Tuesday, May 11, 2010
An Eye on America Is Also Under Watch
ANY journalist working in a war-torn or politically unstable region knows the risks and headaches of the job: threats to personal safety, difficulties of access, interference from authorities. For the documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, who has now made one film in occupied Iraq (the Oscar-nominated “My Country, My Country”) and another in the volatile Persian Gulf state of Yemen (“The Oath”), there is the added complication of being, she believes, on a United States government watch list.
Flying home to New York in 2006 from a film festival in Sarajevo, Ms. Poitras was stopped while changing planes in Vienna and questioned by security agents there. Since then she has traveled to Yemen repeatedly to work on “The Oath” and, by her count, she has been stopped for questioning more than 20 times; whenever she arrives home from a trip abroad, customs and border-protection officials are waiting for her plane, she said.
When going to the Berlin film festival in February to show “The Oath,” Ms. Poitras said, airline agents at Kennedy Airport told her she was not authorized to board the flight; she was only allowed on after her lawyer made a few well-placed calls.
For security reasons the United States government does not say why people are on the watch list, or even confirm that they are on it. But Ms. Poitras said she thinks it is the frequency of her trips to the Middle East and the associations she has made in the course of making her films that have raised concerns.
All that time she has spent in the danger zones of Iraq and Yemen have produced two of the most searching documentaries of the post-9/11 era, on-the-ground chronicles that are sensitive to both the political and the human consequences of American foreign policy.
“My Country, My Country” observes the prelude to the 2005 Iraqi elections through the eyes of a Sunni doctor seeking a seat on the Baghdad Provincial Council. “The Oath,” which had its premiere at Sundance in January and is now playing at the IFC Center in Manhattan, again uses what Ms. Poitras calls a “micro-macro” approach, “following an individual story to look at the bigger questions.”
Her intended focus was the American detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, and her initial idea was to document the homecoming of a released prisoner. She started her search in Yemen, the home of a significant number of Guantánamo detainees, including the most prominent of them all, Salim Hamdan.
Captured in Afghanistan in November 2001, Mr. Hamdan had worked as a driver for Osama bin Laden since the mid-1990s. He was the first person to stand trial under the military tribunals that the Bush administration devised after 9/11 and that the Supreme Court, ruling in the case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, later found to be a violation of international law.
In Sana, Yemen’s capital, a local journalist helping Ms. Poitras asked if she wanted to meet Mr. Hamdan’s family. She found herself in the living room of a voluble man in his early 30s who went by the nom de guerre Abu Jandal (his real name is Nasser al-Bahri). Without looking for him, Ms. Poitras had stumbled upon an ideal subject for her film: “Someone who intersects in so many ways with the post-9/11 universe,” she said.
Abu Jandal once worked for Al Qaeda, serving as a bodyguard for Mr. bin Laden and running guest houses in Afghanistan for new recruits. It was Abu Jandal who enlisted Mr. Hamdan on a jihadi mission in the mid-’90s, and the two men became brothers-in-law when they married sisters at Mr. bin Laden’s urging.
It took patience and persistence to get the kind of access to Abu Jandal that Ms. Poitras wanted. “He wouldn’t say no, but dates would keep getting pushed,” she said. She shot the film over two years, making a dozen trips to Yemen and waiting for days or weeks until he was ready to meet. Sometimes a monthlong trip would yield a mere four or five hours of footage.
Abu Jandal is not exactly publicity shy. In “The Oath” Ms. Poitras incorporates clips from his television appearances, on “60 Minutes” and an Al Jazeera program, and shows him being interviewed by Robert F. Worth, a reporter for The New York Times. But while it was not hard to get Mr. Jandal to talk, Ms. Poitras also wanted to shadow him in everyday settings. In “The Oath” he is seen holding court with young radicals, praying with his son and chatting with passengers in his taxi.
Ms. Poitras said she constantly wrestled with the contradictions of Abu Jandal, who has renounced terrorism but still supports the goals of Al Qaeda, and with the idea of making a film about a religious extremist who is so charismatic. While most political documentaries are only too eager to tell the viewer what to think, “The Oath” keeps the expectations and sympathies of audiences in provocative flux.
In the largely progressive world of American political documentaries, Ms. Poitras said: “I knew I was making a film that wasn’t going to be easily messaged. It doesn’t fit into an easy story, something we can rally around and use as a symbol of what’s wrong with the war on terror.”
Abu Jandal’s troublesome charm is both a crucial part of the story and a central conundrum for the storyteller. “You have to show the charisma to understand how this organization works,” Ms. Poitras said, referring to Al Qaeda. “But it also feels like you’re playing with fire because you don’t want to be a mouthpiece for him.”
Another difficulty was in figuring out how to tell Mr. Hamdan’s story alongside Abu Jandal’s. While Ms. Poitras filmed him in Yemen, her co-cinematographer, Kirsten Johnson, was at Guantánamo Bay, following his brother-in-law’s trial. (Ms. Johnson also shot the exterior scenes in Yemen; she and Ms. Poitras won the best cinematography award in the documentary section at Sundance.)
Off limits to the filmmakers, Mr. Hamdan is the specter who haunts “The Oath.” His letters to Abu Jandal are heard in voice-over, accompanying ominous shots of barren Guantánamo landscapes. Cameras were not allowed in the courtroom, so Ms. Johnson’s approach was to “spend as much time as I could at the trial, and then carry that with me out into the world,” she said, looking for visual analogues to evoke Mr. Hamdan’s condition. (On the stand Mr. Hamdan, who had been held in solitary confinement, described the sensation of “growing eyes” all over his body.)
Ms. Poitras described the making of “The Oath” as “a constant process of negotiation,” with Abu Jandal in person and then again in the editing room as she and her editor, Jonathan Oppenheim, pored over the raw material.
“Usually you see two sides of people when you’re looking at footage, and they seem fairly integrated,” Mr. Oppenheim said. “I would see 8 or 10 people in Abu Jandal.”
With its surprising reversals and deferred revelations, not to mention an antihero who doubles as an unreliable narrator, “The Oath” draws on storytelling methods more often associated with fiction than with documentary. During her ample downtime in Yemen, Ms. Poitras said, she read Don DeLillo novels, including “Mao II” and “Libra,” which had explored the horror and mystique of terrorism long before 9/11. And while editing, she had in the back of her mind the streamlined moral film thrillers of the Dardenne brothers.
“He’s a complicated protagonist and, in a sense, he’s irreconcilable,” Ms. Poitras said of Abu Jandal. “The film was very much about constructing a mystery around who this guy is. There’s a constant questioning about his motivations.”
Ms. Poitras has yet to settle on her next project, but there will be less international travel involved. She sees “My Country, My Country” and “The Oath” as the first two parts of a trilogy that she plans to conclude with a documentary about domestic surveillance or the 9/11 trials.
Whatever it is, the next film will try to confront, on home turf, the original trauma of 9/11 that ripples through her Iraq and Yemen documentaries. “I really think they’re movies about America,” she said, “and I want to wrap it up here.”
Posted by Chris Mansel at 3:37 AM