Posted by: Jordan Zirm | February 28, 2010

Review: ‘The Oath’

The picture on the promotional poster for “The Oath” is a perfect metaphor for the thought-provoking documentary directed by Laura Poitras.

We see a picture of a man looking into the rear view mirror of his cab, his eyes seemingly lost in the past. Throughout the film, we find this man is haunted by his former life, and as he stares into the mirror, looking behind him, it is fitting that  the past dominates his future.

Poitras brings us the story of Abu Jandal, a man born in Saudi Arabia who left home at the age of 19 to travel to Bosnia, where he wanted to join the holy war.

Jandal’s brother-in-law followed the same path, and the two men rose quickly in the ranks of Al-Qaeda. Jandal ended up as Osama Bin Laden’s personal bodyguard, while his brother-in-law became Bin Laden’s personal driver and mechanic.

When Jandal has a change of ideology after being arrested and jailed for two years, he decides to leave the terrorist group and become a cab driver in Yemen.

His brother-in-law is captured and sent to Guantanamo Bay, where he remained imprisoned for seven years on controversial charges of conspiring to commit and aide terrorist acts. His imprisonment is heavy on the conscious of Jandal, who many times throughout the film says he feels responsible for the capture.

Jandal is a conflicted man, and our emotions flicker between sympathy and disgust as we ride along on a trip through his mind. His warm smile and soft eyes balance out the radicalism and terror we feel during interviews where he reveals the gritty details of Al-Qaeda’s terrorist plots and ideas.

The most chilling scene in the film is near the beginning of the film. A group of young Yemeni youths question Jandal about Sept. 11. The details Jandal disclose in his description of the Al-Qaeda mindset are gripping, if not terrifying.

He tells the wide-eyed inquirers that the fourth plane was meant to hit the White House. While America cannot live without McDonald’s and celebrities, Bin Laden’s followers could “survive on stale bread.”

Yet, when the smile fades and the joking ceases, we find a conflicted man, which takes the viewer on an emotional roller-coaster ride.

It is hard to ignore the anger  that builds at his contempt for the country we call home, but in the next scene we find him waking his young son Habeeb for a morning prayer. A child can make even the most terrifying man turn human, and watching Jandal’s interactions with his son do just that.

As the movie develops, it uncovers the heavy burden that Jandal carries with him. Once a man of immense power, he now lives in debt. He repeats that he now has “nothing,” compared to the lifestyle he once had, when he had a purpose, a goal.

There is no security in the life that he lives, even as a regular citizen driving a cab around Yemen. He lives in constant fear of assassination.

Portias is unafraid to show us incidents that raise the hair on our necks. Conversations between Al-Qaeda members about their plans to hit the World Trade Center hit a raw spot, and footage from an ABC interview with Bin Laden pre-9/11 where he talks about destroying America is tough to watch.

As Jandal searches to find peace with himself, we search to find our true feelings about him. Is he truly a changed man who solemnly declares that he would never advocate a terrorist attack like 9/11? Or is he still deeply rooted in terrorism, his smile and rhetoric a facade covering his true beliefs?

Your mind will race almost as fast as Jandal’s as you leave the theater.

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