copyright 2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 57, fall 2016

Representing incarceration in Persons of Interest and The Oath

by Christopher Barnes

Speaking explicitly of the War on Terror, W.J.T. Mitchell argues that in our multimedia-saturated age,

“The shaping of perceptions of history does not have to wait for historians or poets, but is immediately represented in audio-visual-textual images transmitted globally” (xi.)

As proof of the power of images to shape such perceptions, Mitchell observes that while the Obama administration may have released the Bush administration’s infamous torture memorandums,

“What is not public . . . is the visible evidence that would show what the consequences of these memos were for actual human bodies. It is a testimony to the widespread conviction that images are more powerful than words, that the Obama administration was willing to release the verbal memos, but not the visible manifestation of their effects” (129).

Questions of visibility and invisibility are indeed fundamental to understanding how the War on Terror has been conducted, and more specifically, how they structure its politics and policies regarding who the United States imprisons in its military prison sites and how they are treated. Michelle Brown recognizes such a tension between the visibility and invisibility of these practices and sites when she argues,

"Through indefinite detention, the practice of extraordinary rendition, and new legal categories, such as that of the unlawful enemy combatant, a penal architecture was established which resulted in practices intended to be clandestine, invisible, and, simultaneously, common, acceptable, and global" (124, emphasis mine).

The prison system of the United States’ War on Terror, as Brown points out, is paradoxical insofar as it is seemingly invisible and shrouded in secrecy while simultaneously existing as a publicly acknowledged part of the Bush and Obama administrations’ tactics in prosecuting alleged terrorists. This article examines two critically under-studied documentaries that, I argue, explore and interrogate the constitutive relationship between vision and indefinite detention in the War on Terror: Alison Maclean and Tobias Perse’s Persons of Interest (2004) and Laura Poitras’ The Oath (2010). I contend that both films use the figure of the talking head to address and undermine structures of invisibility in the War on Terror to show how these structures enable the continued apprehension, detention, and torture of alleged terrorists. This includes not only drawing attention to the invisibility of the prisons and prisoners themselves, but it also involves an attempt to complicate and dispel many of the misguided and pernicious beliefs about Islam and Muslims that have served as a pretext for a limitless war against terrorism.

Persons of Interest’s self-reflexive use of the talking head convention both reminds viewers of those who cannot testify in front of the camera and also points to the ways that sight and the act of looking structure how we profile and categorize certain bodies as “dangerous.” These interviews also reveal the frayed social bonds that result from the aggressive policing practices of law enforcement after September 11. The Oath, on the other hand, is centered around two men: Salim Hamdan, a Guantánamo Bay prisoner, the plaintiff in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, and a former driver for Osama bin Laden, and his brother-in-law Abu Jandal, bin Laden’s former bodyguard who, at the time of filming, was a free man driving a taxi in Yemen. By following their intertwined and divergent paths, the film raises serious questions about the effectiveness of the War on Terror’s tactics for interrogating and prosecuting alleged terrorists.

A brief visual essay of Persons of Interest and The Oath

I want to first briefly outline some of the representational strategies used by both films, which I then contextualize within a broader framework of documentary film studies as well as within documentaries that address the surveillance and imprisonment of Muslims and Arabs after September 11. From there, I will then discuss in more depth how these representational strategies are used to criticize the secrecy and opacity of the War on Terror’s prison systems.

[Image captions]

  1. The spare interview room in which Persons of Interest is set acts as a visual metaphor for both the simultaneous hypervisibility and invisibility of the interviewees.
  2. Some interview subjects reenact aspects of their imprisonment, drawing our attention to their invisibility as prisoners. Here, Salem Jaffer, at the request of Maclean, imitates the manner in which the FBI psychologist speaks to him while he is detained.
  3. And here, he mimics how he would go to the wash basin in his cell to splash water on his body.
  4. Nabil Ayesh sits against a wall to show how he would pass the time in his cell.
  5. Muhamed Abushaker reads a letter he wrote to his wife Karima Osman while he was in prison. Their interview speaks of another possible looming separation, in which he may be deported to Palestine and her to Egypt, while their daughter is an American citizen with rights in neither country.
  6. For those who have been deported or are still detained, loved ones function as interview substitutes. This is another way to show the continued invisibility of those who are imprisoned and cannot speak for themselves. Here, Amanda Serrano shows the camera her wedding photo.
  7. These interviews make visible the deleterious effects that the mass arrests have on families and communities by showing us families who have been torn apart. Here, one of Shokreia Yaghi’s (whose husband was deported to Jordan) son holds up a family photograph.
  8. In other cases, even if the families remain intact, they often still discuss the stress and fear of further surveillance persecution by the United States government. Here, Mateen and Naz Butt discuss the feelings of precarity that have struck their family after Mateen’s arrest.
  9. Overall, these images of both individuals and families help to humanize those who are unfairly and maliciously maligned as terrorists.
  10. The Oath‘s opening shot is footage of Salim Hamdan’s interrogation by the U.S. military after his capture in Afghanistan in 2001. This is the only time in which we see Hamdan in front of the camera, rendering him a spectral presence within the film. The inclusion of the computer screen’s edge in the opening shot self-reflexively calls attention to ways in which Hamdan is only available through various layers of mediation; he never appears in front of the camera to speak for himself.
  11. Hamdan’s absence is also registered in the domestic sphere, as his family poses for a photograph while holding a picture of him.
  12. The film often cuts to compositions of the Guantánamo Bay landscape; neither the prison, nor Hamdan, are present in any of them, signaling the opacity of the prison and the invisibility of the detainees and their suffering.
  13. Janet Hamlin’s courtroom drawings are the only images we get of the trial and of Hamdan as the defendant.
  14. Our introduction to Jandal and his son Habib contrasts sharply with Hamdan’s absence. Jandal is often charming and gregarious in front of the camera. Hamdan’s absence from his family’s life becomes even more starkly defined by the many private moments we see with Jandal and Habib…
  15. …such as when he provides religious instruction to him or helps him get ready for school.
  16. Often, Jandal is filmed driving in his taxicab through the Yemeni capital Sana'a. As opposed to Hamdan’s imprisonment and immobility, these scenes often emphasize Jandal’s mobility.
  17. We also see him as he meets with and provides religious instruction and counseling to young men interested in jihad.
  18. All of these moments challenge the viewer consider how we conceive of dominant, Western depictions of terrorism or of terrorists.

Representing absence

As this brief visual essay shows, both films use numerous representational strategies to address the structures of invisibility that govern these prison sites. Both films are also part of a much longer history within both documentary film and documentary film studies regarding how one represents that for which no photographic or filmic record exists, or for events or situations that exceed representational possibilities.

Questions of representational excess and of absence are often directly engaged by films about historical traumas. Perhaps one of the most well-known examples is Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985), which avowedly eschews all archival representations of the Holocaust in favor of personal talking head testimonies from those who survived it, witnessed it, or aided in its perpetuation. Through its unrelenting focus on these talking heads and its return to previous Holocaust sites, Shoah engages in a dialectic of past and present, bearing witness to the historical trauma of the Holocaust while also gesturing to the impossibility of its representation. Other films, such as Rithy Panh’s S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003), bears witness to the Cambodian genocide that took place under Pol Pot’s regime. It, too, relies on the clash between past and present, as Panh brings two survivors of the genocide and some former guards and torturers from the Khmer Rouge to the S-21 prison site. Panh uses archival documents from the Khmer Rouge regime and other representational strategies, such as former guard Khieu Ches' reenactment of his daily routine while overseeing the S-21, to allow the traumatic past to enter into the present moment. And through animation, Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008) literally illustrates Folman’s repressed memories regarding his culpability as a member of the Israeli Defense Forces that were responsible for the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

Other documentary filmmakers have addressed the questions of visibility and invisibility from the perspective of legal justice. Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (1988) uses reenactments of different witness testimonies of a crime scene to point to the ways in which one’s personal memories and subjectivity impact legal cases. The highly stylized nature of the reenactments betray the lack of credible witnesses, and what we are left with is a set of recollections about an event that no one saw. In a different vein, documentary filmmaking has enabled the “Forensic Architecture” research team, led by Israeli architect Eyal Weizman, to use architecture as a lens for capturing often unseen or invisible daily violence in areas such as the West Bank or in Syria. As Weizman explains, while forensics has traditionally been used to affirm and solidify state power, “the direction of the forensic gaze could also be inverted, and used instead to detect and interrupt state violations” (10). For instance, through a series of interviews with former survivors of the Saydnaya Prison in Syria, the Forensic Architecture team uses architectural and acoustic modeling to reconstruct the prison’s architecture based on the prisoners’ memories, providing images of a site where no cameras are allowed.[1] [open notes in new window]

Persons of Interest and The Oath are in dialogue with many of these issues. There is no concrete, visible evidence of the violence suffered by those imprisoned, nor is there a way to visually approximate the mental and emotional toll that detention and deportation has had on the families of the victims. Instead, these films use a set of different representational strategies that bear witness to the experience of imprisonment.

Post-9/11 documentary representation

Since its inception, the War on Terror has been conceived of as a war whose success, Vice President Dick Cheney asserted, would hinge on the United States’ ability to “work sort of the dark side” and “spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world” (Cheney). Indeed, while the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have often been marked by moments of spectacle that have circulated across the internet and on television, military efforts have also relied on and benefitted from a limited visual field that leaves much of their actions clandestine. Persons of Interest and The Oath are but two of several documentaries[2] that have attempted to illuminate this dark side of the War on Terror and have tried to understand exactly what happens to the detainees in the military prison sites where they are held.

Within this larger corpus, there are multiple documentaries that reveal a preoccupation with the visual nature of torture and imprisonment under the War on Terror and explore the limits of how it can be represented. Some of these documentaries, such as Channel 4’s Torture: The Guantánamo Guidebook (2005), Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantánamo (2006), and Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure (2008), engage with these limits by self-consciously revealing what they do not, or cannot, know about what happens within the prison sites. They point to how the opacity of the military prisons enable the torture of detainees and also prevent informed debates regarding the role these prisons play in the War on Terror. Unable to see what goes on inside Guantánamo Bay, Torture: The Guantánamo Guidebook simulates the environment of the prison based on declassified United States government documents and military manuals. Volunteers agree to spend 48 hours as detainees in a makeshift prison, subject to a lighter version of the abuse suffered by detainees in Guantánamo Bay. These simulations reenact torture without ever fully capturing the violence and humiliation of the “enhanced interrogation techniques.” And as a docudrama, The Road to Guantánamo reenacts the torture of the “Tipton Three” in an attempt to both approximate the violence of their imprisonment while also pointing out how this violence is shrouded in secrecy and rarely enters the public visual culture. And focusing on the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, Morris’ film Standard Operating Procedure is interested in what the Abu Ghraib photos can, and cannot, tell us about the abuse and torture inside the Abu Ghraib prison or of the military milieu and culture that helped enable it.

Other post-9/11 documentary films address the invisibility of Muslims and Arabs who have been unfairly surveilled and/or arrested under the guise of combatting terrorism. These films, like Persons of Interest and The Oath, offer more expansive definitions and portrayals of Muslims to Western audiences. Two documentaries that address the mass arrests of Arab, Muslim, and Sikh men shortly after September 11 are Brothers and Others (Nicolas Rossier, 2003) and Lest We Forget (Jason DaSilva, 2003). Like Persons of Interest, these documentaries give a voice to those who were unjustly detained by the FBI and Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Brothers and Others also offers an opportunity for victims of the arrest to talk about how the profiling and arrest disrupted their lives and the lives of their loved ones. Lest We Forget draws historical parallels between the persecution of Arabs, South Asians, Muslims, and Sikhs after September 11 and the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II. By juxtaposing these parallels, the film makes the argument that the national security response to September 11 has perhaps changed in form — from concentration camps to detention centers — but is still rooted in tactics of racial profiling and the revocation of civil liberties.

Persons of Interest

Persons of Interest takes its title from the U.S. government’s classification of people who, after September 11, were suspected to have some link to terrorist activity. Days after the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, the Justice Department cast a wide net in its search for suspects.[3] The mass arrests of individuals – primarily Muslim men – often yielded little to no actionable intelligence. The arrests illustrated the ways that brown South Asian and Middle Eastern bodies were sites upon which national fears and insecurities about terrorism were projected. Markers of difference, such as skin color, accent, nationality, and dress, constructed a hypervisible subject to be vigilantly watched, distracting attention from the violations of human rights and civil liberties of thousands of innocent Middle Eastern and South Asian individuals. This visual dialectic between the extreme visibility of a small set of Muslim men and the invisibility of those who suffered injustice at the hands of federal law enforcement is of central interest in Maclean and Perse’s film. The interviews in Persons of Interest render its title and the label applied to the interview subjects ironic, as their links to terrorist activities are non-existent, indicative of how little interest they were to U.S. national security.

Spare in its presentation, the documentary consists of twelve interviews of people who were either detained shortly after September 11 or whose family members were detained and, in some cases, deported. While some who were formerly detained are there to talk about their imprisonment, spouses and siblings stand in as proxies for the loved ones of those who were still being held or who had been deported. Others use the interviews to discuss the ways that their imprisonment isolated them from others, leaving them unable to contact their family or their lawyers. The interviews also challenge caricatures and stereotypes about Muslims, simultaneously reaffirming their humanity while also contesting the faulty and racist logic that justified the arrests in the first place.

The documentary navigates a tension between the immediacy of the interview subjects’ testimonies and the sheer amount of stories of unlawful detentions that remain untold. Bhaskar Sarkar and Janet Walker argue,

"When testimony does occur, the presence of a given story sharer…highlights the absence of others who are not, or are no longer, present" (6). The testimonies in Persons of Interest function similarly.

Furthermore, the black and white intertitles visually reinforce this interplay between the visible and the invisible. Even the film’s title screen is completely black before individual letters of the title begin to appear one by one, replicating the experience of something once invisible becoming visible.

The shadow archive

The film intersperses these talking head testimonies with archival footage of Attorney General John Ashcroft speaking at press conferences or at Congressional testimonies. Much of what Ashcroft says about the scope and the nature of the arrests are directly contradicted by the testimonies in the film, revealing the mendacity of the Bush administration’s national security response. Furthermore, Ashcroft’s inclusion encourages the viewer to draw comparisons between the privileged speaking position he holds and the positions of the interview subjects. In this context, then, he is a representative of and talking head for the Bush administration. While Persons of Interest provides a necessary corrective to the damaging stereotypes circulating about Muslims, the film also uses Ashcroft’s presence to encourage viewers to consider the racialized and gendered dynamics inherent in talking head conventions and the ways that certain bodies are imbued with the authority to speak while others are marginalized. The film’s testimonies thus contradict many of the statements Ashcroft makes, but his inclusion also lays bare the ideological construction of his authority.

Looking at the ways in which queer mediamakers have used the talking head to bear witness to the AIDS epidemic, Roger Hallas argues that this convention in documentary film has been “deeply implicated in the disciplinary function of dominant media representation” (37). Hallas draws on Allan Sekula’s theorization of the shadow archive to explain its implications for the talking head’s role as a regulatory mechanism within documentary film. The shadow archive, according to Sekula, is the reservoir of images to which all photographic portraits belong, a “generalized, inclusive archive” that “encompasses an entire social terrain while positioning individuals within that terrain” (10). Within this corpus of images, Sekula identifies two opposing, yet related poles: the honorific conventions, linked to bourgeois photographic portraiture, and the repressive conventions linked to the popularization of physiognomy and phrenology amongst law enforcement as a method of determining criminality and classifying criminal bodies. Sekula argues that the meaning of all photographed bodies is produced through the interdependent relationship of these two poles. Hallas contends that we find the correlate of Sekula’s honorific subject in the “authoritative figures of the newscaster and the expert witness” and the repressive portrait in the “objectified other of documentary film and television news” (41). The figure of the suspected terrorist, marked by things such as their brown skin, accent, and dress, is in part constructed and constituted by the white, American body, which signifies its belonging to U.S. society in a way that the Middle Eastern or South Asian body cannot.

[Image captions: Ashcroft’s honorific white body connotes authority and credibility, constituted in part by the look and speech of bodies like Maclean and Perse’s interview subjects. Even the spaces in which Ashcroft speaks – a press conference, the U.S. Mayor’s Conference, a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee – stand in stark contrast to the empty room in which the filmmakers conduct their interviews. There are no crowds or audiences waiting to hear the interviewees’ stories. At the same time, with no crowd to blend into and nowhere on screen they can hide, the empty room renders them hypervisible. They are solely subjected to the scrutinizing gaze of the camera and viewer.]

In terms of September 11, the widely publicized visages of the Muslim hijackers, as well as other imagery such as videos from Muslim-majority countries of people in the streets allegedly celebrating the September 11 attacks, are part of a much larger reservoir of images that pathologize Muslims and Arabs as inherently violent, all of which contributed to a suspicious atmosphere in which anyone who appeared to be Muslim (including many misrecognitions of Sikhs as Muslims) was far more likely to be surveilled or subject to violence and hate crimes. Sunaina Marr Maira argues that after the September 11 attacks, “the media widely publicized the faces of the nineteen Muslim male hijackers” which obscured “the faces of the over 1,500 Muslim men detained by the government in the months following 9/11, without a single proven charge of terrorism” who remained “invisible to the public; their detention was secret and their names were not released until the government was challenged in court” (59). The interviews in Persons of Interest challenge dominant depictions of Muslims in the Western media and also offer – to return to Sekula’s shadow archive – honorific images of Muslim individuals and families, inviting viewers to consider the invisible ruined lives and futures caused by the arrests.

[Image captions: The 9/11 hijackers[4]. In comparison, Persons of Interest draws on honorific images of Muslim and Arab individuals and families.]

Furthermore, they allow interviewees a space to give a more nuanced viewpoint on Islam and the challenges the religion faces. The interviewee Syed Ali, for example, points out that the literacy rate amongst the population of 1.1 billion Muslims is slightly under 40%, allowing uneducated religious leaders to hijack the faith and preach perverse, violent interpretations of Islam. Syed points to the very real material forces that affect religious beliefs and interpretations, providing a far different perspective than the Islamophobic rhetoric that treats the religion as inherently violent.

Invisibility and imprisonment

Many of these interviews with those who were formerly imprisoned evoke the dual nature of feeling both simultaneously hypervisible and invisible. Practically all interviewees recount the flimsy evidence and justification for the arrests in the first place; Nabil Ayesh, for example, opens the film recounting being pulled over by a police officer and arrested for what amounted to little more than simply being an Israeli Arab. But at the same time, as some interviewees explain, while they are subjected to extreme levels of scrutiny and suspicion, their arrests render them practically invisible. Some interview subjects highlight this invisibility by reenacting their imprisonment. In these moments, the interview room becomes a site of performance, and the spare mise-en-scene visually approximates the sparseness of a prison cell. These reenactments, which I have briefly described in the above visual essay, bring the past into the present and confront viewers with memories for which there is no visible evidence.

In Faiq Medoraj’s case, for example, (the evidence for his arrest was that he had pictures of the World Trade Center taped to his deli case at work) the film visually evokes his disappearance into prison with a black intertitle, with the words, "Faiq was jailed for 60 days. While the intertitle is onscreen, Maclean can be heard asking, “Were you charged?” Medoraj responds, “Charged for overstay. That’s what they charged me for.” The use of the intertitle during this exchange visually inscribes multiple sites of absence: the absence of his time and experience of imprisonment, along with the absence of evidence that justified his detention in the first place. The impoverished representations of either interviewee reenactments or of the intertitles point precisely to this lack of evidence and to the flimsy justifications for their arrests.

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.

[Image caption: The blocking of Syed in the foreground with his family in the background distances him from his family… and as his wife Delilah speaks, Syed is relegated to the background. This has the effect of visually capturing the sense of exclusion the family has experienced.]

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. [Image caption — Hamzeh begins her interview holding up a photograph of her and her husband…before lowering it to turn and walk to her child in a stroller.]

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] 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 above 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.

[Image captions: The unstable flickering and grainy image of Hamdan’s image metaphorizes his disappearance in Guantánamo Bay and his distance from his family and from us as viewers. As the interrogation footage in the opening scene ends, the intertitle, "Guantanamo, 7 years later," appears. Like in Persons of Interest, the intertitle here suggests an ellipsis of space, body, and time, as if Hamdan’s imprisonment in Guantánamo Bay has left him practically invisible.]

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,

“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.

[Image captions: Johnson’s camera is static as she records the landscape, and this lack of movement elicits a feeling of tranquility, particularly in her shots of the sky and the Guantánamo Bay horizon. Even the shots of the prison are often taken at angles that obscure or prevent it from fully dominating the frame, ultimately rendering it non-descript, as if they were simply generic buildings.]

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] [Image caption from letter: “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.

[Image captions: 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 “[i]s 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.


Acknowledgments: I would like to thank the editors at Jump Cut for their valuable comments on an earlier version of this essay. This article originated as a seminar paper for Roger Hallas’ course “Cinema and the Documentary Idea” and benefitted from both his feedback as well as from the feedback offered by my colleagues in the course. An earlier version of this essay was also presented at the Society For Cinema and Media Studies conference in Montreal, Canada.

1. The videos about this process can be accessed here: http://www.forensic-architecture.org/case/saydnaya/ [return to text]

2 For a longer discussion of documentaries that address torture under the War on Terror, see Lesage, Julia. “Torture Documentaries.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, no. 51 (Spring 2009). http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc51.2009/TortureDocumentaries/.

3. In doing so, lawyer Rachel Meeropol notes that it “require[d] law enforcement to hold – by any means necessary – individuals suspected of having any link to terrorism, be it tenuous or totally unsupported, even if it meant enforcing immigration laws in a much stricter manner than is typical” (146).

5. The United States Supreme Court case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld ruled that the military commissions established by the Bush administration violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice and Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.

6. Regarding Hamdan’s absence, Poitras has remarked “I feel okay (perhaps good) that you never see him because that is the situation with many of those still imprisoned” (qtd. in Ratner 16).

7. The voice without visible source is what Michel Chion refers to as the acousmêtre, “the situation in which we don’t see the person we hear, as his voice comes from the center of the image, the same source of all the film’s other sounds” (9). Chion argues that “[f]or the spectator, the filmic acousmêtre is ‘offscreen,’ outside the image, and at the same time in the image,” further noting that “[i]t’s as if the voice were wandering along the surface, at once inside and outside, seeking a place to settle” (23). This liminal space Chion describes evokes the spectral qualities of Hamdan’s presence in the film.

8. Along similar lines, the geographer Derek Gregory argues that “[t]hrough this contorted legal geographing, Guantánamo was outside the United States in order to foreclose habeas corpus petitions from prisoners held there and inside the United States in order to forestall prosecutions for torturing them” (215-216, emphasis original).

9. The Guantánamo military commissions operate by different rules than standard U.S. civilian trials, including requiring only two-thirds of a jury to agree on a conviction instead of the standard unanimous agreement, allowing evidence obtained by torture, as well as the admissibility of secret evidence to which the defense does not have access. Part of the way that The Oath criticizes the inherent flaws of the military commissions system is, again, through its attempt, and failure, to represent Hamdan as a legal subject.

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