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The Oath -- Film Review

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PARK CITY -- An effort do dig behind shallow characterizations of Al Qaeda and to explore America's post-9/11 approach to the group, "The Oath" centers on two brothers-in-law: one a former right-hand man for Osama bin Laden, the other a much lower-level employee who sat for years at Guantanamo Bay before being acquitted of major charges.

Though it raises questions it doesn't answer and introduces themes it can't really explore in an hour and a half, the scope provided by its family-tied subjects gives the film enough sense of coherence to satisfy on the documentary circuit, although perceived sympathies toward America's enemies probably limit its theatrical possibilities.

Salim Hamdan, whose imprisonment led to the landmark Hamdan v. Rumsfeld Supreme Court case, never appears on camera. We hear him through letters written during his captivity, which are read aloud over moody shots of the Guantanamo Bay landscape. (Camerawork by
Kirsten Johnson and director Laura Poitras was awarded a deserved prize at Sundance.)

The film spends much more time getting into the head of Hamdan's in-law Abu Jandal, a taxi-driver in Yemen who was bin Laden's bodyguard for four years or so and feels responsible for Hamdan's imprisonment, having given his name to interrogators after 9/11.

Jandal's charisma and his complicated understanding of jihad are ample subject for a doc. Having served prison time in the past for participating in violent campaigns, he now insists his role in the struggle against the West is a nonmilitary one and denounces the taking of innocent life. At the same time, he photographs his son on a blanket with grenades and an AK-47, and meets with earnest young men eager to talk about Osama bin Laden.

At one point, Abu Jandal hints at a philosophy that incorporates both terrorism and conventional warfare, only to ask the filmmakers to delete his remarks. That sense of things not said and avenues not explored will frustrate some viewers, but the extent to which Poitras observes the daily life and the human motivations of the man (while simultaneously tracking the more familiar story of Hamdan's journey through the military tribunal system) makes "The Oath" fascinating, however uneasy, viewing.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival
Production company: Praxis Films
Director: Laura Poitras
Executive producers: Sally Jo Fifer, David Menschel
Producer: Laura Poitras
Directors of photography: Kirsten Johnson, Laura Poitras
Music: Osvaldo Golijov
Editor: Jonathan Oppenheim
Sales Agent: Laura Poitras
No MPAA rating, 96 minutes