Sundance Liked Her Documentary on Terrorism, Until Muslim Critics Didn’t

Meg Smaker felt exhilarated last November. After 16 months filming inside a Saudi rehabilitation center for accused terrorists, she learned that her documentary “Jihad Rehab” was invited to the 2022 Sundance Festival, one of the most prestigious showcases in the world.

Her documentary centered on four former Guantánamo detainees sent to a rehab center in Saudi Arabia who had opened their lives to her, speaking of youthful attraction to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, of torture endured, and of regrets.

Film critics warned that conservatives might bridle at these human portraits, but reviews after the festival’s screening were strong.

“The absence of absolutes is what’s most enriching,” The Guardian stated, adding, “This is a movie for intelligent people looking to have their preconceived notions challenged.” Variety wrote: The film “feels like a miracle and an interrogative act of defiance.”

But attacks would come from the left, not the right. Arab and Muslim filmmakers and their white supporters accused Ms. Smaker of Islamophobia and American propaganda. Some suggested her race was disqualifying, a white woman who presumed to tell the story of Arab men.

Sundance leaders reversed themselves and apologized.

Abigail Disney, a grandniece of Walt Disney, had been the executive director of “Jihad Rehab” and called it “freaking brilliant” in an email to Ms. Smaker. Now she disavowed it.

The film “landed like a truckload of hate,” Ms. Disney wrote in an open letter.

Ms. Smaker’s film has become near untouchable, unable to reach audiences. Prominent festivals rescinded invitations, and critics in the documentary world took to social media and pressured investors, advisers and even her friends to withdraw names from the credits. She is close to broke.

“In my naïveté, I kept thinking people would get the anger out of their system and realize this film was not what they said,” Ms. Smaker said. “I’m trying to tell an authentic story that a lot of Americans might not have heard.”

Battles over authorship and identity regularly roil the documentary world, a tightly knit and largely left-wing ecosystem.

Ms. Smaker wanted to explore what leads men to embrace terrorism. But Arab American filmmakers say that framing was all too familiar. Credit…Meg Smaker

Many Arab and Muslim filmmakers — who like others in the industry struggle for money and recognition — denounced “Jihad Rehab” as offering an all too familiar take. They say Ms. Smaker is the latest white documentarian to tell the story of Muslims through a lens of the war on terror. These documentary makers, they say, take their white, Western gaze and claim to film victims with empathy.

Assia Boundaoui, a filmmaker, critiqued it for Documentary magazine.

“To see my language and the homelands of folks in my community used as backdrops for white savior tendencies is nauseating,” she wrote. “The talk is all empathy, but the energy is Indiana Jones.”

She called on festivals to allow Muslims to create “films that concern themselves not with war, but with life.”

The argument over whether artists should share racial or ethnic identity and sympathy with their subjects is long running in literature and film — with many artists and writers, like the documentarians Ken Burns and Nanfu Wang, arguing it would be suffocating to tell the story of only their own culture and that the challenge is to inhabit worlds different from their own.

In the case of “Jihad Rehab,” the identity critique is married to the view that the filmmust function as political art and examine the historic and cultural oppressions that led to the imprisonment of these men at Guantánamo.

Some critics and documentary filmmakers say that mandate is reductive and numbing.

“What I admired about ‘Jihad Rehab’ is that it allowed a viewer to make their own decisions,” said Chris Metzler, who helps select films for San Francisco Documentary Festival. “I was not watching a piece of propaganda.”

Ms. Smaker has other defenders. Lorraine Ali, a television critic for The Los Angeles Times who is Muslim, wrote that the film was “a humanizing journey through a complex emotional process of self-reckoning and accountability, and a look at the devastating fallout of flawed U.S. and Saudi policy.”

She is dismayed with Sundance.

“In the independent film world there is a lot of weaponizing of identity politics,” Ms. Ali said in an interview. “The film took pains to understand the culture these men came from and molded them. It does a disservice to throw away a film that a lot of people should see.”

From Firefighter to Filmmaker

Ms. Smaker was a 21-year-old firefighter in California when airplanes struck the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. She heard firefighters cry for vengeance and wondered: How did this happen?

Looking for answers, she hitchhiked through Afghanistan and settled in the ancient city of Sana, Yemen, for half a decade, where she learned Arabic and taught firefighting. Then she obtained a master’s from Stanford University in filmmaking and turned to a place Yemeni friends had spoken of: the Mohammed bin Nayef Counseling and Care Center in Riyadh.

The Saudi monarchy brooks little dissent. This center tries to rehabilitate accused terrorists and spans an unlikely distance between prison and boutique hotel. It has a gym and pool and teachers who offer art therapy and lectures on Islam, Freud and the true meanings of “jihad,” which include personal struggle.

Hence the documentary’s original title, “Jihad Rehab,” which engendered much criticism, even from supporters, who saw it as too facile. “The film is very complex and the title is not,” said Ms. Ali, the Los Angeles Times critic.

To address such concerns, the director recently renamed the film “The UnRedacted.”

The United States sent 137 detainees from Guantánamo Bay to this center, which human rights groups cannot visit.

But reporters with The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic and others have interviewed prisoners. Most stayed a few days.

Ms. Smaker would remain more than a year exploring what leads men to embrace groups such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Saudi officials let her speak to 150 detainees, most of whom waved her off. She found four men who would talk.

A film still of the guard tower. Ms. Smaker envisioned the documentary as opening with accusations facing the men — bomb maker, bin Laden driver, Taliban fighter — and peeling layers to find the human.Credit…Meg Smacker

These conversations form the core of the movie and cut far deeper than earlier news reports. That did not dissuade critics. Ms. Disney, a titan in the documentary world, picked up on a point raised by the film’s opponents. “A person cannot freely consent to anything in a carceral system, particularly one in a notoriously violent dictatorship,” she wrote.

This is a debatable proposition. Journalists often interview prisoners, and documentaries like “The Thin Blue Line” give powerful voice to them, without necessarily clearing this purist hurdle of free consent.

Ms. Disney declined an interview request, saying she wished Ms. Smaker well.

Lawrence Wright wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11” and spent much time in Saudi Arabia. He saw the documentary.

“As a reporter, you acknowledge the constraints on prisoners, and Smaker could have acknowledged it with more emphasis,” he said. “But she was exploring a great mystery — understanding those who may have done something appalling — and this does not discredit that effort.”

To gain intimate access, he added, was a coup.

Ms. Smaker envisioned the film as an unfolding, opening with American accusations — bomb maker, bin Laden driver, Taliban fighter — and peeling layers to find the human.

Distrust yielded to trust. Men described being drawn to Al Qaeda out of boredom, poverty and defense of Islam. What emerged was a portrait of men on the cusp of middle-age reckoning with their past.

Ms. Smaker asked one of the men, “Are you a terrorist?”

He bridled. “Someone fight me, I fight them. Why do you call me terrorist?”

Her critics argue that such questions registered as accusation. “These questions seek to humanize the men, but they still frame them as terrorists,” Pat Mullen, a Toronto film critic, wrote in Point of View magazine.

Mr. Metzler of the San Francisco festival said a documentarian must ask questions that are on a viewer’s mind.

The film in fact dwells on torture inflicted by Americans at Guantánamo Bay. Ali al-Raimi arrived at age 16. “Every day was worse than the last day,” he said.

He tried to hang himself.

“Nothing,” he said, “was worse than Guantánamo.”

The men longed for the prosaic: marriage, children, a job. Khalid, a voluble man, was trained as a bomb maker; in the film, he said he now crafts remote-control car alarms in Jeddah. Ambiguity lingers.

Success, Interrupted

Sundance announced in December that it had selected “Jihad Rehab” for its 2022 festival, held the following month. Critics erupted.

“An entirely white team behind a film about Yemeni and South Arabian men,” the filmmaker Violeta Ayala wrote in a tweet.

Ms. Smaker’s film had a Yemeni-American executive producer and a Saudi co-producer.

More than 230 filmmakers signed a letter denouncing the documentary. A majority had not seen it. The letter noted that over 20 years, Sundance had programmed 76 films about Muslims and the Middle East, but only 35 percent of them had been directed by Muslim or Arab filmmakers.

Sundance noted that in its 2022 festival, of the 152 films in which directors revealed their ethnicity, 7 percent were Middle Eastern. Estimates place Americans of Arab descent at between 1.5 and 3 percent.

Sundance officials backtracked. Tabitha Jackson, then the director of the festival, demanded to see consent forms from the detainees and Ms. Smaker’s plan to protect them once the film debuted, according to an email shown to The Times. Ms. Jackson also required an ethics review of the plans and gave Ms. Smaker four days to comply. Efforts to reach Ms. Jackson were unsuccessful.

The review concluded Ms. Smaker more than met standards of safety.

Ms. Smaker said a public relations firm recommended that she apologize. “What was I apologizing for?” she said. “For trusting my audience to make up their own mind?”

Prominent documentary executives said Sundance’s demands were without precedent.

An executive who has run a major festival went so far as to write an email to Sundance cautioning that its demands of Ms. Smaker might embolden protesters. Festivals, the executive wrote, will ask “two, three, four times what are the headwinds” before extending an invitation.

That executive had earlier invited Ms. Smaker to show “Jihad Rehab,” but she had declined as her film was not yet completed. This executive asked to remain anonymous out of concern of offending Muslim filmmakers.

“Jihad Rehab” premiered in January; most major reviews were good. But Ms. Smaker’s critics were not persuaded.

“When I, a practicing Muslim woman, say that this film is problematic,” wrote Jude Chehab, a Lebanese American documentarian, “my voice should be stronger than a white woman saying that it isn’t. Point blank.”

Ms. Disney, the former champion, wrote, “I failed, failed and absolutely failed to understand just how exhausted by and disgusted with the perpetual representation of Muslim men and women as terrorists or former terrorists or potential terrorists the Muslim people are.”

Her apology and that of Sundance shook the industry. The South by Southwest and San Francisco festivals rescinded invitations.

Jihad Turk, former imam of Los Angeles’s largest mosque, was baffled. In December, his friend Tim Disney — brother of Abigail — invited him to a screening.

“My first instinct,” he said, “was ‘Oh, not another film on jihad and Islam.’ Then I watched and it was introspective and intelligent. My hope is that there is a courageous outlet that is not intimidated by activists and their too narrow views.”

An Elusive Happy Ending

In June, Ms. Smaker received another screening — at the Doc Edge festival in New Zealand.

She hopped a flight to Auckland with trepidation. Would this end in cancellation? Word had leaked out, and Mr. Mullen, the Toronto film critic, tweeted a warning.

“Oh wild — controversial Sundance doc Jihad Rehab comes out of hiding,” he wrote, adding: “Why would anyone program this film after Sundance? File under ‘we warned you!’”

Dan Shanan, who heads the New Zealand festival, shrugged.

“What happened at Sundance was not good,” he said. “Film festivals must hold to their belief in their role.”

Ms. Smaker has maxed out credit cards and, at age 42, borrowed money from her parents. This is not the Sundance debut of her dreams. “I don’t have the money or influence to fight this out,” she said, running hands back through her hair. “I’m not sure I see a way out.”

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