'The Oath' director seeks conflict 

Laura Poitras is no stranger to conflict.

After making her directorial debut in 2003 with “Flag Wars,” a provocative examination of urban gentrification in Columbus, Ohio, Poitras traveled to Iraq for the Oscar-nominated documentary “My Country, My Country,” in which she monitored America’s occupation during a six-month period leading to the 2005 national election.

Now in theaters is “The Oath,” the second entry in a trilogy about post-9/11 America, which follows two men bearing very different burdens: Abu Jandal, a former bodyguard to Osama bin Laden, living in Yemen and struggling to reconcile his al-Qaida past with his distaste for terrorism, while his brother-in-law Salim Hamdan is imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay in the belief that he aided bin Laden’s suicide bombers.

For Poitras, politically charged documentaries weren’t always her meal ticket.

She was a chef for 10 years, moving from Boston to create four-star French cuisine at Masa’s in San Francisco. (“It’s a better food town,” she says.)

But after taking a class under experimental filmmaker Ernie Gehr at the San Francisco Art Institute, she found a new passion.

“I fell in love with filming people,” she says. “I wanted to capture drama unfolding, situations involving conflict. I’m not interested in going to the Third World and taking pictures of people who are suffering, then presenting them to viewers who feel sympathy. I want to make films that make the viewer feel culpable.”

Poitras acknowledges that her appetite for conflict comes with occupational hazards. “I went to the Middle East during a time when Westerners were being kidnapped and beheaded,” she says. “Is it worth the risk to cover these types of stories? You’ve got to believe that it is. Your belief has to be stronger than the fear.”

In the end, she returned with a remarkable story.

She went to Yemen to find former Guantanamo Bay detainees. There, she met Hamdan’s family and the outspoken Jandal.

“It was surreal,” she says. “I knew instantly that he could walk me through this history, with stories of things he’d done and people he knew. But it took a very long time to get him to talk on camera.

“It’s a good example of how you head into the field thinking you’re going to do one thing and then do something else entirely. At first, [Jandal] seems like a monster, a bin Laden apologist. But the more you learn about him and his motivations, the more you have to question what you’ve seen, and how you respond to him. That’s a tough story to walk away from.”


IF YOU GO
The Oath

With
Abu Jandal, Salim Hamdan
Directed by Laura Poitras
Not rated
Running time 1 hour 35 minutes

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Staff Report

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