The Oath: A Tale of Two Al-Qaeda Operatives

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One of the main focuses of the Berlin Film Festival, which runs through Feb. 21, is always the celebrities who've jetted into the frosty German capital for the festivities. Leonardo diCaprio, the star of Martin Scorsese's psychological thriller, Shutter Island, was the talk of town after being spotted at the Grill Royal, one of Berlin's top restaurants. Ewan McGregor hit the red carpet to plug his new film, The Ghost Writer, and Renée Zellweger is sitting on the festival jury. Director Roman Polanski was conspicuous by his absence. (He's still under house arrest in Switzerland on rape charges related to his sexual encounter with a 13-year-old in 1977.)

But aside from the glitz and glamour, the festival is famous for its political-themed movies, which aren't aimed at your normal popcorn-munching audience. One of the films generating the most buzz this year is The Oath, a hard-hitting documentary about two former jihadists who once worked for Osama bin Laden — his bodyguard and driver. The lives of the two men, related through marriage, go in vastly different directions in the post-Sept. 11 crackdown on terrorism by the U.S. and its allies.

The "star" of the film is the former bin Laden bodyguard, Abu Jandal, a jovial, extroverted taxi driver now living in Yemen. After working for bin Laden in Afghanistan in the 1990s, Jandal moved back to Yemen, where he was arrested by authorities in connection with the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000. He was briefly jailed and then made a deal with the Yemeni government to take part in the government's "reintegration" program, trying to persuade young Islamists to give up violence for education. Following the 9/11 attacks, Jandal was interrogated by FBI officials and became a valuable source of information, identifying many of the hijackers and giving the U.S. details on Afghanistan before the 2001 invasion.

The other man is Salim Hamdan, who had been recruited to work for al-Qaeda by Jandal, his brother-in-law. Hamdan was captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in late 2001 and sent to Guantanamo Bay, where he was held for seven years. He was released last January and returned to Yemen. "I wanted to look at two people who worked for bin Laden — one who was low-level, Hamdan, [and] the other [who] was much closer," the film's New York-based director, Laura Poitras, tells TIME.

Poitras says she set out to make a film about Guantanamo detainees returning to Yemen after being released by the U.S. government, but switched her focus when a Yemeni reporter introduced her to Jandal. The former bodyguard seems like a contradiction in the film: in one scene, he describes how he was shocked to hear about the 9/11 attacks, but in another, he reveals that he had met many of the hijackers in Afghanistan while he was working for bin Laden. He also says he feels responsible and guilty for the imprisonment of his brother-in-law, who does not appear in the film. (Excerpts from his letters from Guantanamo are read aloud.) "When [Jandal] was younger, he felt taking up arms was justified — he left home to go to Bosnia in 1993," Poitras says. "But he was against attacking civilians, that's one of the reasons why he left Afghanistan in 2000 before the 9/11 attacks."

The one question viewers may have is whether Jandal is still a jihadist. "I don't think he's repentant, in the way he says 'I was wrong,' but his thinking has changed and he believes in trying to communicate rather than use guns," says Poitras. "I wanted to show how people are drawn to Abu Jandal by his psychology and charisma. At a practical level, he's telling younger people not to fight and instead get an education."

Poitras is no stranger to controversy herself — she says she's been on a U.S. watch list since 2006 because of her films, which also include the documentary, My Country, My Country, which takes a critical look at the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. But on her way to Berlin last month, she says the government went one step further. Poitras arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York to discover that she'd been put on a no-fly list. Shocked and bewildered, she called her lawyer who "woke up a few people in Washington" and eventually she was allowed to board the plane.

For Poitras, it's important to try to understand al-Qaeda — something the U.S. government "still doesn't quite know" to do. "They feel a bit at a loss understanding what the threat is," she says. Perhaps that will change if and when the film is released in the U.S. — she's trying to secure a distribution deal for the spring. If anything, the movie is sure to garner attention.