Monday, May 3, 2010

Laura Poitras' THE OATH captures Islamic -- and western -- hypocrisy

Mercutio's dying curse, "A plague on both your houses!" came to mind as TrustMovies was watching THE OATH, a new documentary by Laura Poitras (My Country, My Country) that steeps us in the hypocrisy and stupidity of some of the practitioners of Islam, as well as that of various arms of the government of The United States of America. Which is the worse offender? View this film, and TM defies you to make any kind of reasoned choice.

To her great credit (and probably to the detriment of her film's box-office take), Ms Poitras (below) refuses to lead us along by the nose or make any of our judgments for us. The Oath is one of the more difficult movies I have encountered over the past year. I had to listen very carefully and I can't tell you how often I wanted to press pause, rewind and listen again.  Wait a minute!  Didn't that guy just contradict himself?  Didn't he say almost the exact opposite a scene or two preceding?  And so forth.  You may feel as did I that you are acting in the role of juror -- in a case where the opposing participants are both liars of a very high (or is it low?) order.

Oaths are all over the place in this film: that taken by Abu Jandal, a cab driver in Yemen who used to act as bodyguard for Osama bin Laden (that oath is about protecting bin Laden); then there is the oath to Islam, of course. On our side is the oath to preserve justice and defend one, Salim Hamdan, bin Laden's former driver and the first man to face the controversial military tribunals of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.  We could also go into the oath of office taken by virtually every member of the U.S. Congress (not to mention our President), each of which is counteracted by Congress' sleazy redrafting of the military tribunal law, after our Supreme Court ruled in Mr. Hamdan's favor in the landmark case of Hamdan vs Rumsfeld -- thus creating new charges to file against this prisoner. (We won't even get into the Bush Administration's lies about WMDs and the like.)

So many oaths are broken so embarrassingly or cavalierly in this film, you will soon wonder if, after all, this is what an oath is for.  (Remind me never to make one.)  Poitras' main protagonist, Abu Jandal has a son he is trying to raise. (I don't recall where the wife/mother is, but then, as this is Islam, we would not see much of her anyway.)  With a ready smile, a quick mouth and a checkered past, he drives that cab, teaches classes in Jihad on the side and appears to be a self-aggrandizing liar. ("I do not train youths for Jihad," he later explains -- although we have seen and heard one of his students arguing with him regarding Islam's proclamation against the killing of innocents, which Abu Jandal then find a reason to excuse. What a guy!)   Of the prisoner Hamdan, we see almost nothing, and by the finale, we understand that this is exactly the way that Hamdan wants it. (Whatever his true feelings or beliefs may be, it is easy to respect him for his silence.)

We meet Hamdan's defense attorney, who seems utterly stymied, though whether he is a part of his own stymie-izaton, I was not sure.  Finally, we learn of the FBI interrogation of Abu Jandal conducted within a week of 9/11.  This becomes the icing on the cake-bomb. Could the FBI have been as stupid, or as naive, or  both -- deliberately -- as Judith Miller was when she wrote her trash for the Times?  Looks that way. Yours truly, no slacker in the naivete department, could hardly have done a worse job.

There are some moments of levity here, most especially during Jandals' "non-existent" Jihad training, when he sends his son out to buy a bottle of British Ginger.  "You're supporting western manufacturers," he is reminded by one of his students. But that is the least of his hypocrisies. You may sit there, post-screening, as did my friend and I, barely able to rise from our seats after all we'd seen. No wonder our little middle east adventure has tuned out to be such a fucking mess.

The Oath, from Zeitgeist Films, more than any other film I have seen except Charles Ferguson's No End in Sight, captures the arrogance and stupidity of our presumption.  Ferguson gives us the big picture, while Poitras zeros in on two small cogs, and simultaneously offers clues to that great gulf between east and west.  Her movie opens this Friday, May 7, in New York City at the IFC Center.  Further playdates -- with cities, dates and theaters -- can be found here.

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