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.
“I told him America can’t fight without planes, girlfriends, pizza and macaroni. But our jihadis can live on stale bread.” So says Abu Jandal, Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguard, who argues with a prospective jihadi that the murder of American innocents on 9/11 was justified, a simple strategic strike that represented a great symbolic victory. “Tarzan wanted to enter the region,” he says, meaning the Middle East. “Now he must pay the price.”
As a storyteller, Laura Poitras is at once provocative and probing, and if her style draws us in with footage that could be described as misleading – her primary subject, former Osama bin Laden bodyguard Abu Jandal, is more compassionate than he initially seems – she delivers a thoughtful portrait of a difficult subject. Jandal is, it turns out, not a violent revolutionary or an advocate of suicide bombings. Who he is, and the lessons he imparts to his young followers, are far more complicated, but always guided by a rigorous adherence to what he regards as Islamic principle.