Sourcec:San Francisco Chronicle
The name "Laura Poitras" is familiar to Oscar judges, film festival juries, and security officers at U.S. airports. Poitras has gotten used to all three developments. It's what happens when you direct critically acclaimed documentaries that require spending months in dangerous areas of the Middle East.
First it was Iraq, where Poitras made "My Country, My Country," a 2006 film that focused on an altruistic doctor whom the U.S. military suspected of being sympathetic to Iraqi insurgents. Then it was Yemen, where over a two-year period Poitras filmed a former bodyguard of Osama bin Laden, Nasser al-Bahri, who has said the 9/11 hijackers - whom he personally knew - were justified in killing Americans.
Poitras' profile of al-Bahri, "The Oath," opens theatrically today in San Francisco and Berkeley. Nearly every time Poitras travels abroad - which is often - she's stopped on her departure or return by U.S. airport security, who subject her to tough questioning and have forced her to miss flights. Poitras, who lives in New York, believes she's on an official U.S. government watch list, put there in 2006. (The Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, whose agents staff airports, don't comment on individual cases.)
"I have a file - I know somebody who had access to it," Poitras says in an interview during a visit to San Francisco. "There's an accusation against me, which originated in Iraq. But the government doesn't tell you what's in (the file). I've been stopped at the airport and questioned probably 25 times. They photocopied my papers for a long time - every receipt I had, my credit cards, everything."
By contrast, representatives of other U.S. government agencies (Poitras won't say which ones) have told the filmmaker they want to see her film because it "could teach them something" about the Arab world, Poitras says. "On the one hand, I'm tripping wires. On the other hand, the government is telling me, 'We really want to understand extremism, and the relationship between belief and action.' "
"The Oath" is the story of al-Bahri and his friendship with Salim Hamdan, the Yemeni man who became bin Laden's driver and was subsequently incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Hamdan is al-Bahri's brother-in-law. At bin Laden's urging in the 1990s, the men married sisters. In the ranks of al Qaeda, al-Bahri (who's better known by his former nom de guerre, "Abu Jandal") and Hamdan were relatively low-level operatives. Yemeni authorities arrested al-Bahri in October 2000, and upon his release two years later, he essentially renounced his life as a militant, and says in "The Oath" that he feels guilty for recruiting Hamdan to al Qaeda.
Poitras is the first U.S. documentarian to spend so many private hours with someone who had such an insider's view of al Qaeda. Al-Bahri was bin Laden's bodyguard for three years. He has talked to CBS' "60 Minutes" for its profile of him, and numerous times to Arab news networks, but with Poitras, he allowed her to put cameras in his cab and film him frequently at home. Poitras calls "The Oath" a "psychological drama" of a charismatic man whose words veer from trustworthy to questionable.
Those who know Poitras, 46, know she has a history of taking leaps of faith. Twenty-five years ago, Poitras was a chef. Between 1986 and 1988, Poitras worked in San Francisco as a cook at Masa's. In her spare time, she took film classes at the San Francisco Art Institute. There, she met such instructors as Ernie Gehr and George Kuchar, whose experimental works inspired her in a new direction. The days of making potee lorraine ended abruptly. As a teenager, Poitras had juggled her love of food with her love of film.
"I was always doing art when I was growing up (near Boston), but then I really wanted to be a chef, but then I was always at the movie theater," says Poitras. "I started being a chef at 19, and worked my way up. I moved to San Francisco because it was a good food town. I was here and I was cooking and took a class at the Art Institute in filmmaking, and it was a way to process moving to a new city alone. But even though I was cooking really seriously - there's a limit in terms of expressive possibilities. I don't know that it rises to the same level as other types of art forms. So film became an outlet to talk about things that were darker. How to express despair with food? You wouldn't make the eater very happy. Ultimately, the goal is pleasure, which is kind of a limited spectrum of expression. And I fell in love with film."