Documenting a bin Laden ex-confidante: Q&A with filmmaker Laura Poitras

Documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras’s latest project, “The Oath,” was an Official Selection at the 2010 Berlinale International Film Festival and Best Cinematography at this year’s Sundance festival. The 96-minute film focuses on Abu Jandal, a taxi driver in Yemen and former Osama bin Laden bodyguard. Jandal is a man of contradictions. He has repudiated his former support for al Qaeda but continues to espouse anti-Americanism. He recruited his brother-in-law, Salim Hamdan, into al Qaeda, but says he regrets the decision after the U.S. detained Hamdan in the Guantanamo Bay military prison. “The Oath” explores how Jandal copes with these contradictions and ultimately sheds light on an aspect of the post-9/11 world. The film premiered in Washington on July 9 at the Landmark E Street Cinema. Screenings run until July 15.

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Q: What inspired you to do “The Oath”? 

Guantanamo. I was interested in what was happening there and wanted to do a story on someone returning from there. So I went to Yemen, because the largest percentage of detainees are from there, but then I met Abu Jandal, and the story totally changed.

Q: Who do you hope will watch it?

I try to tell good stories so that anyone can watch them. I don’t think you necessarily need to be interested in policy or 9/11 to appreciate the film. In a broad sense, there’s this guy [Abu Jandal] who was a real player in al Qaeda who’s free driving a taxi today, while this lower-level recruit of his has been stuck in Guantanamo for years. It’s a sort of wrong-guy-taking-the-fall story.

Q: What made Abu Jandal the right subject?

He’s fascinating. He’s kind of a classic antihero — smart, charismatic and really untrustworthy. And he was a real player in al Qaeda, so he had a really compelling story. He can provide insights into al Qaeda and a side of the story most Americans don’t know about.

Q: Abu Jandal has some strong political and religious viewpoints. How did you vet the information he gave you? Did you try to avoid becoming a mouthpiece?

I had several meetings with people who know him well to help vet what he was saying to see if it was truthful. And in the film we show him lying so viewers can see what he is like, so they can make their own assessments about what he says.

Q: You ended up spending a lot of time with Jandal. How did your relationship evolve and what is it like today?

It’s the most complicated relationship I’ve ever had with someone on a film. I was always nervous. This was [Osama] bin Laden’s bodyguard, so it would be foolish not to remain cautious. And he was untrustworthy. At the same time, he was generally nice and a great resource. Right now we’re not in direct contact, but we communicate through colleagues in Yemen.

Q: Your film explores the recruitment process into groups like al Qaeda. What did you learn about that process?

When I first met Abu Jandal, I saw that a group of young men were always at his house waiting for him to speak to them. He was still spouting anti-Americanism, even though he claimed to have rejected al Qaeda and its violent methods. Years ago in Afghanistan he ran a guest house for al Qaeda, where he measured the commitment of new recruits. So all of that helps show what happens in these circles when people are getting indoctrinated.

Q: You spent almost two years in Yemen while making this film — what was that like?

It wasn’t like Baghdad, a war zone, where my previous film [“My Country, My Country”] was shot. But in Yemen, as an American, you still feel a little bit like a target. You’re not loved by everyone, so I was always a little scared. At the same time, I went out alone and did shopping, whereas in Baghdad going to a cafe was like a death wish.

Q: Why do you think you’re on a government watch list? What is it like?

I started getting stopped in airports in 2006 after doing my film [“My Country, My Country”] in Baghdad. So before Yemen I was already getting hassled by security every time I got off a plane. So it was something about the work I did in Iraq, and I have lawyers now working to FOIA information on it. But honestly, doing the type of investigative work I do, you assume you’re going to get monitored, that your communications are going to be tracked. So yeah, I spend a couple hours at airports after landing and I’m not thrilled about it. And they ask me the same things every time, so it doesn’t seem like the best use of resources. But what can you do? I hope one day I can just land and not have to deal with the hassle.

Q: You’ve said “The Oath” has several meanings. What are they?

In the most literal sense, people in the inner circle of al Qaeda pledge an oath to [Osama] bin Laden, and the film explores whether Abu Jandal broke that oath. Another comes from an FBI agent, Ali Soufan, who interrogated Abu Jandal. He was able to extract information without using violence, and in testimony before Congress he has spoken out against violent interrogation tactics. One of his reasons is because he took an oath to the Constitution. In a broad sense, the film is about whether these men betrayed their loyalties to their oaths.

Q: What was the most challenging aspect of doing this film?

Abu Jandal is a complicated character I could never fully trust, so that was hard.
 
Q: What is the key lesson you’ll take away from making “The Oath”?

As a filmmaker, it was the importance of patience. I met Abu Jandal early, but he started off quiet and difficult to coordinate with. And with shrinking journalism budgets, it’s challenging to finance such a long investigation.

Q: If a member of Congress were to watch your film, what do you hope he or she would take away from it?

The film looks at why Abu Jandal turned away from an extremist organization like al Qaeda, so hopefully we can take the insights from his situation to stem the recruitment of newer members. One way to do this seems to be to stop giving potential recruits reasons to hate us. I think we need to stop backing governments that aren’t perceived as legitimate among the people; it takes us down a scary road when these people lose their power. I think that’s what happened in Afghanistan with [President Hamid] Karzai. We need to support true democratic leadership.

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Q: You say “The Oath” is the second installment in a trilogy about the post-9/11 U.S. What are your plans for the final project?

I’m researching it, but I’m thinking about something on domestic surveillance. I really want to record this history of the post-9/11 U.S. It will be useful today and in the future.
 
Q: What are your future plans?

 I love making documentaries. Every time after I finish one, I’m like, “I want to go home and take some downtime,” but then a story captures me, and I enter into another world that I never would have otherwise, and I’m hooked. So really I hope to just keep making films.