Laura Poitras is best known for Citizenfour, a documentary about Edward Snowden’s global surveillance disclosures which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2014, but few people have seen the preceding two films in the trilogy that Citizenfour completes - My Country, My Country (2006) and The Oath (2010). The trilogy triangulates various aspects of the War on Terror: life in Iraq under U.S. occupation, the prosecution of terrorists held in Guantanamo Bay, and the NSA’s secretive and illegal surveillance programs.
The Oath follows Abu Jandal and Salim Hamdan, brothers-in-law who previously worked for Osama Bin Laden as his bodyguard and driver. One is a taxi driver in Sana’a, Yemen who we hear speak frankly about his beliefs with his young son, students, and journalists, and the other is a prisoner captured in 2001 during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan who is being held indefinitely in Guantanamo Bay Military Prison. Salim Hamdan is the first defendant to be tried in U.S. Military Tribunals and the film follows his trial as it is appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Some of this feels like ancient history even though the film is only 10 years old (maybe I’ve just aged 20 years in the past 4 years…) but I think it’s a fascinating portrait of individuals swept up in complex governmental and ideological systems that can be difficult to grasp. Poitras states that her goal has been “to understand these world events through the stories of the people living them… we must understand [Al-Qaeda’s] motivations and internal divisions. To do that requires first seeing Islamic radicals as real people—subject to the human condition rather than apart from it. To acknowledge that humanity is not a justification of their acts, but rather an acceptance of an uncomfortable reality.”