Sundance: Why the fury of ‘Jihad Rehab’ is bigger than a movie


The “Jihad Rehab” documentary, despite its questionable title, has the kind of premise that’s usually harmless to indie moviegoers. The film follows three men, who were each held for 15 years at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, after being transferred to a “rehabilitation” center in Saudi Arabia for former terrorism suspects. It’s a humanizing journey through a complex emotional process of self-esteem and responsibility, and a look at the devastating fallout from flawed American and Saudi politics as men are reconditioned from radicalization and war to a polite society.

So I was confused to recently learn of the controversy surrounding the film’s inclusion at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which has since prompted an official apology from the organization. All at the request not of Islamophobes but of Muslims.

I’m Muslim and I like “Jihad Rehab”. (Cue the pile-on.) But more importantly, I wanted to understand how Muslim filmmakers’ objections to the as-yet-undistributed documentary, organized into a social media campaign, turned into the latest firestorm over authorship and the representation. And how it suddenly left longtime proponents of free expression like the Sundance Institute on the side of censorship.

There are far more blatant, laughable and dangerous portrayals of Muslims and Middle Easterners to challenge, after all. Strap on a blindfold and throw a dart at a list of 21st century movies and you’ll come across a gross misrepresentation: “The Hurt Locker,” “American Sniper,” “Wonder Woman 1984.” We have been villains, victims and indispensable sidekicks. But “Jihad Rehab” is not that kind of film. Arguably, this counteracts many of these tropes.

The documentary chronicles the hardships and friendships of its Yemeni subjects after they are transferred from the hellish state of Guantanamo to the relative calm of the Mohammed bin Nayef counseling and care center in Riyadh. To become eligible for release, they must complete a year-long program and pass a ‘threat’ assessment – and even then they cannot return home. Instead, they will live under surveillance in Saudi Arabia, forbidden to see each other again.

Director Meg Smaker follows the trio for three years, and the film features regular talks, visits to their classrooms – life skills, dealing with PTSD, social etiquette – and animated sequences that illustrate their frequent bouts of PTSD and anxiety in the face of events. in their past and the uncertainty that awaits them. The men talk in detail about being imprisoned in Guantanamo, but it’s unclear if they were really “terrorists”, as the United States and Saudi Arabia call them, individuals simply close to al-Qaeda, or something else. Whatever their background before imprisonment, their testimonies reflect the reality of their monitored circumstances: they are a mixture of defensive and cautious, honest and pained, and revealingly transparent when listing the progress that they made for off-camera managers.

Meg Smaker, director of “Jihad Rehab”, an official selection for the American documentary competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

(THR / Sundance Institute)

As the political landscape changes, so do their fortunes. After Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took power in 2017, the filmmaker was denied access and the men languish as they languish in Guantanamo, while the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, perpetuated by a military campaign led by Saudi Arabia, threatens their families. Smaker, who has lived in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, continues to follow up as the program crumbles, including after the men are released, when they are isolated from their home countries and trapped by laws which prohibit them from working in a country they cannot leave. The film emerges as a moving portrait of souls damaged and destroyed by war, largely anonymous characters caught in the tangle of decades-long conflict. And before the controversy erupted, many critics agreed.

But some independent Muslim filmmakers felt otherwise. They argued that the film started from a presumption of guilt – that the men were portrayed as terrorists despite never having been formally charged with a crime. They suggested that Smaker should have had more Muslims involved in decision-making positions on the film. And they alleged that his methods put his interview subjects at risk.

It makes sense that Muslims would be skeptical of another film about Muslims set against the backdrop of the so-called War on Terror. And concerns about the title aren’t easily dismissed. But the problem at the heart of the “Jihad Rehab” maelstrom is not so much the film’s text as the fact that it was directed by a white, non-Muslim filmmaker and that it came at a time when the debate over who is allowed to tell whose story was already in turmoil.

This is perhaps the thorniest argument in culture today: after hundreds of years of misrepresentation, color makers and other artists from marginalized groups have rightfully begun to claim ownership of their own stories, correcting the history of their peoples seen through a blank stare. lens. High-profile projects that have come under fire include the novel “American Dirt,” called out by Latino bands; Ken Burns’ documentary “The Vietnam War”, contested by Vietnamese filmmakers; and Sia’s film “Music,” which ignited the autism community. Their projects had merit, but their one-sided view or appropriation of history, immigration needed to be challenged – and that would never have happened if these works had been killed before they even arrived. Debates sparked by such moments are certainly part of how we’re going to get through this, not above.

The question now is how to move forward in promoting the authenticity of fatherhood without siloing various filmmakers, petrifying conflict-avoiding gatekeepers, and eating each other alive. There are no rules or guidelines in place to down the rabbit hole of possibilities that open up wider representation. Can a South Asian man tell the story of a South Asian woman? Should a Shia tell a Sunni story? If a white filmmaker partners with indigenous creators, is this progress or a symbolic gesture? The answer: It’s complicated.

But ultimately, there’s a difference between vehemently criticizing a film — a key part of culture-making — and stifling its exposure, as some “Jihad Rehab” opponents have sought to do. (Some have even claimed that the film’s supporters are condescending even to suggest it’s humanizing or empathetic, which borders on an ad hominem attack.) A film that loses its audience because of such controversy does not encourage critical reflection on images of Muslims. It strangles him.

The fight over “Jihad Rehab” has diverted attention from the indisputable problem here – the lack of representation of Muslim filmmakers at Sundance and other major festivals – to single out a film seen, so far, by very few. people. The festival’s flat foot didn’t help matters; displaying provocative work, as is her mission, requires sustained engagement with stakeholders long before and after lights out. Now two Sundance staffers have quit in protest, the festival has issued an apology, and just about everyone is unhappy. Expressing regret for the harm caused by the screening of the film, festival officials wrote that they had a responsibility “to balance freedom of creative expression and support for controversial and challenging work with ensuring that they are presented with the appropriate context and space for debate, and to maintain, and if necessary evolve, a curatorial process that upholds our mission and values.

As someone who has spent a career fighting for MENA representation, it is important to me that our legitimate grievances regarding authorship and representation are taken seriously. But it’s also important for more people to see a thought-provoking, admittedly flawed film like “Jihad Rehab” — and judge its authorship and portrayal for themselves.

There’s room for both, and there’s always room for improvement.


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