The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents April 2010 Return to Table of Contents
Alice in Wonderland
Presidents Desk
Sundance 2010
Obselidia
The Oath
His & Hers
Southern District
Cane Toads
Production Slate
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
The Oath


This year’s cinematography award in the U.S. Documentary Competition went to The Oath, a film with two stories, two styles and two cinematographers. Co-shot by director Laura Poitras and Kirsten Johnson, the film interweaves the sagas of Abu Jandal and Salim Hamdam, brothers-in-law who were associated with Al Qaeda in the late 1990s. The bodyguard and driver for Osama bin Laden, respectively, the men subsequently took divergent paths. Abu Jandal (the name is an alias), once an Al Qaeda recruiter, became a cab driver in Yemen after renouncing terrorism, while Hamdam wound up in isolation at Guantnamo Bay, and then at the center of Hamdam v. Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court case that struck down President George W. Bush’s plan for military commissions.

It was The Oath’s intimacy and access that won the jury over. “We thought it was an incredibly beautiful portrait of people in places we rarely get to see,” says juror Morgan Spurlock. “It was very intimate. We were also impressed by the situations these two female cinematographers put themselves in. They were in a place that isn’t normally friendly to Western men, let alone Western women filming a movie. That was brave and impressive.”

Poitras says she started out with a different story in mind. She originally went to Yemen, in 2007, hoping to find a recently released Guantnamo detainee to track. A lawyer introduced her to potential subjects, and through Hamdam’s family she met the charismatic, articulate Abu Jandal. “In 30 seconds, everything was doing somersaults in my head,” Poitras says. “Here’s this guy who was Osama’s bodyguard, and he was driving a taxi. The storyteller in me knew that was compelling.”

Poitras asked Abu Jandal for permission to put a camera inside his taxi, and for the next two years, she bounced between New York and Yemen, slowly building a rapport with her subject that enabled her to capture intimate moments, including him  with his young son, and him reflecting on the evolution of his beliefs since 9/11.

But Poitras also managed to hang onto the Guantnamo storyline, weaving in the trial of Hamdam, even though he never appears onscreen. “There was always this idea of there being ghosts in the film — people detained who are missing,” she says. “Once I had Abu Jandal as the main thread, I felt Hamdam’s character would be a ghost.”

Poitras had shot her last documentary, My Country, My Country (2006), herself, but she knew she would need a second cinematographer for Guantnamo. In 2008, she brought in Johnson, a director and cinematographer who has shot for Michael Moore, Barbara Kopple, Kirby Dick and other nonfiction stalwarts.

Poitras envisioned two distinct visual styles for Yemen and Guantnamo. She explains, “I always wanted to film Yemen in a very intimate, kinetic way, entering a world we haven’t had access to.” By contrast, Guantnamo was austere and still. “[Kirsten] was on sticks, doing locked-off shots,” says Poitras. “There was a sense of trying to be outside this world, of stepping back and saying, ‘What is this bizarre universe?’ Kirsten’s eye was in charge of evoking the sense that it’s almost like a crime scene. You don’t really know what happened in Guantnamo, but it has some strong subtext.”

Both cinematographers shot with a standard-definition Panasonic AG-DVX100A, using its 4.5-45mm Leica Dicomar zoom. They recorded at 24p Advanced in 16x9. “I began this project thinking I’d change over to high-definition video midway through,” says Poitras. “I’ve always been one to embrace new technology.” But they wound up sticking with MiniDV. “It’s like a really trusted paintbrush — there’s a beautiful palette to it,” says Poitras. Johnson adds, “I own one and still haven’t found an HD camera that matches what that camera can do.”

Inside the taxicab, they used a smaller Canon Vixia HV20, shooting to tape at 24p. Mounted on the dashboard or in the rear of the cab, the camera rolled untended for an hour at a time, capturing Jandal with his passengers. (For screenings at Sundance and the Berlinale, the movie was screened on HDCam 1080i.)

Poitras shot on and off in Yemen for two years, while Johnson made two trips to Guantnamo, first for five days, and then for four weeks. The filmmakers were there on an assignment for Chicago Public Radio’s This American Life, for which they were producing a story. Johnson subsequently went to Yemen for two weeks after Hamdam was released, capturing vistas, street scenes and views from the taxi.

Altogether, they shot 125 hours of footage, “a very small amount,” says Johnson. “We were both limited in all kinds of ways in both places.” In Guantnamo, journalists were prohibited from filming the trial and could record only the daily press briefings. Johnson could shoot landscapes on the base, but only under military escort, and she was not allowed to film military installations or even the complete shoreline. “They were very concerned about security, even though there are Google maps of the entire area,” Johnson notes. 

“The military’s constraints made me frame differently,” she continues. “It would get my shot off-kilter. I’d say, ‘Well, that’s kind of interesting. Let me make it a little more off-kilter.’ I was constantly going toward more asymmetrical framing.”

Poitras encouraged that. Johnson recalls, “When I start shooting, there are always a few shots I take just for me alone, and I know they’ll never make the film because they’re so unconventional. Laura saw a couple of those and said, ‘That’s what I’m looking for.’ I said, ‘Really? I can do that?’ She encouraged me to follow the impulse to film things in the most disconcerting way.” Poitras also told Johnson to attend the trial despite the prohibition against cameras. “Few directors would have said, ‘Spend eight hours of your shooting day in the courtroom, listening, and then take that experience out into the landscape and interpret it,’” Johnson says. “I’ve rarely worked with a director that trusting.” This also meant that Johnson spent the hottest, brightest daylight hours inside, “absorbing the mood,” she says. “Then I’d go out in the world at the perfect hours — pre-dawn or magic hour.”

Meanwhile, in Yemen, Poitras practiced patience. On every trip, she brought a wish list of shots. “I might have 20 things, and I’d come back with two crossed off,” she recalls. “I knew it was going to take time, and it was probably six months before I felt I was starting to get what I needed.” She gradually managed to capture such personal scenes as Abu Jandal’s pre-dawn prayers with his son. “What I find amazing about Laura’s vérité footage is that she really goes with her eye where you want to go as a viewer,” Johnson observes. “When Abu Jandal is praying and pulls his son’s foot closer, you don’t quite get it. Laura has the same thought and gets the shot. Then you can see it and understand. She questions with the camera.”

For both cinematographers, the hardest part of filming was “the psychological pressure,” says Poitras. “We were so close to so many nerves: 9/11, Al Qaeda and Guantnamo.” Neither Guantnamo nor Yemen were easy locations. “It was kind of shocking when Kirsten came back,” says Poitras. “She’s shot in Darfur and lots of hot spots, but she said Guantnamo was the toughest psychologically.” Johnson explains, “It was the constant sense of being watched. We had to travel in groups, and there was no physical freedom at all. I’d never experienced that before.”

 

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