thing about that?" Poitras laughs when I say that she is making a story of it anyway, but it should not detract from her excellent film, which is the closest anyone has come to getting an inside scoop on the upper echelons of al Qa'eda.
Poitras treats her subject with some sympathy as Jandal explains his stance against targeting civilians and how he came to tell the FBI about his experience. He comes across as a media-savvy individual who says just enough to hold interest without being too candid. It seems surprising that this white American female director would be so interested in the affairs of the Middle East until she states: "My Middle East connection is America. My films look at America's response to 9/11 and at its power and role in the world and what it's doing. I don't have a crazy instinct to just go to conflict zones."
What she successfully shows is a huge anomaly in the way that the US treated people after September 11. She says: "I wanted to comment on the irony of fact that one guy who is more culpable is much more free driving around in a taxi cab and the other one he recruited who is much more simple and went to Afghanistan for economic reasons took the fall. It's a classic story of the wrong guy being targeted."