Family bonds

What is also invisible, Persons of Interest shows us, is not only those who disappeared into confinement but how those arrests frayed or destroyed familial and social bonds of the victims and their families. The film places the interviewees within these broader social networks, affirming their identities as spouses, siblings, parents, and relatives rather than as “persons of interest.” It also challenges the monolithic images of Muslims circulating in Western media by showing the varied and diverse kinds of families and individuals that were targeted by law enforcement.

For families who luckily remained intact after the arrests, their interviews speak to the feelings of insecurity and precarity regarding their presence in the United States. The interviews provide them with a space with which they can articulate how they have felt victimized and ostracized. In the case of Naz and Mateen Butt, the two discuss their sense of fear after Mateen’s arrest and subsequent release. Though Mateen briefly discusses his imprisonment, the general focus of the interview is how it has affected his family’s sense of security. Naz offers a narrative of her family achieving the “American Dream,” one that has been subverted by her son’s arrest:

“I mean, we just can’t thank enough to this country. I mean, we had achieved so much that we couldn’t even dream of getting in our country.”

Shortly after, Mateen adds,

“It doesn’t seem like it’s yours anymore, in ways. I mean, we came here with nothing, and now, little by little, we basically climbed the ladder in ways that we have achieved things. And now, all of a sudden, it’s like, just taken from you. Even after I came out, it doesn’t feel like whatever is mine is mine anymore because it could be taken from me at any time.”

Similarly, the interview with Syed, Delilah, and Carlos Ali also touches on the feeling that they had achieved the “American Dream.” As Syed and Delilah explain, however, after Syed’s arrest, in which he was charged with helping finance the attacks (based on evidence which included possession of his son’s flight simulation video games, of around $200 in foreign currency, of religious books, and of a ticket stub to visit the World Trade Center a month before the attacks) led to a loss of support from friends and family, who abandoned them because, as Delilah explains, “they were so scared of that word [“terrorist”].”

Both of these interviews draw on the American cultural mythology of individual self-sufficiency, of pulling oneself up by their bootstraps. And it is precisely by appealing to this mythos that the interview subjects undercut the ostensible purpose of the mass arrests as a form of protecting the country.

For those who were deported after being arrested, family members appear as representatives of those absent, often bringing photographs of their loved ones with them to function as stand-ins. Within these interviews, the photographs mark the gulf between past and present, in which the often warm, intimate family photographs signify a lost past. The photographs clash with the harsh, sterile environment of the interview room and not only reference a familial or romantic intimacy that has been destroyed, but also implies that it is potentially no longer attainable. Furthermore, these images provide a different archive than the photos of terrorist faces that have received wider publication. Like the interviews, these photographs position both interviewees and their loved ones within a different social hierarchy, one that confirms their position as family and community members.

In her interview, Khadra Ali discusses the situation of her brother Jama Arab, who faces deportation back to Somalia for violating his visa conditions by traveling, though Ali suspects it was his last name of Arab, and the fact he was born in Yemen, that led to his arrest. She uses these photographs as a way to both represent his absence and also to place him within a larger familial framework. While Ali’s photograph visually places her brother in relation to their mother, she also explains how his detainment disrupts their family bonds:

“I have like three sisters and three brothers, we’re all citizens in this United States of America, except my brother.”

Ali situates Jama’s absence within the realm of the social, but also explains how his arrest and potential deportation disrupt larger family units and structures, while also gesturing to the profound unfairness in targeting him in the first place. But this interview, like others, powerfully makes the case that Jama has other identities outside his last name or his country of birth. He is a son and a sibling, as Ali’s photograph and her interview show us.

In other interviews, the children of the deported come to symbolize this loss of family. The separation of parent and child has its own affective power with viewers. For example, Miriam Hamzeh’s wordless interview, which lasts only twenty seconds, derives its emotional impact through the use of photographs and children. Hamzeh’s interview relies in part on the distance between past and present, in which the photograph of her and her husband hugging each other is what draws attention to his current absence. While we can hear their child in the background while we look at the photograph, the visual shift from seeing the photographed couple to seeing Hamzeh and her child is nonetheless jarring. Her silence during this twenty seconds suggests that the pain of separation exceeds words, and as she turns around and walks over to the stroller, the emotional appeal to viewers comes not only from the absence of her husband, but from the fact that child and parent are separated, too.

The interview with Shokreia Yaghi and her children allows her to effectively, and affectively, attest to the pain and impossible choices she and her family face as a result of her husband’s arrest and his deportation to Jordan. The interview is divided into two parts. In the first part, as Yaghi and her children enter the set, she receives a call on her cell phone from her husband. While she walks offscreen to take the call, Maclean and Perse continue to film as the children begin to run around and climb over parts of the set.

Such footage appears to have little to do with the content of Yaghi’s interview or in capturing the intensely difficult challenges her family faces. Its power lies in the fact that what we see is an otherwise ordinary moment of children playing. Even during the interview, when one of Yaghi’s sons sits next to her, his presence is undeniable.

He fidgets, makes noise, and interrupts Yaghi as she speaks. He sits next to her as she explains the impossible choice she faces: divorce her husband and stay in the United States to raise her children by herself, or leave her home in Albany, New York and move to Jordan with her husband to raise the children there. Rhetorically, the presentation of the footage of the children playing, coupled with her son at her side during the interview, draws on the affective power of the separation of Yaghi’s husband from his children as well as the possibility of her eventual separation from them.

In capturing the disparate stories of those whose lives have been disrupted by the mass arrests, the film ends with footage of an informal meal prior to all of the interviewees posing for a formal picture together. The footage of the interviewees casually chatting and eating, breaking the fast of Ramadan, serves a similar function as the shots of Yaghi’s children playing, in that both confirm the basic humanity of those in attendance. Much like the photographs and interviews we have just previously seen, the meal and the gathering place the interview subjects within a wider community.

The formal photograph at the end freezes a moment in time that the film then uses for its epilogue. After displaying the photo of the group for several seconds, it then cuts to close-ups of all of the subjects in the photograph with overlaid white text that explains what has happened to them since the interview. Some have been cleared of all charges, some remain in legal limbo, and others have been deported or left the United States. By ending with this photograph, Persons of Interest engenders one last reflection on the dialectical relationship between the past and present. By its very nature, the epilogue marks a passage of time and an elision of events that have transpired since the documentary was filmed. It is in this elision that the film continues to remind viewers of the on-going and daily struggles of those subject to incarceration and detention as part of the United States anti-terrorism efforts.

The Oath

While Persons of Interest uses interview testimonies and plays with talking head conventions in order to highlight the unjust nature of the mass arrests and racial profiling of Muslim and Arabs, Laura Poitras’ The Oath focuses on two men: Abu Jandal, the former bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, and his brother-in-law Salim Hamdan, who was bin Laden’s driver, a Guantánamo Bay prisoner, and the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld.[5] [open endnotes in new window] The film follows Jandal’s daily life as he raises his son, drives a taxi cab for a living, provides religious instruction for youths curious about Islam and jihad, and also expresses deep regret for recruiting Hamdan to Al-Qaeda. It also documents Hamdan’s trial at a Guantánamo Bay military commission for charges of providing material support for terrorism and engaging in a conspiracy to commit terrorism for allegedly transporting supplies and weapons as bin Laden’s driver. As we come to find, Jandal and Hamdan’s stories are far more intertwined than they may initially appear. Looking at these stories through the lens of visibility and invisibility, as well as through Jandal’s presence and Hamdan’s absence in the film, enables us to consider how The Oath uses these visual dynamics to criticize the War on Terror’s overarching penal and legal structures.

The initial introductions to Hamdan and Jandal establish the viewer’s unequal visual relationship to the two; Hamdan is a perpetually absent, spectral figure while Jandal, as a counterweight, has a commanding presence in front of the camera. Together, both stories have a mutually constitutive relationship. For Hamdan, his disappearance into the secretive and opaque space of the Guantánamo Bay prison takes on greater significance as we learn more about Jandal’s culpability in Hamdan’s imprisonment, specifically when it is revealed that Jandal was questioned by the FBI shortly after the September 11 attacks (which I discuss at further length below). The freedom Jandal enjoys throughout the film raises a set of questions concerning the use of an alternative set of tactics and interrogation methods for dealing with alleged terrorists, which stand in stark contrast to the often counterproductive tactics of the War on Terror.

We learn little about Hamdan through the course of the film, with occasional descriptions of him given to us by his lawyers or by Jandal. In part, this is because Hamdan could not be interviewed while at Guantánamo Bay, and after his release, has refused media interviews. Hamdan’s visual absence from the film and his inability to speak for himself in front of the camera is meant to highlight the secrecy of the Guantánamo Bay prison system. By opening with the footage of his apprehension and arrest in Afghanistan in 2001 (seen earlier in the visual essay), the film consciously draws attention to his absence throughout. One of the challenges the film offers the viewer is to consider whether or not what we learn about Hamdan is ever justification for his indefinite detention.

Jandal’s treatment by The Oath is noticeably different. The first time we see him, he is seated on a couch in his home next to his son Habib as the two look at a photograph of Jandal and Hamdan posing together and a photograph of Habib as a baby. This scene raises a few issues that recur throughout the film, namely, Hamdan’s disappearance and Jandal's complicated and split identity as both doting father and militant fighter. Habib tells him that when he grows up, he wants to be a “jihadist,” further explaining “like you.” In some ways, the moment is entirely normal – a young child tells his father that he wants to be like him when he grows up. And indeed, Poitras avoids oversimplifying Jandal’s identity as a former member of al-Qaeda, and it is not even until the next scene, when we see Jandal driving his taxi, that any onscreen texts indicates who he is.

Two divergent paths

By way of these divergent introductions, The Oath challenges the assumptions made about and the depictions of terrorists and terrorism. The often static and monolithic beliefs about terrorists are referenced early in the film. At one point, we see archival footage of a 2006 episode of CBS’ 60 Minutes, in which Michael Scheuer, former CIA Intelligence Officer and Chief of the CIA’s bin Laden Unit from 1996-1999, declares that if it were up to him, Jandal would be locked up because “anyone who is as dedicated as he is, we ought to be taking care of him one way or another.” Likewise, Hamdan’s lawyer, Lieutenant Commander Brian Mizer, explains at a meeting for families of Guantánamo Bay prisoners that

“Americans, and particularly the American government, cannot understand how bin Laden had farmers, had mechanics, had cooks. They see Mr. Hamdan standing next to bin Laden, and so therefore he must be a terrorist.”

Both examples highlight the tendency with which assumptions about terrorism or terrorist associations tend to reduce individuals to violent ideologues.

Contra Scheuer’s remarks, Jandal is a much more complex and slippery figure than one may assume, and by capturing this complexity, Poitras makes an effective case against the tendency to treat the terms “terrorism” or “terrorist” as static or catch-all. In part, the film humanizes Jandal by capturing what are otherwise invisible moments of his daily life, such as when he is driving his taxi cab, or when we see him preparing his son for school or instructing him in religious practice. At other moments, we watch Jandal as he provides religious instruction to young men. Most interestingly, these meetings display the layered and conflicted thoughts Jandal appears to have about his relationship to jihad and Al-Qaeda. The manner by which he depicts his own time in Al-Qaeda is never straightforward, and the film never tries to prejudice us one way or the other. It avoids attempting to give us a clear and concise narrative of his time as bin Laden’s bodyguard and allows Jandal to speak for himself, though, as we learn, he is often contradictory and evasive in how he recounts his time as a member of Al-Qaeda or what his current relationship to the organization is. For example, when Poitras asks Jandal if he would have participated in the September 11 attacks had he not been imprisoned in Yemen at the time, he explains that he would not because he prefers to “confront them on the battlefield, soldier to soldier.” The next day, however, he is filmed demanding that yesterday’s remark be deleted from the record. While one can read moments such as these as justifiable examples of why Jandal is an untrustworthy narrator, they also reveal his own seeming internal struggle with his relationship to Al-Qaeda and his sensitivity to his image and how he is perceived.

Representing Guantánamo and military tribunals

Hamdan’s absence is also a way for The Oath to highlight the structures of invisibility that govern both the Guantánamo Bay prison and the military commission trial. While Poitras was in Yemen interviewing Jandal, cinematographer Kirsten Johnson went to Guantánamo Bay to film Hamdan’s trial. However, Johnson was neither allowed to film the trial nor interview Hamdan, and so she uses of haunting portraits of the Guantánamo Bay landscape as a substitute for his absent body.[6] These compositions often vacillate between the peaceful and the foreboding and haunting, sometimes in the same shot.

This is not an exposé into the Guantánamo Bay prison. Johnson’s shots focus on exteriors and surfaces, which suggest a feeling in which there is knowledge of the violence committed against those imprisoned that cannot be recorded. Indeed, as Johnson herself has said,

“With each composition, I worked to make a frame that would indicate an environment where it was possible to see and yet meaning was still hidden” (356).

During many of these shots, the film’s sound design further articulates Hamdan’s absence; letters he has written are read by an actor against the backdrops of Johnson’s landscapes, a further displacement of his body.[7]

“I have not been permitted to see the sun, or hear people outside the house, or talk with other people. I am alone, and I do not talk with anyone in my cell, because there is no one else to talk to.”

By pushing the prison to the periphery of these compositions, Johnson’s cinematography also visually articulates Guantánamo Bay’s, and Hamdan’s, uncertain and liminal legal status. Often referred to as a “legal black hole,” the questions surrounding Guantánamo Bay’s legality are suffused with spatial and visual language. Amy Kaplan’s essay “Where Is Guantánamo?” wonders not about the prison’s physical location, but rather where it can located in terms of legal jurisdiction:

“The question and answer, however, do not thereby remap Guantánamo as a space inside the law, but as an indefinite legal borderland between the domestic and the foreign” (847, emphasis mine).[8]

The military commission trial itself renders Hamdan as invisible as the prison, and Johnson’s cinematography illustrates how the prison and the courtroom’s opacity are intertwined.[9] Hamdan is not visible as a prisoner, and, as the film shows us, he is not visible as a legal subject.

The film substitutes a series of intertitles for footage of the legal proceedings that they are not allowed to film. Like Medoraj’s intertitle in Persons of Interest, this intertitle visualizes several different kinds of absence: absence of evidence, absence of a fair trial, as well as absence of Hamdan’s own agency as a defendant. Journalists take video footage and pictures of some of Janet Hamlin’s courtroom sketches that are pinned to a bulletin board. The scene appears peculiar in part because the camcorders and cameras are expected to capture “real life” (the indexical image), but in this case, they are recording a medium that has no indexical qualities.

Persuasive and coercive interrogations

The dueling stories of Jandal and Hamdan, in which Jandal moves freely through Yemen while Hamdan is perpetually absent, draw a contrast between two different styles of interrogations: the persuasive tactics centered on emotional and interpersonal strategies for obtaining intelligence and the coercive methods of “enhanced interrogation” – torture and indefinite detention – allowed under the War on Terror. As we learn, these different interrogation styles produce vastly different outcomes for both men. Poitras waits until late in the film to reveal that Jandal was imprisoned in Yemen for his suspected involvement in the Al-Qaeda bombing of the U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Cole in October 2000. While in prison, he was questioned by the FBI shortly after the September 11 attacks. Poitras includes footage of FBI interrogator Ali Soufan, who interrogated Jandal in Yemen, as he explains to the United States Senate Judiciary Committee how well the persuasive interrogation techniques worked on Jandal. Though Jandal downplays the interrogation in an interview with Poitras, claiming that he only provided the FBI with information that was already well-known, the interrogation documents tell a different story. The film cuts to the archival documents, revealing the treasure trove of information about Al-Qaeda that Jandal provided his interrogators. It is also from these documents that we learn Jandal provided the authorities with Hamdan’s name.

What are we to make of this late reveal? Of course, it reframes how we have interpreted much of what Jandal has previously said. Not only does it shift how we read his feelings of guilt about Hamdan’s imprisonment, but the documents also reveal Jandal’s different attitude toward Al-Qaeda and the September 11 attacks. According to the FBI interrogation notes, Jandal expressed shock and condemnation upon learning of the attacks, after which he provided intelligence regarding everything he knew about Al-Qaeda. These documents are, then, a testament to the effectiveness of the persuasive interrogation methods.

These revelations also encourage the viewer to compare the ways in which the Yemeni government addressed Jandal’s violent extremism in a far different manner than the United States’ government addressed Hamdan’s far less extreme involvement with Al-Qaeda. We learn that Jandal is out of prison after agreeing to the Yemeni re-education program known as The Dialogue Committee, which uses religious instruction and discussion to convince former militants to refrain from committing violent acts in Yemen or killing foreigners. The Yemeni government also provided Jandal with the money to purchase a taxi in order to help him re-integrate into society.

After we learn this information, The Oath returns to the verdict of Hamdan’s trial, thereby juxtaposing their two outcomes. Hamdan is found not guilty of the most serious charge of conspiracy to commit terrorism, but is found guilty of providing material support for terrorism (a charge created by the United States Congress specifically for Hamdan’s trial) and is sentenced to time served, plus five months, ultimately considered a loss for the United States government in its first military commission trial. The anticlimactic end to the trial does little to vindicate the coercive methods of interrogation and detention under the War on Terror and we are given no sense that Hamdan’s suffering has in any way aided in the prevention of future terrorist attacks. Through their intertwined stories, and by juxtaposing Jandal’s presence with Hamdan’s absence, the film encourages viewers to consider alternative and more humane ways for gathering intelligence.

The end of the film returns us to the dialectic of presence and absence with which it began. One shot in particular emphasizes Hamdan’s continued absence and reclusiveness:

A black intertitle with white text reads “Salim Hamdan was reunited with his family on January 8, 2009” and cuts to a nighttime shot of an exterior of a house. The suggestion here is that the house is Hamdan’s, though it is impossible to know, as the film cuts to another intertitle that states,

“He has refused to be filmed or speak to the media since his release.”

There is another cut to a black screen, and Poitras can be heard asking Jandal, “Is Salim the same person you left seven years ago?” Jandal explains how Hamdan’s reclusiveness since his release from prison is a direct result from of the years he spent in solitary confinement. The return to Jandal is in some ways ironic, as the man who provides viewers with the final word on Hamdan’s condition since leaving prison is also the one who is directly responsible for his imprisonment in the first place. To have Jandal explain the mental and emotional changes Hamdan has experienced since his imprisonment allows viewers to reflect one last time on the policies that led to the physical pain and torture that has left him so reclusive.


Nicholas Mirzoeff’s phrase “banality of images” refers to the saturation of war imagery in media outlets, a “deliberate effort by those fighting the war to reduce its visual impact by saturating our senses with non-stop indistinguishable and undistinguished images” (14). But while there has been an abundance of images in the United States media showcasing American military might, there is far less circulation of images of the suffering it has caused. If the affective impact of our contemporary military conflicts has been blunted by an overabundance of war imagery in the media, both Persons of Interest and The Oath point to ways in which documentary filmmakers can denaturalize the War on Terror’s visual culture by drawing attention to what often remains invisible to us. For the apparent saturation of images from the front line, these films remind us that this view of war is an artificial construction, one whose contours are shaped by what remains invisible and out of the public eye. By focusing on the presence and absence of certain bodies from our view, and how these bodies are rendered visible and invisible, these documentaries highlight the ways in which the carceral policies enacted under the guise of combating terrorism benefit from a lack of visibility, thereby making their impact on physical bodies unseen.

Persons of Interest allows interview subjects to discuss their experiences of imprisonment as well as show viewers the families that are collateral damage of the post-9/11 mass arrests. The Oath, on the other hand, uses the “non-space” of Guantánamo Bay and the secrecy surrounding the military tribunal of Salim Hamdan to make visible the obscurity in which prisoners of the War on Terror are forced to live. It also compels viewers to consider how Jandal’s presence in the film both complicates the stereotypes one may hold about those associated with Al-Qaeda as well consider alternate ways of addressing violence and extremism through means other than indefinite detention. The modes of representation in these documentaries – and the failures of those representations – speak powerfully about those have been imprisoned under the War on Terror and those who remain missing as a result of its policies. They furthermore productively highlight ways to both demystify the visuality of the War on Terror and turn it back against itself.