The Oath

PBS Premiere: Sept. 21, 2010Check the broadcast schedule »

Ask the Filmmaker


POV: Thanks for joining us for this live chat! Filmmaker Laura Poitras will be here at 2:00 to answer your questions.

POV: Meanwhile, please feel free to submit your questions in advance.

POV: Hi everyone, and welcome Laura!

POV: Let's get started with our first question.

Comment From Marie
What will your third film be about, and what do you hope to achieve with the trilogy?

Laura Poitras: Hi, thanks for having me.

Laura Poitras: With this working I want to understand big issues through telling individual stories.

Laura Poitras: I also want to record this history...

Laura Poitras: I'm still researching the next film, there are themes I'm interested in...

Laura Poitras: like domestic surveillance.

Comment From Ruth
When I see the success of capable American interrogators who uphold our principles (not using torture) it astounds me that we stooped to torture later. This is a story that is important. Thanks for giving us this even at this date. What has happened to Hamden?

Laura Poitras: Ali Soufan, who interrogated Abu Jandal, is s real hero in the film...

Laura Poitras: Lawrence Wright's incredible The Looming Tower talks about him. Unfortunately, he quit the FBI because of what was being done.

Comment From Julia
Are you still in touch with everyone from the film? What was/is your relationship with them like? was it hard to build trust?

Laura Poitras: Hamdan is home. He has stayed out of the media.

Laura Poitras: My relationship to Abu Jandal was different from other films I've worked on...

Laura Poitras: it took at long time to film, and I never knew exactly where I stood...

Laura Poitras: he made me nervous to obvious reasons....

Laura Poitras: I don't communicate with him directly, but my Yemeni colleagues keep me up to date. He is doing better than at the end of the film.

Comment From Sirin
Hi Laura, amazing film! In your opinion, has Abu Jindal really bought into tenets of the "rehab" program that got him out of jail c/o the govt of Yemen? The film, justifiably so, leaves this question open-ended; I'm wondering your thoughts after spending so much time with him

Laura Poitras: I think he was changed by the rehap program, but I think more by spending time in jail...

Laura Poitras: I think these kinds of programs can be helpful for people who want to change their lives...

Laura Poitras: In terms of spending time with him, it wasn't easy, but I thought the access was unique and tells an important story.

Comment From sarah
how did you gain access to the jihad information meetings? Do you think being a woman filmmaker had an effect in that process?

Laura Poitras: When I first met Abu Jandal I would always see these young guys with him...

Laura Poitras: I then learned he was holding meetings, so I asked if I could film. I think being a woman might have helped...

Laura Poitras: but the really reason I think I got the access was because I made a film in Iraq before, and they respected that.

Comment From Karen
was filming in Yemen as dangerous as filming in Baghdad? How long did you spend there?

Laura Poitras: No, Yemen is not as dangerous at working in Baghdad...

Laura Poitras: In Yemen I lived alone and had a normal life. In Baghdad, going to a cafe was life threatening...

Comment From Ismaeel
Hi, Laura. What a quiet but intense film. Very subtle. Really well done and thought provoking. It seemed in the film that you had an Arabic translator. Do you feel like anything was lost in your exchanges with Jandal? Given the complexity of his character, I would imagine that it was even more difficult for you to get a handle on him if you had to use an intermediary. Do you speak Yemeni Arabic yourself?

Laura Poitras: There are tourist in Yemen and it is an amazing country. Sadly, the situation has been getting worse...

Laura Poitras: the biggest danger for me was being kidnapped.

Laura Poitras: I don't speak Arabic - I know a little to get by, but that's all. So it was challenging...

Laura Poitras: my editor Jonathan Oppenheim and I were cutting as I was shooting, so we could follow up on things and try to get to the bottom of his contradictions...

Laura Poitras: but also the story is about a man who is conflicted and has a secret, so I knew I'd never know everything. We just tried to make that part of the film.

Comment From Jessica
Did Abu Jandal see the film? and if he did what was his response? Did you include him in the editing process?

Laura Poitras: I did not include him in the editing process, but I did send the film to Yemen before it was made public...

Laura Poitras: I haven't spoken to him directly about it, but I think his reaction has been mixed, but he appreciated the complexity of the film...

Laura Poitras: as the film shows, he if facing many dangers, so I think his feelings about the film change depending on those factors.

Comment From Fatima
Laura, I read the NYTimes piece about the film and really liked the way you described the convoluted form of storytelling - how you needed to show Jandal's charisma without being swallowed by it. How difficult was it for you to find this balance? Also, while I did view Jandal as a charismatic character, I also viewed him as being incredibly lost - a character who deeply needs to feel committed to something - anything - committed to jihad, committed to not engaging in jihad. I think that was the only thing I was completely sure about when it came to understanding him. Did Janal feel very lost to you? Did you feel like he had an addiction (or desire) to "committment" ?

Laura Poitras: Really, the film is a psychological portrait of a conflicted man. I agree with your read on him...

Comment From Tom
are there things you had to leave out of the film? if so what were they?

Laura Poitras: it was complicated terrain for a documentary. Usually you know where you stand, but with him I was always questioning what to believe. I think the most important thing for me was this interrogation right after 9/11. I think this is the key.

Laura Poitras: I didn't leave anything out, but there were other things I wanted to include...

Laura Poitras: I did want to film Hamdan's return, but I respect his decision not to speak with the media.

Comment From Shawn
I read an interview in which you talked about how Don DeLillo and the Dardenne brothers were inspirations to you for THE OATH. In what ways?

Laura Poitras: I read Underworld and Libra in Yemen. The themes of DeLillo's work really resonate for me. In terms of the Dardenne brothers, I love how much they trust the audience...

Laura Poitras: The Oath is a challenging film.

Comment From Rona
What is your background in religion and education?

Laura Poitras: I studied art and political theory, which inform the work...

Laura Poitras: For me, The Oath and my film about Iraq are efforts to understand America post 9/11...

Laura Poitras: they aren't so much about religion.

Comment From Mike
Brian Mizer is a fascinating character. Did you ever consider interviewing him for the film?

Laura Poitras: Brian is amazing. He makes me very proud to be an American...

Laura Poitras: I would have loved to film more, but his focus was on the job of defending Hamdan, not being on camera, which I respect very much.

Comment From George
Where there any legal obstacles related to the filming?

Laura Poitras: I'm dealing with sensitive issues, so I had a great lawyer working with me. David Smallman, who also represents Valerie Plame Wilson...

Laura Poitras: but my work is protected like any other journalist, but it is good to have people in your corner.

Comment From Mark
Can you speak a little bit about Abu Jandals son? Was it difficult to watch this child's impressionable mind be privy to the same things his father was?

Laura Poitras: Because I'm not fluent, I don't always know exactly what is happening until I get the translation...

Laura Poitras: so with Habeeb, I would find out after. But you can see his love for his father and desire to please, which was troubling. I would love to make a film about him in 10 years.

Comment From John
During the making of The Oath, what did you learn that you did not know about Al-Qaeda and the psychology of those that belong?

Laura Poitras: Honestly, I never thought i would find myself in a room with someone like Abu Jandal. What interested me was how to understand someone so committed who turned away because of the events of 9/11. i think that is important to understand.

Comment From james.v.pharr
Have you begun to focus on "individual lives & stories" in your current research for Film 3 about domestic surveillance?..or this may still be confidential..?..

Laura Poitras: In all my work, I'm interested in understanding big issues through the lives of individuals...

Laura Poitras: as for the next project, it is too early for me to discuss so publicly.

Comment From Kay
How long where you there total?

Laura Poitras: About 10 months over the course of 2 years.

Comment From Pat
Thank you very much for this very thoughtful work. Can you tell me the name of the music played at the end of the film?

Laura Poitras: The music is amazing. The composer is Osvaldo Golijov and the singer is Dawn Upshaw. The song at the end is from the cd Ayre which you can find on iTunes, etc.

Comment From Sara
In the film, Abu Jandal describes bin Laden as a father figure to himself and the other jahadists. In trying to understand the jihadi mindset, what should Americans understand about elder/youth relationships in Muslim culture? Abu Jandal was telling them to stay in Yemen and get an education, but are they also meeting with other elders who are telling them to go fight?

Laura Poitras: The young guys told me that there are people trying to recruit young men - at that time, to fight in Iraq. They told me that Abu Jandal was telling them to not go...

POV: Hi everyone. We only have time for one or two more questions. Please send in any last minute questions now!

Comment From Elsie
Laura, as an American woman, I lived and worked in the Middle East for some time, and one thing that always shocked me was how skilled so many people were at lying. In many ways, i found Arab culture to be one of duplicity and secrecy. There's so much that people are forced to hide. But, in the Arab world it's never seemed to me like a moral matter but rather a method of safeguarding honor and status, avoiding shame, and at all times exploiting possibilities. Islam stipulates that if you make an oath, whether it's an oath of citizenship or any other oath, that you honor it and abide by it. How much of Jandal's dishonesty (or his "questionable" character) do you think comes from him lying for the sake of his religion? Do you think it was a "moral matter?" Did you find this kind of secrecy in other people you interacted with over there?

Laura Poitras: I'm not sure I can generalize like this...

POV: Thanks everyone. Here is one last question for Laura before we end the chat.

Comment From jay
I'm really interested in the filming process? how many people did you have on your team?

Laura Poitras: Abu Jandal has many things he needs to do to survive, which I think explains some of the contradictions. But I do think he is burdened by a kind of guilt around the question of his oath.

Laura Poitras: There were two teams - I worked in Yemen and did camera/sound. I tend to work alone in the field - it allows me to be patient. At Guantanamo, Kirsten Johnson shot and worked with Jonathan (editor) and a sound recordist.

POV: Thank you so much, Laura!

POV: And thanks everyone, for participating in this live chat.

Comment From Jeremy
Looking forward to your Doc Talk at New School tomorrow!

Comment From Rona
Got to go now. Thanks for making such a thought provoking film. Thanks PBS for airing it

Laura Poitras: Thank you.

POV: You can watch "The Oath" online through September 26, 2010 on the POV website:

POV: And you can find out more about the film, watch an interview with Laura, read our background about the issues raised by the film and much more: