One of the most buzzed about films at the 2010 FullFrame Documentary Film Festival was THE OATH – and rightfully so. I can think of no rubric for documentary to put against this film that it does not come up winning.
A character-driven drama? Check.
Artfully shot? Definitely.
Takes us somewhere we have never been? Indeed.
Enlightens a social/political issue through a human lens? Ah, yeah – and then some.
I could go on – this is a really superb piece of filmmaking.
Laura Poitras (MY COUNTRY, MY COUNTRY) has rendered the parallel stories of two brother-in-laws: Abu Jandal, former bodyguard to Osama Bin Laden, and Salim Hamden, prisoner at Guantanamo Bay. In do so with utmost subtlety, she has reflected the entirety of post 9/11 politics anew.
One point of comparison is TAXI RIDE TO THE DARK SIDE, Alex Gibney’s 2008 academy award-winner that also parallels two post 9/11 detainees. The strength of Gibney’s film is the visceral depiction of torture and the nuanced exploration of how it came to happen under US authorities.
However, Gibney does little if anything to challenge people who are already sympathetic to the idea the torture is a bad policy. In contrast, THE OATH is a much more complex work, completely willing to challenge us all to see extremists as people with the contradictions intact.
In this sense, a more interesting comparison is FOG OF WAR, Errol Morris’s 2004 academy award-winner about the life of Robert McNamara. The beauty of Morris’s film is that it taps into the general liberal sentiment of a generation of Americans that McNamarra is (and is only) an arch villain of history. Morris then proceeds to show us a side of McNamarra is charming and thoughtful and all too human for us to continue to see him as a caricature.
But Morris performs his frame-shifting critique from the safety of a 30-year historical bubble. Feelings about 9/11 certainly run as deep as feelings about Vietnam, but they are much fresher, more raw, and less set into cultural tropes.
Therein lies the true courage in Poitras’s film: she is willing to ask the most difficult questions of both subject and audience, and she does it not with a long historical lens, but with a magnifying glass that reveals the world as it is today . . . and tomorrow.