For the past decade or so, we have suffered from an inability to comprehend, or even to imagine, the inner lives of the young men who wage jihad as members of Al Qaeda. Who are these men, so eager for asceticism, violence, and martyrdom? At first, we think that’s what we’ll learn from “The Oath,” a fascinating documentary directed, produced, and shot by Laura Poitras. We don’t really, but what we do find out is of equal interest, and oddly reassuring.
Poitras’s principal subject, Abu Jandal (a nom de guerre), who is now in his late thirties, was born in Saudi Arabia to Yemeni parents. When he was nineteen, he went to the Balkans to fight alongside the Bosnian Muslims; in 1996, he joined Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Bin Laden’s hair-raising threats against the West alternated with a fatherly gentleness, and Abu Jandal, after taking an oath of fealty to the man he calls “the Sheikh,” became his bodyguard. (Osvaldo Golijov’s music on the soundtrack suggests a mystical bond between the two men.) Abu Jandal also recruited a Yemeni friend, Salim Hamdan, who eventually became bin Laden’s driver. When bin Laden ordered the two men to marry a pair of Yemeni sisters, they became brothers-in-law. In 2000, both men travelled to Yemen: Abu Jandal was arrested and detained; Hamdan returned to Afghanistan and after 9/11 was captured by Afghan soldiers, who turned him over to the American military. He was imprisoned at Guantánamo, where he spent seven years.
The movie proceeds on two tracks. In Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, Abu Jandal, who was released from prison in 2002, drives a taxi for a living, moving slowly though sun-drenched, crowded streets, chatting up passengers and shouting at other cars. He raises his children, instilling the spirit of struggle in his adorable little boy, who would rather watch cartoons. He also holds intense sessions with earnest young Yemeni men, whom he dazzles with tales of bin Laden and imprecations against the West, while cautioning them against terrorism. Abu Jandal, I suppose, is a semi-apostate. He is sure that the West wants to sweep Islam away—he has heard the Americans say so. But he will not commit terrorist acts. Poitras keeps the camera on him, trying to let us see how his mind works. He’s an extraordinary subject—handsome, lively, explicit, often eloquent, and bizarrely divided in his nature. At certain times, he’s a proud warrior, electrified by his loathing of Western ideas; at others, he’s scornful of terrorist “spectacle”—the explosions and the deaths—advocating instead that young men defend Islam by becoming doctors and other civilian professionals; at still others, he’s an anxious householder, as worried about such things as his health and his children’s school bills as any American middle-class husband.
Poitras cuts back and forth between the scenes with Abu Jandal, which were apparently shot a few years ago, and views of Guantánamo. Dull skies, a sullen ocean, squat white prison buildings—it’s a landscape of emotional devastation. The general forlornness supports the mood of Hamdan’s prison letters to his family, which sound anguished, pious, and unthreatening. We see him only once, in a frightening, blurry videotape of his initial questioning by American soldiers. But for Hamdan help was on the way. A pair of American military lawyers, Lieutenant Commander Brian Mizer and Lieutenant Commander Charles Swift, believed that the prolonged detainment and likely prosecution of a man who was no more than bin Laden’s driver was absurd. In 2006, the Supreme Court ruled that any prosecution of Hamdan by a military commission would violate the Geneva conventions and American law, at which point Congress drafted a new law allowing the prosecution to go forward. In a 2008 trial at Guantánamo, Hamdan was cleared of “conspiracy” to commit terror but convicted of “material support” of terrorism. Thanks to his American military lawyers, he was finally released, in January, 2009.
When Abu Jandal, driving around Sanaa, speaks of his brother-in-law, he blames himself for what happened. It turns out that he’s a miserably guilty man. When he worked for bin Laden, he says, he reached the glorious summit of Islam, but his life in Yemen is a retreat from manhood and dignity to disgrace. Why, then, did he quit? Was it only to take care of his family? Simple fear? What Poitras makes clear only slowly in this psychological portrait is that after 9/11, when Abu Jandal was still imprisoned in Yemen, he was grilled by the F.B.I. and gave up names of Al Qaeda members—including, reportedly, his brother-in-law—and places in Afghanistan where arms were kept. Abu Jandal is, in fact, a prime example of the success of interrogation conducted without “enhanced” techniques. In jihadist terms, he is a traitor and a clown, dining out on his long-ago association with bin Laden. In human terms, his affection for his family and his fear suggest a love of life that is stronger than the pull of fanaticism. Poitras’s movie digs deep; it hints at the violently conflicting drives that an intelligent human being may be liable to. In Yemen, Abu Jandal is a dangling man, almost an anti-hero, like someone in a very Western novel (by Camus, say) from sixty years ago. Yet the very banality of his character—his vanity, his garrulousness, his guilt—makes him a heartening case. It seems that not everyone committed to fanaticism in youth will remain so for the rest of his life. At some point, and in some men, single-mindedness gives way to normal human weakness, restraint, and decency.
The four infants in the French documentary “Babies” are determined little creatures, eager for a breast to latch on to, a cat that can be grabbed and pulled at. The children, three girls and a boy, live in four different places: on the red earth of Namibia, on the plains of Mongolia, and in apartments in the vertical cities of San Francisco and Tokyo. The film, made by the director Thomas Balmès and the producer Alain Chabat, shows the babies at parallel stages in their lives—just after birth, and then as they are suckling, crawling, eating mush, playing, and so on, right up to their first words and steps. It’s a globalist idyll of infancy, a “Family of Man” celebration made possible by crisp editing. The movie is pleasing—who doesn’t love gurgling babies?—but as anodyne as a series of episodes from “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” The Japanese baby, Mari, has a particularly antic routine in which she becomes frustrated while trying to fit a peg into a hole, throws her head to the side in operatic despair, and propels herself backward, landing with a thump, like Chaplin taking a pratfall. The movie was shot with a high-definition digital camera set on a tripod, and the result is a series of exquisitely photographed portraits—ethnographic album-making.
Balmès and Chabat appear to be working with universalist and particularist ambitions at the same time. In some ways, the kids are alike. All of them are loved. The Namibian and Mongolian babies, living in tiny shelters amid vast open areas, are poor, but, as far as we can see, their lives are free of illness and squalor. Nevertheless, they are quite different from the other two children. The Tokyo and San Francisco infants are bathed, swaddled, stretch-suited; they play inside, with toys; their fathers take an active part in raising them. The babies in Namibia and Mongolia are outside most of the time. Ponijao, the Namibian child, is nearly naked, as is her mother, and she plays with whatever is at hand—a rock, a little boy’s penis, an animal wandering by. Ponijao and the Mongolian baby, Bayar, are often on their own, at some distance from their mothers (their fathers, working, are almost never seen). They don’t appear to be as safe as the Japanese and American children, but they enjoy an incomparable liberty, a blissful ease in nature. Cows walk gingerly around them, and goats become pets, while the urban babies see animals behind glass partitions in a zoo or look at pictures of them in a rubber book. The filmmakers don’t make overt judgments, but they clearly want to open our eyes to the benefits of anxiety-free child-rearing in the rough. I detected only one satirical sally: The San Francisco baby, Hattie, and her mother attend some sort of New Age group-parenting session. The mothers, raising their arms in supplication, sing a ghastly hymn to the earth, at which point Hattie heads for the door. Meanwhile, in Namibia and Mongolia, the babies are in the earth—sitting on it, playing with it, glorying in it. The filmmakers register their point, but I don’t think it’s entirely parochial to note that, two decades from now, the American and Japanese children will probably have many choices open to them (including living close to the land), while the Mongolian and Namibian children are more likely to be restricted in their choices to the soil that nurtured them.