I'm not sure what's more shocking: the fact that there are still documentaries to be made about the "war on terror," or that someone has actually summoned the critical and creative energy to make an outstanding one. Laura Poitras, whose previous films include such well-informed but cinematically undistinguished PBS material as Flag Wars (a film about gay gentrification), has achieved a breakthrough with The Oath, a tale of two benighted men whose business connections to Osama bin Laden changed their lives — although not in the ways they anticipated, and certainly not according to convenient Western fictions regarding al-Qaeda's monolithic shaping of Islamic radicalism.
The Oath centers on an omnipresence and a conspicuous absence. In the limelight is a talkative cabdriver named Nasser al-Bahri, aka Abu Jandal. A Yemeni national, he was a bodyguard for bin Laden, and according to his own telling, he was deeply committed to the jihadist cause. Over the course of the film, al-Bahri is seen leading a discussion group for young men in Yemen, talking about his time in prison, and in particular regaling all and sundry about his time with al-Qaeda and the close personal contact he shared with Sheikh bin Laden. "He was the father many of us lacked," al-Bahri claims, tears welling up in his eyes.
Never seen, but present as an image and a series of letters read in voiceover, is al-Bahri's brother-in-law, Samir Hamdan. Hamdan was held in Guantánamo for almost six years awaiting trial by military commission. During this time, the Supreme Court declared his imprisonment unconstitutional (in the decision Hamdan v. Rumsfeld). He had to be found guilty of something, though, so Congress passed a new law against "providing material support for terrorism." Hamdan wasn't an al-Qaeda member, you see — he was a salaried employee hooked up with a job by al-Bahri. He was bin Laden's driver.
Poitras pulls off a brilliant balancing act as she doles out information over the course of The Oath. She does withhold certain key facts, and in so doing allows our interpretation of al-Bahri to shift significantly, several times over the film. He starts out seeming like a victim of circumstance, soon appears to be an unrepentant al-Qaeda militant, and "becomes" many more things before The Oath is through with him.
To The Oath's great credit, however, these shifting perspectives are never artificially generated. Documentary facts are not shaped for maximum infotainment impact, and Poitras isn't just "telling a good story." She's introducing facts as they would become available to those who would themselves be in a position to level judgment against al-Bahri. And what we see, sadly, is a man who is deeply flawed, cognizant of those flaws, but also fundamentally recognizable. His passionate commitment to radical Islam hasn't eradicated self-deception, doubt, fear, cowardice, even empathy.
Hamdan's story is far sadder, and as The Oath's unseen center, he haunts both al-Bahri and the American conscience. This is unexpectedly reflected in Poitras' filmmaking, which (unlike so many documentaries these days) is strikingly beautiful, featuring gorgeous night shots of the sky over Guantánamo, empty spaces around government courthouses, or otherwise lonely, barren landscapes. These aesthetically rendered vacancies speak to Hamdan's absence. But they also address the Bush administration's hunger to fill that void with anyone who might possibly look like they fit the bill. To say that Salim Hamdan's alleged crime amounted to "being at the wrong place at the wrong time" is actually to minimize the injustice done to him. The Oath is, in the end, a meditation on the political fate of a human synecdoche.