Meg Smaker’s film, renamed ”The UnRedacted,“ was blackballed after her Sundance debut, but she won’t give up
Whatever you think of “The UnRedacted,” a documentary (formerly called “Jihad Rehab”) that got blacklisted after its Sundance premiere and has now been championed by publications from The New York Times to The Atlantic, you have to agree that its director, Meg Smaker, is a fighter.
And now she wants an Oscar nomination.
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The film, a deep examination of five men who were jailed and tortured in Guantanamo after fighting for al-Qaeda and other extremist groups and then sent to Saudi Arabia for rehabilitation, prompted a head-spinning reaction at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
Smaker had spent years winning permission from Saudi Arabia to make the film, and more years winning the trust of the men in the film, four Yemenis and a Saudi. The documentary broke new ground in examining the reasons these men were drawn to jihad, and received strong reviews. “This is a movie for intelligent people looking to have their preconceived notions challenged,” wrote The Guardian.
But on the eve of the festival, a number of Muslim filmmakers objected to the film for multiple reasons — most of them somewhat vague concerns about the safety of the men and whether they actually consented to being filmed – but notably including the fact that Smaker is a blond-haired American woman and not from the Muslim community. Two Sundance Institute staffers resigned in protest, and a month after the festival, Sundance issued an apology, saying “it is clear that the showing of this film hurt members of our community — in particular, individuals from Muslim and MENASA communities — and for that we are deeply sorry.”
From that point on, “Jihad Rehab” became toxic, and politically untouchable. Financier Abigail Disney distanced herself from a film she’d previously enthusiastically backed. Distributors who’d been circling ahead of Sundance all disappeared. And festival after festival that had invited Smaker, from SXSW to The Gotham, suddenly disinvited her and the film.
The filmmaker was flattened.
“What happened at Sundance was devastating,” Smaker said in a conversation last weekend at the Ojai Film Festival, one of only two festivals that have screened the film since Sundance (the other was in Atlanta). “To have institutions like Sundance and Gotham throw the film under the bus was equally devastating. As a first time filmmaker, it was incredible to have the entire industry coming after you, especially when 90% of the people complaining about it hadn’t seen the film.”
But then a funny thing happened this fall. Smaker had continued to reach out to journalists (including this one) in the months after the film was canceled, insisting that what had happened to her was unfair, divorced from the facts and a knee-jerk response to a handful of “woke” (and possibly jealous) activists. For myself, I had a hard time understanding the objections to the film, except the fact that Muslim filmmakers would have preferred that this story be told by a Muslim. That’s a fair point of view, but hardly something Smaker could remedy. And hardly a reason to say the film should never be seen.
And so “Jihad Rehab” – renamed “The UnRedacted” as Smaker hoped to quell objections to the film – became the latest sacrifice to cancel culture, this time from the left.
It wasn’t surprising, perhaps, that anti-woke journalist Bari Weiss championed the film. But then in quick succession this fall, major publications published prominent critiques of the film’s cancellation. The New York Times ran a front-page piece by Michael Powell, accompanied by a photo of Smaker in a heroic stance, outlining the controversy and noting that the film had become a prisoner of identity politics.
“In 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 these men at Guantánamo,” Powell wrote. “Some critics and documentary filmmakers say that mandate is reductive and numbing.”
That would have been remarkable enough for a film no one had seen, but then that article was followed by another piece that championed Smaker in The Atlantic by veteran Middle East journalist Graeme Wood. That piece dismantled, point by point, the various critiques of the film. One criticism was that the men interviewed did not offer informed consent to be filmed or quoted, which Smaker had always refuted. (You can check out those arguments here.) Wood’s headline was searingly simple: “Cowardice at Sundance.”
And then Sebastian Junger, the veteran war correspondent who covered the conflict in Afghanistan for a decade, stepped forward to offer a ringing defense of the film in The National Review titled: “Inside the Shameful Cancellation of ‘Jihad Rehab.’”
“Exclusion… — the ruling out of certain individuals because of race or ethnicity — is ethically more problematic,” he wrote, considering the problem. “Pursued far enough, exclusion would seem to rule out the entire practice of journalism. The premise of foreign reporting is that you don’t have to be Jewish to understand the Holocaust, black to understand civil rights, or dispossessed to understand ethnic cleansing; being human is sufficient.”
More recently, author and podcaster Sam Harris invited Smaker to talk about being cancelled. The three-hour conversation went viral, led to the creation of a GoFundMe account, which at this point has raised $736,000 in donations so that the filmmaker can distribute the film herself.
This is not a simple case of the tide turning in Smaker’s favor: The pieces in the Times and National Review were followed by a lengthy article in the Guardian that explored questions of informed consent and Smaker’s dealings with the detention facility inmates. Filmmakers like Marjan Safinia, an Iranian director and producer and former president of the board of directors of the International Documentary Association, continue to speak out against the film.
Still, in the aftermath of the recent support, Smaker now has build up a war chest to distribute the film and – yeah, she’s cheeky – to qualify for Oscar consideration. Which she has done.
“I’m thankful that respected journalists like Michael Powell and Graeme Wood and Sebastian Junger have done deep dives and vindicated me and the film for the public. But the industry as a whole has been silent,” Smaker, still wounded, told me. “My hope is that now that the film is Oscar-qualified and up on the Academy website, that people will see the film for themselves.”
Smaker, who is basically broke (except for that GoFundMe windfall), has no team except her co-producer Stavroula Toska. She has no publicist, no agent, no manager. She is fully on her own.
And she is also fully unapologetic. Asked if whether she would have done anything differently if she could, Smaker is categorical: “No,” she said. “I wouldn’t change anything.”
She changed the title, she said, after L.A. Times writer Lorraine Ali, who is Muslim and who has also defended the film, said that it reduced the complexity of the film to what seemed like a thoughtless slogan. “Lorraine Ali said the film is nuanced, but the title is not,” Smaker said. “That made sense to me.”
It remains to be seen whether in the highly-competitive documentary race, documentary branch voters will take the time to watch Smaker’s film. As TheWrap’s awards executive editor Steve Pond has reported, there are 144 documentaries that have qualified for 15 spots on the shortlist.
Time is short. Smaker has cut a new trailer for her film and – as is her way – refuses to give up. “Maybe I’m doing it because people tell me I can’t,” she said. “I don’t like rewarding bullying.”
And also, like most independent filmmakers, she’s a stubborn optimist.
“If you asked me four months ago whether my film would be vindicated on the cover of the New York Times, I’d say ‘Probably not. But crazier things have happened,’” she said. “So if you ask me if it can make the shortlist? I’d say, ‘Probably not – but crazier things have happened.’”