Jihad Rehab, a new documentary focusing on Islamic extremism, is getting attention and criticism after its recent premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, but some of the most defensive reactions are coming from prominent atheists who refuse to dig into the nuance.
The film (now called The UnRedacted) takes place inside a Saudi Arabian rehabilitation center for alleged terrorists. Director Meg Smaker spoke with four men, all former Guantánamo detainees, about what radicalized them and what regrets, if any, they now have. The Guardian‘s review from January was almost entirely positive, describing the film as “eye-opening.”
The absence of absolutes is what’s most enriching in Meg Smaker’s new documentary, Jihad Rehab. The American film-maker had access to the Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef Center for Advice and Care in Saudi Arabia, where she followed the progress of a group of men released from the US military prison in Guantánamo Bay, some after nearly 15 years. What follows is a heady plunge into restorative justice, mind control, and cultural conditioning. This is a movie for intelligent people looking to have their preconceived notions challenged.
… this movie is a victory, mostly because it will frustrate viewers who need everything spoonfed to them.
Even Variety raved about it, saying “there are ample reasons to admire and even be in awe of Smaker’s film.”
But after Sundance accepted the movie into its festival earlier this year, giving it global attention and a potential widespread release, there was an outcry from a large swath of Muslim and allied filmmakers who called out the ethics of the filmmaker.
They wrote in an open letter to the Sundance Institute Leadership that it should rethink its decision to feature this film.
Among their primary concerns? The film assumes and accepts as true both the subjects’ guilt and their supposed rehabilitation. It threatens the subjects’ own security. It adds to anti-Muslim sentiment. The fact that a white woman is telling a story about these Arab men is mentioned, but even the letter’s writers make clear that issue “pales in comparison to the serious ethical concerns the film brings up.”
Since its world premiere at the Festival in January 2022, film critics at prominent publications including Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and IndieWire, have written reviews of “Jihad Rehab” that describe the men in the film as “terrorists” and “jihadis”, or otherwise state that the men are guilty of terrorist acts. The truth is that the U.S. government detained the men unlawfully for well over a decade without charge or trial, and tortured them… While some film critics eventually corrected the errors they had published, the number of critics who came away with this shockingly incorrect understanding after watching the film makes clear that “Jihad Rehab” presents a false narrative of guilt and criminality.
… Additionally, former CIA analyst Gail Helt also noted on social media, “This film places these former detainees at risk […] If the filmmakers think this film will not get to people who could cause harm to these men, whose lives are hard enough without the publicity, well, that’s just another indicator that they were ill-equipped to tackle the subject matter of this film.”
Many experts on Guantánamo… have expressed alarm about the harm the film could cause, and question the free and continued consent of the men to participate or to appear in the final film, given the reality that they were held inside a carceral facility in Saudi Arabia, a country well known for its human rights abuses.
The writers also point out that Sundance has only featured 76 movies “about people that are Muslim, and/or people from the Middle East and North Africa” or featuring those parts of the world and that only about 35% of those films were directed by people from those communities. It doesn’t help, they added, that when Sundance showcases films about Muslims in America at all, it’s sometimes done through the lens of the “War on Terror.”
In short, Muslim filmmakers are telling a wide range of stories but you wouldn’t know that by glancing at the films featured at Sundance. By shining a spotlight on Muslims often through a focus on terrorism, it makes life worse for Muslims around the world. And in this case, the ethical lapses and ignorance about the subject matter make Jihad Rehab a particularly egregious choice for Sundance. It’s not that you can’t make this movie; it’s that you shouldn’t make it this way.
Even the film’s executive producer, Abigail Disney, who has been fairly progressive on other issues, later disavowed the film, admitting that it “created deep and unnecessary pain.” She published her own letter explaining where her process went wrong, spelling out in detail what she got wrong:
My mistakes are myriad so I will not be able to claim them all in a single list, but I will try. I am sure there is more I still do not see. I do hope if that is so, someone will trust me enough to tell me what they are.
1. I took everything at face value every step of the way, even though I knew there had to have been more to the security question than should have been satisfied by the representations of a single party. I should have found another perspective that could have strengthened my analysis of how safe the protagonists might be once the film was released. I did not put the protagonists first. I regret that enormously.
2. I should have pushed back on the idea that the protagonists consented to appear in the film. A person cannot freely consent to anything in a carceral system, particularly one in a notoriously violent dictatorship.
3. I did not carefully enough vet the tone and the language used to represent the four protagonists, leaving the impression that even though they had never been charged with or tried for any crime, the presumption of their guilt was never in question, and that has left the horrific human rights violation and stain on our national honor that is Guantanamo unchallenged.
4. Given the gravity of the issues involved, I did not insist on a full fact-checking process to ensure that the highest standards of accuracy were being met.
5. 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. That was a failure of empathy and respect on my part—and therefore the gravest of failures.
I am so sorry for all these failures.
That’s an actual apology right there. That letter was published back in February. These concerns, in other words, are not new. They’ve been raised and discussed for months now. Whether or not you agree with all of them, the fact that the director is a white woman simply isn’t the biggest problem here.
And yet, yesterday, the New York Times‘ Michael Powell irresponsibly acted like Smaker’s identity was the real problem in all this.
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.
He cherry picks a couple of tweets to make that point, like one from a filmmaker who called out “An entirely white team behind a film about Yemeni and South Arabian men.” (That was an inaccurate criticism because the team wasn’t entirely white and included Yemeni and South Arabian people.)
The headline gives away the framing, though. “Sundance Liked Her Documentary on Terrorism, Until Muslim Critics Didn’t.” The subtitle notes an “outcry over her race.” The takeaway is that the movie is mostly fine, but Muslims are objecting to their faith’s portrayal and the woman behind the film, therefore something something cancel culture.
Powell does reference the actual criticisms people are making, but they’re not the focus of his piece.
It’s no surprise, then, that atheists who have spent years demonizing Islam as uniquely problematic among religions jumped on the bandwagon:
Writing on his blog, Jerry Coyne referred to Abigail Disney’s letter as “pathetic, cringe-making, reprehensible, and disgusting”… because she dared to acknowledge her own deficiencies in handling this project. After quoting what Powell and others wrote at length, but not dwelling on the major concerns brought up by the Muslim filmmakers who wrote that open letter, Coyne concluded:
Yes, [Smaker] was canceled to the point where, despite her clear abilities and talents, she can’t find work. Canceled by people who hadn’t seen her film. Canceled by a public who, in their zeal to appear ideologically correct, hurled accusations of “Islamophobia” and “white saviorism” without good reasons. Canceled by a gutless Abigail Disney, whose letter I can’t even bear to quote.You must read it, however: it sounds like one of those signs that the Ideologically Impure had to wear around their necks during China’s Cultural Revolution while wearing paper dunce hats.
The “public” isn’t going after Smaker for her identity. That’s beyond clear from everything they’ve been saying for much of the past year. There’s just no reasoning with someone who’s already arrived at his conclusion, without any concern for those with legitimate gripes about the film, or its process, or what it means when Sundance of all places gives it even more prominence.
The end result is that some of the people who have contributed to the demonization of Muslims—far beyond correctly pointing out the fallacies of faith that Muslims, like all religious people, subscribe to—are doing it again because this version of the story supports their narrative.