The subjects of The Oath, the engaging, unnerving documentary at the Northwest Film Forum, are two Yemeni brothers-in-law who signed on with al Qaeda in Afghanistan and then played very different, pivotal roles in what used to be called America’s War on Terror. One, Salim Hamdan, was bin Laden’s lowly driver. Captured, he sued and forced the U.S. government to bring Guantánamo detainees to trial rather than letting them rot forever, and then was the first detainee to be tried. (A June 2007 Seattle Met feature explored his case and the people involved, including several Seattle attorneys.) Hamdan appears only tangentially, in a few still photos, in grainy opening footage showing the hood coming off his head after he was captured in November 2001, and in his letters to his brother-in-law Abu Jandal. Since his release, Hamdan has shunned press and public; nearly six years in Guantánamo left him withdrawn and reclusive.
Abu Jandal was released much sooner, but he was much more the committed jihadist—a Bosnia veteran, bin Laden’s bodyguard, the Pied Piper who lured Hamdan and others to Afghanistan. He fills the film, affording director Laura Poitras (an American woman!) amazing access. Affable, articulate, and tormented, he can’t stop talking: to the FBI, whom he provided such rich intelligence on al Qaeda that the government delayed launching its invasion of Afghanistan to digest it. To Al Arabiya Television, where, pressed to justify renouncing his (and the title’s) oath to al Qaeda, he says his thinking has changed and he now wields a pen rather than a gun. Holding forth on jihad while sipping Coke with young Yemenis, he still sounds like a recruiter, arguing that killing innocent civilians on 9/11 was justified because look what happens to Iraqis and Palestinians. With his six-year-old son, he coos over a baby picture from Kandahar showing junior with grenades and an AK-47. Sure enough, the lad says he wants to be a jihadi just like his daddy.
By film’s end Abu Jandal’s post-jihad life is unraveling. Drowning in debt, he has sold the taxicab that Yemen’s rehab program for ex-jihadis provided him. “I am desperate,” he says, his usual broad smile failing. What will desperation lead to? The Oath offers no answers, indeed no editorial interjection at all. Like terror movements, it is subtle, elusive, and unsettling.
The Oath shows through Thursday, June 24, at the Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Avenue.