Laura Poitras went to Yemen a few years ago with the intention of finding a family to profile who had a member in or recently released from Guantanamo. Her plans changed, though, when she met bin Laden's former bodyguard. Poitras, then in the early stages of her second film in a trilogy on post-9/11 realities (the first, My Country, My Country, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary), quickly shifted gears to tell the tangled family story of Abu Jandal, bin Laden's former body guard now living as a taxi driver in Yemen, and his ill-fated brother-in-law Salim Hamdan, a Guantanamo prisoner and the first to face the military tribunals. The Oath, which was released earlier this year, has already won a handful of awards, including Sundance Film Festival's Cinematography Award. It screens Wednesday night at the Rich Theatre in the Woodruff Arts Center. Poitras will be there for a Q&A following the screening. In addition to this week's screening, Poitras' multimedia exhibit O’ Say Can You See? opens Sat., Oct. 9 at the Contemporary.
How did you meet Abu Jandal and what it was like?
I was interested in making a film about Guantanamo and I began by contacting lawyers who were representing detainees. I met a lawyer named David Reams and he was about to take a trip to Yemen, so he said, “Do you want to come on the trip?” and I said, “Yes.” And so I went looking to try and find a family with someone who might be returning home, who might be released and coming home, so that was the story I was looking to tell.
When we got there we were working with a local journalist in Sana’a and he said, “Would you like to meet Salim Hamdan’s family?” and of course I knew Salim Hamdan’s case, and I said, “Yes, of course, I want to meet his family,” and then was ushered into Abu Jandal’s living room, and was kind of thrown for a loop, because, here was this guy who was clearly very close to [Al Qaeda] driving a taxicab while lots of other people were being held — many completely innocent — at Guantanamo.
It’s startling and makes you wonder how is this even possible, him there living a normal life. Did you ever find an answer to that question?
That was what was so compelling about it, because it’s the wrong guy taking a fall — it’s got a classic theme — and this other guy out driving a taxicab, which I just thought was kind of surreal and fascinating. And not only that, but Abu Jandal lives literally in the shadows of the U.S Embassy in Yemen, so I would have to go past the U.S. Embassy, past their barrier, to get to Abu Jandal’s house, so it was very surreal that you could just have these conversations.
I was immediately really compelled by him and what his story was, because he was such a player in so many different levels, but I was also nervous on lots of levels — it was just sort of the basic nervousness about my safety, but then there was the storytelling nervousness, like what would it mean to tell a story about a somebody who worked for bin Laden and is also a shifty character.
So how did you gain each other’s trust, or at least the illusion of trust? He seems to speak quite freely, and then, also there’s sort of a sense of danger that was hovering over the whole thing.
Yes, he made me nervous. It would be a foolish not to worry about bad consequences, but at the same time I thought he seemed to have left his former life, and he’s closely watched by the government. One of the themes in the film is trust, betrayal, loyalty — and it exists between Abu Jandal and Salim Hamdan, but there’s that kind of theme that comes between myself as a filmmaker and him as a subject, and there’s sort of moments in the film where we show him being not truthful, that kind of open the door into making the audience also have to experience that shifting trust question, so you’re drawn in — and then you’re like, “Oh, OK, wait, I don’t trust him,” “I like him,” “I don’t like him” — all those things, which are, in a sense, very classic storytelling tropes. ... It tends to be in documentary that things are a little more clear cut, like there’s usually the “good guys” or the “bad guys,” but you know where the truth is, and with him, it was a moving target, but that was both challenging and fascinating.
You’ve said in other interviews that by setting Hamdan up as a kind of ghost, you wanted to have audiences have the emotional impact of Guantanamo. What does that mean for you as a filmmaker, the emotional impact of Guantanamo?
Right. What I’m working on now is how to engage with these big issues on a level that deals with human consequences, and that bring the stories somewhat home, so that we can understand the stories once they’re embodied. So what does it actually look like, rather than Guantanamo only being understood as images of guys with orange jumpsuits. What happens if you actually take a case and look at this particular case and his trajectory and how he actually got there?
For me, it’s a way to understand these events in a very different way. The highest priority for me is to engage audiences on some kind of emotional level that you can actually relate to people. It doesn’t mean that you like them, or that you agree with them, but that you understand them as human beings.
I am wondering in the nine years since September 11, and in the consecutive years since you’ve been working on this trilogy, what is your point of view on the general awareness of people in this country about what’s happening, and on your own personal awareness.
I think it’s tragic. I think it’s tragic that Guantanamo is still open. And I’m not going to be an apologist for people committing violence, but why is the United States, why have we abandoned our principles in dealing with the threat of Al Qaeda? That’s just something that, as a nation, our soul has gotten lost in these nine years. And I guess I sort of have this naïve sense that if we really understood the impact then we would do things differently. Both because, on many different levels —it’s morally wrong, for instance, to torture people, but it’s not just morally wrong, it’s also not smart. It’s not smart in terms of making us safer.
...I’m really excited to do this at the Contemporary, with Stuart Horodner, because I’d talked to Stuart before and I said I’m really dying to try to explore these themes not in a linear context, because I think there’s other ways to sort of enter into them. So there’ll be these interviews with people who are prisoners at Guantanamo, that — if people choose to — they can listen to a really lengthy interview or they can just sort of listen to a bit, which is different. When you’re making a movie you have this captive audience and you have to keep things moving along, so I’m really thrilled about doing this piece.
In closing, you’ve sort of made me wonder as you’re talking, since you’ve invested so much into the emotional and personal and psychological side of 9/11 and the War on Terror, I’m wondering what your thoughts are on Americans and the grief of 9/11 and what it’s going to take for people to finally really move on —do you think it’s time? Because the trauma is still so fresh it seems.
Yeah, and obviously all that sort of re-emerged, the sort of ugliness emerged after this cultural center mosque controversy in lower Manhattan, I mean, all of a sudden you’re like, “Wow, OK, this is really not resolved.” I think several things: I think our leadership has not served us; I really think we’re a country that’s really motivated by election cycles, and it’s very unfortunate because I believe decisions get made based on those election cycles, and that’s not leadership.
... It’s interesting to me that it took the Secretary of Defense to call the pastor and say, "Please don’t burn the Quran. That will create a wave of anger and hatred that we will have to deal with. That you in America probably won’t be dealing with, but we who are engaging in conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and other places are going to experience a backlash that you can’t imagine."
...And I think the media has failed us. I really think the media, again, you can look at this controversy around the cultural center in New York, or this pastor — why were we giving him all this attention? Would we be sending all our cable news to cover a KKK cross burning? Report on the facts on who these people are, but don’t stage it as a media spectacle waiting for it to happen when it’s going to have consequences that are going to be devastating. ...I think these are dark times. … It’s sort of a time that doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence is all I can say, and I think there is, I think there are people trying to do the right thing — in government or in the intelligence community — but there’s a lot of, either self-interest that gets involved or not the smartest tactics.
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