F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 15, 2015)

15 01 2015

Layout 1In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, the world once again finds itself in a place of anger and fear towards the Islamic faith because of a few violent radicals.  So often, the media tends to “otherize” these jihadists, completely denying them any shred of humanity because of their barbaric acts.  Needless to say, any detailed attempt to actually understand why they do these things is totally off the table.

Thank goodness, though, for documentarians like Laura Poitras (who now seems almost destined to win the Oscar for her courageous and journalistic “Citizenfour“).  She dares to search inside the hearts and minds of the people often made out to be the enemy, simply portraying them for who they are without taking a judgmental stance.  Her second feature, “The Oath,” takes a long look at al-Qaeda operatists in Yemen.

Watching the film does not require sympathy with the terrorists.  Poitras simply asks that they not be deemed savages without hearing their worldview.  “The Oath” is my choice for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” for the way it puts a human face on jihadists and Islamic fundamentalists, going beyond their violent suicide attacks.  Possessing an understanding of them based in knowledge rather than in fear and hatred can only elevate policy discussion, right?

Poitras focuses most of her attention on Nasser Al-Bahri, also known as Abu Jandal.  By day, Abu Jandal is a taxi driver in San’a.  Off the streets, however, he trains the next generation of jihadists.  As he explains, “We don’t need everyone working in TNT and C4,” and his gift of switching the primacy of mens’ paths from men to Allah makes him too valuable an asset to sacrifice.  He spreads awareness of why al Qaeda attacked, yet he is no longer actively involved in the prior planning or subsequent justifying of such attacks.

Abu Jandal is decidedly against America and the West, but Poitras does not hesitate the highlight the complexities of his background and character.  Prior to the events shown in the film, Abu Jandal had served as a bodyguard to Osama bin Laden himself.  Yet when he saw the events of 9/11, he reacted with shock and dismay.  Imprisoned at the time, Abu Jandal decided to share his knowledge with the American authorities and provided enough valuable intelligence to justify delaying an invasion of Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Poitras also details the trial of Abu Jandal’s former companion, Salim Hamdan, who faces trial of questionable ethics in Guantanamo.  These scenes are colder and less intimate than the main narrative, playing like a classic political exposé documentary.  Nonetheless, the storylines still pair well with each other.

In “The Oath,” the subjects are neither lionized nor demonized.  Poitras simply allows to speak freely and openly about their beliefs without having to assume a defensive tone.  This is an opportunity to learn and listen like few others ever presented.

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