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Nonfictions: My Country, My Country and The Oath

by Megan Ratner

 

Film Quarterly

Fall 2010

 

Laura Poitras’s documentaries shed new light on the “War on Terror” by telling personal stories, seeking what George Packer (an influence on Poitras) calls the “human heart of the matter” (”The Spanish Prisoner,” The New Yorker, October 31, 2005). Questions of loyalty, betrayal, even love emerge in Poitras’s Academy Award-nominated My Country, My Country (2006) and The Oath (2010), two-thirds of a projected New American Century trilogy of films intended to help “American audiences understand the impact of our actions post-9/11” (quotations from Poitras are from interviews I conducted in May 2010). Poitras works in the Middle East, largely alone and at considerable risk, in order to record everyday life in a way that is hardly ever seen in the mainstream news media. She attempts to humanize a reality that is too often distorted by such abstractions as “War on Terror” itself. As Edward Said pointed out in relation to the Iraq invasion in his 2003 preface to Orientalism (Vintage Books, 1979): “Without a well-organized sense that these people over there were not like ‘us’ and didn’t appreciate ‘our’ values—the very core of Orientalist dogma as I describe its creation and circulation in this book— there would have been no war” (xx). Poitras tries to reduce the otherness of the people directly affected by American decisions and policies: “I think there’s a difference between the trauma of our fear post-9/11 versus the reality of having dozens of your friends murdered and killed and of not knowing whether your family is going to be killed. We have no way to comprehend that level of violence.”

A sense of the inherent contradiction of invading a country to foster democracy galvanized Poitras to undertake her first solo feature-length project in 2003. She wanted to respond to what she regarded as an “unimaginable, mistaken, and misguided” policy. Up to that point, she had collaborated with Linda Goode Bryant on one long-form documentary, Flag Wars (2003), a chronicle of gentrification in Columbus, Ohio. The film won several awards, including a Peabody, and was Poitras’s ticket to permission from the U.S. military to make a film about the nation-building program in Iraq. My Country, My Country centers on Dr. Riyadh, a dignified, thoughtful Iraqi general practitioner and local Sunni city council candidate. Shot in the months leading up to the 2005 elections, the film (which has no voiceover or talking-head interviews) was “100 percent cinema vérité, following events as they unfolded in real time,” including Dr. Riyadh’s cam- paign for a seat on the city council. (My Country, My Country ends just after the election, its impact more cosmetic than real, Dr. Riyadh back to doing what he can through the clinic, having failed to win his seat.) In the course of his campaign rounds, his interactions with his family, and especially while treating his patients, Dr. Riyadh deals constantly with the American occupation. Poitras intercuts shots of the U.S. military, Australian private security contractors, and U.N. of- ficials as they plan for the election, their every move heavily guarded, the atmosphere of their conferences (in the Green Zone) insular and isolated. The occupying forces are seen to be a remote and menacing presence, but Poitras is reticent when it comes to showing the extent of urban bombings. The only violence in the film is what’s seen on the Riyadh family television. Instead, Poitras shows people discussing how to deal with bombings, checkpoints, and, more than anything else, the lack of basic services and facilities.

 

In My Country, My Country, Poitras dwells on images of daily life in occupied Baghdad: Dr. Riyadh making tea, his kitchen lit only by a kerosene lamp; a military briefing on “Joe Iraqi’s” experience of the election; the head of an Australian private security team negotiating with an arms dealer; an elderly Iraqi woman taking her flour ration beneath a paper flier about voting; Dr. Riyadh’s few moments of respite as he feeds the family’s chickens. The doctor’s house and clinic are the hubs of the film, everyday environments of a kind often passed over in news reporting. Family life and medical exams continue despite the sound of gunfire or explosions. The doctor consults at least as much on coping with the occupation as on his patients’ ailments. (On one occasion he is shown donating his own money to a hard-up patient.) This is observational filmmaking that spurns any “unified point of view or narration that tells the audience what they’re seeing” in order to explore the dynamics of the situation. Poitras emphasizes the cultural differences between the U.S. personnel and the locals. Among the most telling scenes is a short exchange between an American election-police trainer and a group of students. The trainer tells the group that it will appear “on TV all over the world . . . in the front row of one of the best shows that’s going to be in the world.” A student objects to the word “show” and the trainer hastily backs down. It’s a brief but telling glimpse both of casual insensitivity and a cultural gulf: the thrill of being on TV eludes the Iraqi. Later in My Country, My Country, there are shots of Iraqis at polling stations. Poitras was again interested in contrasts: “I was trying to juxtapose the family with the occupying power. After showing video teleconferences where there’s not an Iraqi in sight, it felt important to show Iraqis risking their lives to vote. These are people who are dealing with high-stakes stuff and are not necessarily living in a media or Facebook culture.”

 

Poitras succeeds in My Country, My Country in rendering crushing statistics of the Iraq invasion—such as the estimated 100,000 Iraqis killed in the war referenced at the end of My Country, My Country—less abstract. “There’s a whole generation that’s traumatized, that’s gone. It’s a little shocking that there’s been so much destruction, so much of it unnecessary, just basic incompetence. And who’s paying the price for that?” Flipping the perspective from top-down to ground-level goes some way to showing on a small and personal scale the real-life consequences of U.S. foreign policy.

                                                       

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The Oath concerns Abu Jandal, a Sana’a, Yemen cab driver, brother-in-law to Salim Hamdan, the first Guantánamo prisoner to be tried by military tribunal, and Osama Bin Laden’s bodyguard in the late 1990s. Poitras follows this voluble, charismatic, contradictory man as he drives his cab, gives religious instruction to his eight-year-old son and some local youths, and reflects on his political and personal commitments—including intense remorse at having recruited Hamdan, who became Bin Laden’s driver, to the militant cause. We follow Hamdan’s ordeal by means of archive footage, family photographs, and his letters home (which are read out by an actor—letters are the only form of communication for detainees). There are excerpts as well from his trial and from the press conferences of his dedicated defense team. Hamdan remains more cause than character: his “story carries the emotional weight of the film,” according to Poitras. “I feel okay (perhaps good) that you never see him because that is the situation with many of those still imprisoned.” His missives provide a haunting reminder of his physical absence: “these sparse, forlorn letters that captured the chasm rather than necessarily insight into who this guy is.” Though the voiceover readings are wistful at times, sapping Hamdan’s words of anger, desolation sometimes comes through strongly: “days and years have gone by, and all I have left is God.” The amount of information in play in The Oath prompted Poitras and editor Jonathan Oppenheim to irregularly break up the film with white-on-black intertitles. Some are strictly informational, updates on Hamdan’s case; others, such as a jihadist oath, more loaded. Poitras says that she wanted to “disrupt the viewing experience” and challenge the spectator.

 

Hamdan’s letters are read against the backdrop of co- cinematographer Kirsten Johnson’s soberly beautiful Guantánamo landscapes. Poitras looked for “odd compositions, ominous but almost amateur.” Over a five-week shoot, Johnson drew from Trevor Paglen’s still photography of U.S. government black sites. (Though artier, Jonathan Olley’s Land Between Two Rivers also comes to mind; both he and Paglen show what’s hidden in plain sight, spots so nondescript they al- most disappear.) Poitras encouraged Johnson to “look for evidence in the landscape of a crime that can’t be seen.” Invisibility is as important as visibility: “At Guantánamo, Kirsten observed Hamdan’s trial but couldn’t film, so there was also a process of her translating the emotional experience of being in the courtroom to shooting the landscapes.” With no orange jumpsuits, no MPs, and no obvious prison enclosures in sight, Johnson’s images raise questions, prompt a feeling of uncertainty. The prison intrudes mysteriously on the idyllic landscape. In one panorama, a tangle of barbed wire and an American flag drooping against its pole are just visible at the margin of the image. It could pass for a memorial and the sense of poignancy is heightened particularly by Dawn Upshaw’s vocalizing of parts of Osvaldo Golijov’s score. Whereas other incidental music in the film described by Poitras as “agitated,” Upshaw’s music “is just pain.” During the Guantánamo sequences, a few soldiers are seen at a distance, running in their civvies, but mostly the shots show unpopulated roads and building exteriors. The one soldier who is observed closely is Hamdan’s crisply professional Navy lawyer, Lt. Commander Brian Mizer. He declined to be interviewed for The Oath, but is seen on several occasions speaking to reporters in the briefing room. He is plainly distressed over the flawed tribunals. “Someone like Mizer,” Poitras says, “who comes out of the military culture, saying that he’s defending the constitution is a pretty compelling argument for the problems with military tribunals.”

Abu Jandal is a fascinating and complex central presence in The Oath. Poitras even describes him as “profoundly surreal.” To her translators, he seemed “very intelligent and a little outside the [jihadist] mold they were familiar with.” While imprisoned in Yemen in 2001, Jandal claims to have had a change of heart, electing to devote himself to parenting and teaching, and some of the most touching scenes in the film show this strict-but-doting father instruct his son, Habib, in the practice of daily prayers. Yet footage from Al Arabiya and 60 Minutes appearances show another side to Jandal—a confident ability to handle questioning. Whereas in My Country, My Country, Dr. Riyadh is consistently genial and appealing, Abu Jandal can be bewildering, even unsympathetic at times.

 

When Habib says he hopes to grow up “jihad, like you,” Jandal smiles ruefully, saying: “You’ll cause a lot of problems for yourself. Your father is fighting the whole world.” Born Nasser Al Bahri in Saudi Arabia, Jandal left home at nineteen to fight in Bosnia in 1994; two years later he led a group of jihadists (including Hamdan) to Tajikistan, where Bin Laden invited him to Afghanistan. With some nostalgia, Jandal notes that in Bin Laden he found “the kindness I missed in my father.” His eventual promotion to Bin Laden’s deceptively affable-sounding “Emir of Hospitality,” put Jandal in charge of “evaluating the mettle of each man” who volunteered for Al- Qaeda—including, he says, all nineteen September 11 hijackers. Poitras does not show Bin Laden (seen leading a rally at which Jandal is present and in a brief interview) until nearly midway through the film. Poitras wanted to avoid the way “certain kinds of images just bounce off. We’ve seen it before and it doesn’t have any emotional weight. By the time you are presented with Bin Laden in The Oath, you have enough in- formation that you can process this in a different way.”

 

While imprisoned by Yemeni authorities for his suspected involvement in the USS Cole bombing, Jandal was interrogated at length less than a week after September 11 by FBI agent Ali Soufan. Poitras met with Soufan several times; al- though he refused to appear in the film, we see clips of Senate Judiciary Committee testimony. The Oath includes glimpses of Jandal’s detailed answers regarding Al-Qaeda protocols, hide- outs, and personnel. After Hamdan’s arrest, he too was interrogated by Soufan. (An interesting triangular element to The Oath is added when, during his committee deposition, Soufan refers to the oath he swore “to protect this great nation.”)

 

Jandal’s several references to his intense regret about Hamdan seem like more than lip service, yet just where his loyalties lie remains a question. Asked on Al Arabiya if he has renounced the Al-Qaeda oath—which demands loyalty “regardless of my own self-interest or reasoning”—Jandal hedges: “the issue needs to be vetted by the elders.” But he acknowl- edges death threats (from “new generation” Al-Qaeda members) in the past and admits to continuing worries about his amily: “there is no security,” he says. Only in his early thirties, he seems to have already lived a full lifetime. In one of Poitras’s interviews, Jandal says that, if asked, he would not have taken part in September 11, careful to qualify the answer as personal (from “Nasser Al Bahri,” his birth name, rather than Abu Jandal). The next day he asks that Poitras delete the statement (which remains in the film). We may not sympathize with the conflict that seems to be taking place in his mind, but a sense of ambivalence, of a radical’s struggle with his own beliefs and actions, is powerfully conveyed. Jandal’s contradictions balance the somber Guantánamo scenes and the unavoidably complicated details of Hamdan’s trials. By respecting though not condoning Jandal and by showing the Guantánamo version of justice, Laura Poitras offers a complex, powerful, and necessary alternative to the American mainstream take on the “War on Terror.”