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Sundance Liked Her Documentary, ‘Jihad Rehab,’ 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, probably the most prestigious showcases on the earth.

Her documentary centered on 4 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 can be a movie for intelligent people trying to have their preconceived notions challenged.” Variety wrote: The film “seems like a miracle and an interrogative act of defiance.”

But attacks would come from the left, not the correct. 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 inform the story of Arab men.

Sundance leaders reversed themselves and apologized.

Abigail Disney, a grandniece of Walt Disney, had been the chief producer of “Jihad Rehab” and called it “freaking good” 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 change into near untouchable, unable to succeed in audiences. Distinguished festivals rescinded invitations, and critics within the documentary world took to social media and pressured investors, advisers and even her friends to withdraw names from the credits. She is near broke.

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

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

Many Arab and Muslim filmmakers — who like others within the industry struggle for money and recognition — denounced “Jihad Rehab” as offering an all too familiar take. They are saying Ms. Smaker is the newest white documentarian to inform the story of Muslims through a lens of the war on terror. These documentary makers, they are saying, 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 parents in my community used as backdrops for white savior tendencies is nauseating,” she wrote. “The talk is all empathy, however the energy is Indiana Jones.”

She called on festivals to permit Muslims to create “movies 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, just like the documentarians Ken Burns and Nanfu Wang, arguing it might be suffocating to inform the story of only their very own culture and that the challenge is to inhabit worlds different from their very own.

Within the case of “Jihad Rehab,” the identity critique is married to the view that the film must function as political art and examine the historic and cultural oppressions that led to the imprisonment of those 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 very own decisions,” said Chris Metzler, who helps select movies for San Francisco Documentary Festival. “I used to be not watching a bit of propaganda.”

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

She is dismayed with Sundance.

“Within the independent film world there may be loads of weaponizing of identity politics,” Ms. Ali said in an interview. “The film took pains to grasp the culture these men got here from and molded them. It does a disservice to throw away a movie that loads of people should see.”

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 occur?

In search of answers, she hitchhiked through Afghanistan and settled in the traditional 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 spot 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 could be very complex and the title will not be,” said Ms. Ali, the Los Angeles Times critic.

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

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

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

Ms. Smaker would remain greater than a yr exploring what leads men to embrace groups equivalent to Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Saudi officials let her speak to 150 detainees, most of whom waved her off. She found 4 men who would talk.

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

This can be 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 an amazing mystery — understanding those that could have done something appalling — and this doesn’t discredit that effort.”

To realize 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 seek out 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 in every of the lads, “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 lads, 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 which might be on a viewer’s mind.

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

He tried to hold himself.

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

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

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

“A completely white team behind a movie 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.

Greater 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 movies 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 movies wherein directors revealed their ethnicity, 7 percent were Middle Eastern. Estimates place Americans of Arab descent at between 1.5 and three 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 guard them once the film debuted, in accordance with an email shown to The Times. Ms. Jackson also required an ethics review of the plans and gave Ms. Smaker 4 days to comply. Efforts to succeed in Ms. Jackson were unsuccessful.

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

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

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

An executive who has run a serious festival went thus far as to write down an email to Sundance cautioning that its demands of Ms. Smaker might embolden protesters. Festivals, the chief wrote, will ask “two, three, 4 times what are the headwinds” before extending an invite.

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

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

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

Ms. Disney, the previous champion, wrote, “I failed, failed and absolutely failed to grasp just how exhausted by and disgusted with the perpetual representation of Muslim men and ladies as terrorists or former terrorists or potential terrorists the Muslim persons 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 one other film on jihad and Islam.’ Then I watched and it was introspective and intelligent. My hope is that there’s a courageous outlet that will not be intimidated by activists and their too narrow views.”

In June, Ms. Smaker received one other screening — on the Doc Edge festival in Recent 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 Recent Zealand festival, shrugged.

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

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

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