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Former San Francisco Chef Turned Filmmaker Examines the Post-9/11 World in ‘The Oath’

Laura Poitras is no stranger to conflict. After making her directorial debut in 2003 with Flag Wars, a provocative examination of tensions stirred by urban gentrification in Columbus, Ohio, Poitras traveled to Iraq for her 2006 follow-up, the Oscar-nominated documentary My Country, My Country, in which she monitored America’s occupation during a six-month period leading to the 2005 national election.

She returns this week with The Oath, the second entry in a trilogy about post-9/11 America, which follows two men bearing very different burdens: Abu Jandal, a former bodyguard to Osama bin Laden, struggling to reconcile his al-Qaeda past with his pointed distaste for terrorism, while his brother-in-law Salim Hamdan is wrongly imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay in the mistaken belief that he aided bin Laden’s suicide bombers.

For Poitras, politically charged documentaries were not always her meal ticket. Before she made movies, she was a chef for 10 years, moving from Boston to create four-star French cuisine at Masa’s in San Francisco. (“It’s a better food town,” she says.) But once she took a class under experimental filmmaker Ernie Gehr at the city’s Art Institute, she found a new passion.

“I fell in love with filming people,” she says. “I wanted to capture drama unfolding, situations involving conflict, which is counterintuitive for me because I’m not very extroverted.

“I’m not interested in going to the third world and taking pictures of people who are suffering, then presenting them back to viewers who consume these images and feel sympathy. There are so many movies that confirm the status quo and make people feel good about themselves ‘cause they get to care about the victims of the world. I want to make films that make the viewer feel culpable.”

The Oath is no exception, presenting a disquieting portrait of jihadis recruited to kill Western innocents, but also making the argument that America’s intrusion in the Middle East, coupled with its reckless treatment of Guantanamo detainees, has helped create a new generation of potential terrorists.

Poitras acknowledges that her appetite for conflict comes with occupational hazards – “I went to the Middle East during a time when Westerners were being kidnapped and beheaded,” she says – but insists that her responsibilities as a filmmaker supersede the risks.

“As a documentarian, I think having primary documents of this history is really important,” she says. “I was compelled by a feeling that, as an American, I should be telling this story in the present tense, but also just to have a record. When I think about it now, it seems like a stupid idea. Is it worth the risk to cover these types of stories? You’ve got to believe that it is. Your belief has to be stronger than the fear.”

Even so, Poitras, who never lost sight of the fact that she was a target, took precautions. She avoided Baghdad, which she considered too dangerous. And she always carried two videotapes of her visit to the Abu Ghraib prison as proof, in case she was kidnapped, of her intent. Poitras describes the tapes as “her best chance of getting out alive.”

Not only did she survive, she returned from her journey with a remarkable story. She went to Yemen to find former Guantanamo detainees, hoping to capture the drama of a just-released prisoner coming home.

On her second day there, she was offered the opportunity to meet Hamdan’s family and, recognizing his name – his case against then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, whom he accused of violating the 1949 Geneva Convention, had gone to the Supreme Court – eagerly accepted. It was just a short while before she encountered the outspoken Jandal, whose stunning commentary makes The Oath essential viewing.

“It was surreal,” she says. “It was mind-exploding. I knew instantly that he could walk me through this history, with stories of things he’d done and people he knew. But it took a very long time and a lot of patience to get him to talk on camera.

“It’s a compelling story, and a good example of how you head into the field thinking you’re going to do one thing – find somebody innocent from Guantanamo coming home – and then doing something else entirely. I found someone who was in the al-Qaeda’s inner circle. And at first he seems like a monster, a bin Laden apologist. But the more you learn about him and his motivations, the more you have to question what you’ve seen, and how you respond to him. That’s a tough story to walk away from.”