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‘Jihad Rehab’ Filmmaker Defends Sundance Doc From Islamophobe Criticism: ‘This Film Seeks to Challenge Stereotypes’(Exclusive)

Sundance 2022: ”This film seeks to challenge stereotypes,“ documentarian Meg Smaker says after drawing online fire for her portrait of three former Yemeni detainees

A Sundance documentarian is pushing back against accusations of Islamophobia leveled against her film, “Jihad Rehab,” which centers on former Islamic radicals who undergo rehabilitation in a Saudi center meant to help them move back into mainstream society.

“What we intended in the film was that these three guys’ personal journeys are going to challenge audiences’ stereotypes about who these men actually are,” filmmaker Meg Smaker told TheWrap in response to the criticism, largely expressed on social media. “Hopefully it takes away the simplistic stereotyping and gives their lives value that they haven’t seemed to have before in our national narrative.” 

“Jihad Rehab” was widely praised by movie critics (including here at TheWrap), but has drawn fire on social media for the fact that the film calls the men “terrorists” and because Smaker herself is not Muslim.

One typical tweet by writer Jude Chehab of Turkish news website TRT World says: “When I, a practising Muslim woman say [the film’] is problematic, my voice should be stronger than a white woman saying it’s not.”

Smaker, who spent five years making the film, told TheWrap that the movie challenges assumptions about people Americans regard as terrorists while also offering a never-before-seen perspective into the men who embraced the ideology of groups like al Qaeda. The film focuses on three Yemenis who were detained for as many as 15 years by the U.S. in Guantanamo Bay and then sent to a Saudi rehabilitation center.

After years of brutal captivity in some instances, the men are now living at the center where they can take art therapy and learn “interpersonal relations,” as part of training for reintegration into society. “The film was crafted so that it’s not just a journey for these men,” Smaker told TheWrap. “It was intended as a journey for the audiences who see it.”

But though the response by film critics who reviewed the movie has been overwhelming positive, “Jihad Rehab” has also been met with a torrent of attacks from commenters on Twitter accusing the documentary of jingoism, stereotyping and Islamophobia — though many commenters have not actually seen the film.

Sue Obeidi, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s Hollywood Bureau, said in a statement to TheWrap that more Muslim filmmakers should be given voices in filmmaking, but declined to comment on the film itself.

“We hope that the host institutions, including Sundance, will take actions to support Muslim creatives in telling our own stories, authentically and inclusively,” she wrote. “In recent months, the producers of ‘Jihad Rehab’ reached out to MPAC for feedback on the film. MPAC provided honest and concrete feedback. Due to the existence of a non-disclosure agreement between MPAC and the production company, and its desire to uphold its obligations to such agreements, MPAC will not comment further.”

Smaker said that the film went through a two-year editing and test-screening process, expressly because she and her producing partners understood the subject required a nuanced approach. “I knew that the alt-right in the U.S. were probably going to come after us, and I’m sure they still will,” she said. “But I’ve been working on this film for more than half a decade and I’ve been thinking about the issues in the film quite a bit.”

Smaker herself has an unusual journey. A former firefighter, she went searching for answers after 9/11 as to why her colleagues became victims of an international geopolitical battle rooted in the Middle East. She moved to Afghanistan, lived in Yemen for years and finally won permission to shoot her film at the Saudi rehabilitation center.

The horror of what the men in her film experienced in Guantanamo was a driving force in Smaker’s desire to tell their story. “That horror is essentially what the film is about,” she said. “We hear one of the men talk about how he became suicidal. And you hear about the use of sexual assault by the American government. You hear one man say that his best friend died in Guantanamo. And you see how it affects them still. One of them still talks with his hands together as if they’re in handcuffs.”

According to Smaker, the documentary intentionally uses the word “terrorist” to invert its meaning. She said she felt the word would provoke American audiences to question the wisdom of using it with such a broad brush. “We knew that a swath of the audience in America would probably still believe these men in Guantanamo were ‘evil doers,'” she said. “That has been, unfortunately, a viewpoint for two decades now. This film seeks to challenge those stereotypes. American society has labeled these men this way and the film is intended as their chance to give their side.”

She pointed out that the film’s title was also intended to have a double meaning. “The center in Saudi Arabia is a rehabilitation center,” she explained, “but the film is also rehabilitating the audience and their idea of these men. In that way, certain audiences land in a much different place, a much more understanding place, at the end of the film than where they were at the beginning.”

Smaker also said she understood those who took issue with her making the film as a non-Muslim, but defended her validity as an observer, especially as an American with a responsibility to speak out against her country’s status quo. “I saw my own country droning Yemen indiscriminately with air strikes and giving arms to Saudi Arabia and supporting them in their bombing campaign,” she said. “It’s personal to me. My own country is committing these acts. If I don’t call them out, then what the hell I am doing?”