A few questions with filmmaker Laura Poitras

Poitras’ film<i>The Oath</i> screens Wednesday the Rich Theatre, and her exhibit opens at the Contemporary Saturday


  • Laura Poitras
  • A still from Poitras’ The Oath

Laura Poitras went to Yemen a few years ago with the intention of finding a family to profile who had a member in or recently released from Guantanamo. Her plans changed, though, when she met bin Laden’s former bodyguard. Poitras, then in the early stages of her second film in a trilogy on post-9/11 realities (the first, My Country, My Country, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary), quickly shifted gears to tell the tangled family story of Abu Jandal, bin Laden’s former body guard now living as a taxi driver in Yemen, and his ill-fated brother-in-law Salim Hamdan, a Guantanamo prisoner and the first to face the military tribunals. The Oath, which was released earlier this year, has already won a handful of awards, including Sundance Film Festival’s Cinematography Award. It screens Wednesday night at the Rich Theatre in the Woodruff Arts Center. Poitras will be there for a Q&A following the screening. In addition to this week’s screening, Poitras’ multimedia exhibit O’ Say Can You See? opens Sat., Oct. 9 at the Contemporary.

How did you meet Abu Jandal and what it was like?
I was interested in making a film about Guantanamo and I began by contacting lawyers who were representing detainees. I met a lawyer named David Reams and he was about to take a trip to Yemen, so he said, “Do you want to come on the trip?” and I said, “Yes.” And so I went looking to try and find a family with someone who might be returning home, who might be released and coming home, so that was the story I was looking to tell.

When we got there we were working with a local journalist in Sana’a and he said, “Would you like to meet Salim Hamdan’s family?” and of course I knew Salim Hamdan’s case, and I said, “Yes, of course, I want to meet his family,” and then was ushered into Abu Jandal’s living room, and was kind of thrown for a loop, because, here was this guy who was clearly very close to Al Qaeda driving a taxicab while lots of other people were being held — many completely innocent — at Guantanamo.

It’s startling and makes you wonder how is this even possible, him there living a normal life. Did you ever find an answer to that question?
That was what was so compelling about it, because it’s the wrong guy taking a fall — it’s got a classic theme — and this other guy out driving a taxicab, which I just thought was kind of surreal and fascinating. And not only that, but Abu Jandal lives literally in the shadows of the U.S Embassy in Yemen, so I would have to go past the U.S. Embassy, past their barrier, to get to Abu Jandal’s house, so it was very surreal that you could just have these conversations.

I was immediately really compelled by him and what his story was, because he was such a player in so many different levels, but I was also nervous on lots of levels — it was just sort of the basic nervousness about my safety, but then there was the storytelling nervousness, like what would it mean to tell a story about a somebody who worked for bin Laden and is also a shifty character.