Twin Tragedies - The Oath at Berlinale Forum
Laura Poitras, USA
2010, 96 min
13 February 2010
Delphi Filmpalast, Berlin
The history should be known:
- In November 2001, Afghan forces captured Salim Hamdan in Kandahar. Although not a member of al Qaeda, Hamdan worked for Osama bin Laden as his paid driver.
- In May 2002, Hamdan was transferred to Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp. Two years later, President George W. Bush selected Hamdan and five other Guantánamo detainees to be tried before a military commission – the first to be held by the United States since World War II.
- Hamdan filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court in 2004, in a case that ultimately went to the Supreme Court of the United States.
- In Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court ruled in Hamdan’s favor, holding that the military commissions violated international law and the Geneva Conventions. Hamdan was not released. Instead, in an attempt to grant President Bush the authority to try Hamdan on charges related to terrorism, Congress passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006.
- In August 2008, a military jury found Hamdan guilty of supporting terrorism but not guilty of the more serious charge of conspiring in terrorist attacks. Hamdan was sentenced to five and a half years in prison, with all but five months of the time credited for his pre-trial confinement.
- After seven years of captivity in Guantánamo, Hamdan served out the remainder of his sentence in his home country of Yemen, and was reunited with his family in January 2009.
In The Oath, American director Laura Poitras tells Salim Hamdan's story largely from the perspective of his friend Nasser al-Bahri, a.k.a. Abu Jandal. A taxi driver in Yemen’s capital city of Sana’a, Jandal is a former member of al Qaeda, chief bodyguard of Osama bin Laden, and “guesthouse emir” in charge of new arrivals to bin Laden’s camp in Afghanistan. It was Hamdan's fateful association with Jandal that set him on the course that eventually placed him in the middle of America’s War on Terror.
Abu Jandal was dedicated to the protection of Osama bin Laden and to the reliability of new arrivals to bin Laden’s Afghanistan training camp, including many if not all of the 9/11 highjackers. On the day of the 9/11 attacks, Jandal was in a Yemeni prison where he was in dialogue with a state-sponsored religious committee formed to engage with extremist fundamentalists.
After the 9/11 attacks, Jandal identified many of the hijackers to FBI agent Ali Soufan and became a significant source to link the attacks to al Qaeda. He was later freed from custody, and found work as a taxi driver.
For The Oath, Poitras interviewed Jandal, followed him to meetings with Yemeni youths, and joined him in quality time with his young son. She placed a video camera on the dashboard of his taxi to record his observations and encounters with passengers during his work day.
The Oath grants us an extraordinary perspective on al Qaeda’s management and leadership. Most importantly, the film introduces us to the human beings who are our enemies and the unfortunate souls who get caught in the undertow of conflict.
Salim Hamdan is the silent protagonist at the heart of the film, represented by a voice-over reading from his letters home while captive in Guantánamo, a grainy video of his first interrogation, a recording taken by ABC’s John Miller while Hamdan drove Miller to an interview with bin Laden, and a report from Hamdan’s military trial.
The Oath is the second documentary in a trilogy Poitras is developing about post-9/11 America. The first, My Country, My Country, tells the story of the U.S. occupation of Iraq from the perspective of an Iraqi doctor. A planned third film will focus on the 9/11 trials.
It's fitting that Poitras premiered The Oath to international audiences at Forum and in Berlin. Those who are skilled at coming to terms with history could have much to teach us about overcoming 9/11 and its repercussions. As Poitras has written:
“If the United States and other western nations hope to confront and contain the threat of al Qaeda, we must understand its motivations and internal divisions. To do that requires seeing Islamic radicals as real people subject to the human condition rather than apart from it. To acknowledge that humanity is not a justification of their acts, but rather an acceptance of an uncomfortable reality. In the nine years since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, al Qaeda has grown from a fringe terrorist organization into an international social movement that is being “franchised” worldwide. In these same nine years, the United States has launched two wars, participated in the legalization of torture, detention without trial, “extraordinary rendition,” and secret prisons. The world will be grappling with the twin tragedies of 9/11 and America’s reaction to the attacks for generations to come.“
On her way to Berlin to present The Oath, Poitras was pulled aside and told she had been placed on the no-fly list. After two days of legal maneuvering, she was allowed to leave the United States. As of the screening Saturday night, she did not know if she would be allowed to return home.
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Tags: Berlinale , Film Festivals , Laura Poitras , The Oath , Al Qaeda , Hamdan , Abu Jandal , Osama Bin Laden
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