The first word you hear when watching the documentary Jihad, Rehab is “Meg.”
The speaker is a man identified only as Khalid. He’s an erstwhile resident of the Prince Mohammed Bin Naif Counseling and Care Center, a combination halfway house and reeducation camp in Saudi Arabia for presumed and convicted extremists. Addressing the filmmaker, Meg Smaker, Khalid begins this film by saying, “Meg. Can I tell you something?”
“Sure,” she responds. “In every story, there is good and bad,” he says, “but it’s a thin line. You know, some people, they look at us as criminals. But some people look at us as heroes. Because you are American, you cannot understand.”
Queue the slow-motion flying pigeons.
Khalid’s comment is uttered with cinematic gravitas and edited to a cadence suggesting heady, thoughtful wisdom. But these are not wise words. Far from it. They establish a childishly simplistic dichotomy and suggest that Muslims and Americans are two different species of people, with Americans free of the moral complications that seem to beset Muslim life.
Why does any of this matter? For one thing, because Jihad, Rehab is back in the news. And, for another, because after 20 years, nine on-site deaths, and 706 transfers, and with 35 men still languishing in Guantánamo, the United States has yet to confront its responsibility for what it has done there. Does Jihad, Rehab, a film about four men previously detained at Guantánamo and now subject to a rehabilitation program in Saudi Arabia, bring us any closer to understanding their experiences—or our responsibilities? Or does Jihad, Rehab do something else entirely?
Jihad, Rehab was an official selection in the 2022 Sundance Film Festival’s US documentary competition. The film follows four Yemeni men who, having been released from their decade-and-a-half Guantánamo confinement, still cannot return home to Yemen, a country currently torn apart by its own war. Instead, the United States sends the men to Saudi Arabia, where they are required to spend a year at the Prince Mohammed Bin Naif Counseling and Care Center, which many refer to as a rehabilitation facility, but which is still a prison, as the men cannot leave.
Smaker obtained privileged access to the men and to the workings of the center, and over the course of the film, she tracks the men’s journeys through the soft confinement of the institute, where they are required to enroll in classes such as art therapy, religion, and “interpersonal skills,” to the harsh realities of leaving the center and living as unemployed Yemenis in Saudi Arabia.
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The film garnered strong reviews upon its release, but discontent about the film and its ethics had in fact been brewing since 2019, beginning with its highly offensive title. For Muslims, the primary meaning of jihad, which is often translated into English as “struggle,” is the jihad of the self, the struggle one constantly goes through to be a better Muslim and a better person. The title, on the other hand, not only perpetuates Western distortions of Islam but reductively mocks Muslim belief by cutely joining jihad with rehab, as if a core tenet of your faith is something you need therapy for.
Anger over the film didn’t end at the title, however. After the film was selected for the festival, a group of filmmakers met with Sundance curators to voice their concerns over its content. They also wrote an open letter criticizing the film and Sundance’s decision-making processes. The primary objection to the film revolves around a presumption of guilt that hangs over the subjects of the film, even though none of them were ever charged—let alone convicted of anything.
Then there’s the ethical question of interviewing men while they are incarcerated. How free are they to answer anybody’s questions? Executive Producer Abigail Disney ended up distancing herself from the film in her own open letter. “A person cannot freely consent to anything in a carceral system,” she wrote, “particularly one in a notoriously violent dictatorship.”
Moreover, the film shows one of the men—alone, angry, and depressed after his release from the center—about to buy illegal drugs in Saudi Arabia after asking the filmmaker to stop shooting. By strongly suggesting he’s engaging in criminal behavior, the film puts his safety in jeopardy.
And then there’s the question of informed participation. Through Cage, a British-based NGO that deals closely with survivors of Guantánamo, five former Guantánamo prisoners wrote about their objections to the film, stating that they learned that two of the four men featured in the documentary “were not aware the film was being released publicly.” (In an interview with Variety, Smaker also admitted that the men in the documentary had not seen the film.) The letter further points out that under the rules of the program, leaving the center required the men to make admissions of guilt, even when the charges were baseless. “These men had no choice,” the letter says, “admitting guilt was a precondition to their release.”
All of these concerns, raised months ago, translated into the documentary’s receiving an initial flurry of interest—and then quickly falling off both the front pages and film festival circuits. That is, until a few weeks ago, when Michael Powell, a columnist at The New York Times, wrote about the film and its critics, arguing that “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.” The film, he noted, was now getting a second lease on life, with a new title (The UnRedacted), a screening at a New Zealand film festival, and a recently completed run at the Laemmle in Los Angeles.
Since the Times column, Smaker has increasingly been showcased as the latest victim of a woke “mob.” Sebastian Junger defended her in National Review; Megyn Kelly had Matt Taibbi on her show to defend Smaker. MSNBC’s Morning Joe had a recent segment on the film. And Sam Harris interviewed Smaker for over three hours about her “truly ridiculous cancellation.” (The Guardian, on the other hand, delved deeply into the controversy, and reported an alleged history of Smaker abusing her subjects in previous work.) Smaker has also since launched her own GoFundMe campaign, saying she had been ”essentially blacklisted” and seeks now to self-distribute the film. So far, she has raised over $690,000.
With all of this activity, many questions remain unanswered: Was Meg Smaker a victim of an overzealous (and fundamentally jealous) group of Arab and Muslim filmmakers? Had she been wronged because she is a white, non-Muslim woman? Has Sundance been bullied into submission by a politically correct mob?
The idea that a white woman cannot make a film about non-white men is absurd, of course. I routinely teach Laura Poitras’s film My Country, My Country, which is about as rich and sensitive an account of post-invasion Iraqi politics, as seen through one Sunni Muslim man’s point of view, as you’ll get. It is just as true that there should be greater diversity of different viewpoints and narratives at film festivals. Neither of these facts contradicts the other.
But The UnRedacted (whatever that title means) is not a good film. The primary problem is “Meg.” There’s her inane and leading questions to the men. “Do you think that you are a terrorist?” she asks at one point. “Do you think you’re a good person or a bad person?” she queries at another. She also pushes the men into corners. She jabs at one of them, when he is particularly down, with the loaded and perilous question, “Do you think your life was easier when you were in Afghanistan with Al Qaeda?” With war raging in Yemen, she prods another of her subjects: “Do you want to go to Yemen to help your people like you did in Bosnia?” He carefully responds, “Let’s be honest here. I’m not allowed to go anywhere. So I can’t answer this question. I don’t want to get in trouble.” The very idea of blithely asking a Yemeni man held in Saudi custody to comment on a war being waged on Yemen by the Saudi government is either mind-bogglingly stupid—or a dangerous setup.
I don’t know Meg Smaker, the filmmaker, but I can judge “Meg,” the voice on this documentary. And “Meg” is a cop. “Meg” is an interrogator. “Meg” is the intelligence officer at Guantánamo sitting across the table from these men, asking the same questions, day after day, month after month, and year after year. There comes a point when one of the men in the film has had enough of “Meg” and refuses further participation. The film lingers repeatedly on his silences to “Meg’s” ridiculous and damning questions, as if to suggest that his silence equals guilt. In this film, not admitting guilt functions cinematically as proof of guilt.
To argue that Meg Smaker is a victim of identity politics is to divert attention away from the substantive harm and ethical lapses of this film, and that’s a real shame. When will the United States squarely address the damage it has done at Guantánamo and seek a remedy for those it harmed? The tremendously difficult lives that former detainees now live definitely deserve to be revealed. Dozens of these men have been relocated to third countries where they don’t know the language or customs. Many are routinely harassed by government security agencies. They often suffer from health problems and profound PTSD brought on by years of abuse. Guantánamo follows them, even after they’ve left Guantánamo—a difficult fact that even this documentary acknowledges.
But rather than examine this human plight in full, or even hint at American culpability in their trauma, the film seems more concerned with getting these men to admit to crimes they didn’t commit, as if it can finish the job the US government failed to do. In that regard, The UnRedacted is ultimately less about these lives of these four men and more about the power of “Meg,” something, in retrospect, I should have seen coming from the very first word of the film.