Dok.cetera: Directing the Jihad Rehab conversation

16 February, 2022

The 2022 Sundance Film Festival, held online for the second straight year, saw a documentary field with highlight wins bestowed on All That Breathes and The Exiles for World and US Documentary competition, respectively. The former film, on bird rescue in the world’s smoggiest ecosystem, and the latter, on exiled dissidents of the Tiananmen Square massacre, though professional and timely, represent the typical Sundance winner of late – localized takes on topically-relevant western media focused topics (audience awards also went to such fare in the Russian-dissident portrayal of Daniel Roher’s Navalny and for Brazilian Indigenous Rights in Alex Printz’s The Territory). By all accounts, the online festival went off without a hitch, drawing audiences far and wide to an always anticipated slate of films, many of whom, like Cannes, will represent the relevant cinema of the year as it moves into Summer and through to award season (last year’s big narrative winner Coda is up for a 2022 Best Picture Academy Award nomination). But, with the dust settled on Sundance 2022, there was one film whose external dialogue took over, bringing forth the latest example of a central ethical question of non-fiction cinema: Who is allowed to tell what stories? A question posed across the years to the likes of 1985’s Nicaragua Is Our Home, 2016’s Vaxxed, and 2019’s The Commons, to name a few.

Jihad Rehab, a film by Meg Smaker
Jihad Rehab, a film by Meg Smaker

The conversation itself

In all honesty, and the interest of full disclosure, my relationship with Jihad Rehab falls along the same lines as it does with Sundance; from the get-go, it was minimal. For Sundance, the Park City bastion of indie cinema has fallen a long way since its mid-90s heyday of outsider filmmaker embracement. Now, an expensive and essentially corporately-subsidized glamour event, Sundance selections tend (in my not so humble opinion) to follow a topic over substance approach with winners from the past several years tackling conversations permeating the activist Twitter-sphere and localized media industrial complex. Does this mean the quality is “bad”? Not necessarily, but with Sundance, the ideological blinders are on, and they are thick. And thus, we have Jihad Rehab, a film that has sent two festival staffers to the door, and elicited a cancel-culture barrage not typically seen within the documentary-sphere’s ideological homogeneity.

Essentially, Jihad Rehab follows its director, Meg Smaker, a former firefighter turned filmmaker who seeks to answer her lingering questions surrounding the collective trauma of September 11, 2001. After spending several years in the war zones of Afghanistan and Yemen, Smaker seeks to explore what drives young Islamic men to become terrorists. She does so through an impressively accessed interview process of four Yemeni men undergoing an extremism “rehabilitation” process in Saudi Arabia. Here again, on paper this simply does not grasp my attention. As someone who had lived through September 11 in the New York City area (10 from my little town lost their lives there), the ongoing wartime implications on friends and community that took over the next two decades, and my subsequent antagonism toward anything imperialist or military industrial complex, Jihad Rehab simply seemed irrelevant to my subjective current interests. It explored times past and dwelled on so much we cannot move forward from as a globalized world by continuing to do so. The topics of terrorism, religious extremism, regional warfare, et al. have been told and told from far and wide and has been done so now for decades, so another film looking at the question of what drives young Muslim men into extremism did not glitch my radar (for a top-level exploration of this topic, see Talal Derki’s 2017 Academy-Award nominated Of Fathers and Sons). Thus my focus on the film itself lay in casual listening rather than intent viewing. But as Sundance staffers quit in protest (Brenda Coughlin – Sundance Institute Director of Impact, Engagement, and Advocacy and Karim Ahmad – Director of Outreach & Inclusion), Twitter lit up like some sort of independence day celebration, and the international film industry allowed itself an oddly extended news cycle of collective outrage, naturally this dialogue piqued my interest – still not in the film, mind you, but in the conversation itself.

From my descriptions, you can probably guess what so many took issue with in the case of Jihad Rehab. Its narrative starting point, assuming and framing extremist violence as near central to modern Islam, and doing so from a white, western woman filmmaker, is easy fodder for Islamophobia accusations. It is sloppy, perspective-devoid storytelling with a regrettable title to boot. Couple this with the fact that no representatives of the community it features were involved in the high-level aspects of the production (except an anonymous local consultant), and you have a perfect storm for controversy. Islamophobia, jingoism, stereotype perpetuation, all of these terms were used in the film’s subsequent backlash.

Since 2019

Within specialized documentary circles, Jihad Rehab had been gaining controversy since 2019. Across various industry workshops and events, Smaker had received intense backlash from members of the Muslim filmmaking community, including Zeshawn Ali, Sami Khan, and Jude Chebab. Each of these filmmakers, who are prominent voices in today’s #JihadRehab Twitter threads, expressed particular concern with the title (the non-western connotation of “jihad” is actually associated with one’s struggle to live a life within the principles of the Muslim faith), as well as its reliance on a Western fear of the other to push its narrative forward, and several stylization decisions (rap sheets to introduce each character, for example, subconsciously presenting them as guilty despite never having stood trial in the notoriously extra-judicial Guantanamo Bay).

But even with nearly three years of developing controversy, this didn’t stop Fork Films, the prominent documentary distributor run by Abigail Disney and Gini Reticker, from executive producing the film, nor did it stop Sundance from curating it. In fact, when the film was announced, several concerned filmmakers voiced their concerns with the upper brass of Sundance but, according to Speed Sister director Amber Fares: “they didn’t have any answers.” So, with that, the film debuted on January 22 via the Sundance virtual streaming platform, and this is where we find ourselves now. For the record, Smaker has responded profusely, addressing virtually all criticisms (listed here are a few, but there are also concerns around the sanitization of the Saudi Arabian care center and ongoing safety concerns of those involved with production). “The film never states they are convicted of any crimes,” Smaker has said. “It simply lists what the US government detained them for in a single text card. Then the film gives the men the next 90 minutes of the documentary to tell their side of the story and what happened to them in Gitmo,” in addressing the framing controversy. “I feel like the film’s trajectory follows an organic process over the time I spent with them and how we opened up to each other over those three years,” she continued.

A question of programming

With this context, the question arises if Meg Smaker should have told this story, and should she have done so in this way? Is Smaker herself at fault, as the collective of filmmakers and human rights professionals accuse, or is there something emblematic of a broader problem within the documentary and cinema landscape at play? Well, Sundance themselves had concluded their festival by saying, “We acknowledge that the documentary film Jihad Rehab has raised concerns for some of our audience, and we are listening with respect and humility. As always, we encourage constructive discourse around the films we show – Jihad Rehab is no exception.” A truly diplomatic, but not incorrect, sentiment, and one that should be listened to by all on each side of the conversation. This is what it is after all – a conversation. The subsequent vitriol hurled at a filmmaker who set out to reconcile her traumas and questions in a way she felt she had access to, knowledge of, and an, albeit subjective, narrative to present to audiences willing to engage with it, seems misguided. Perhaps better targeted toward the not as convenient gatekeepers of the modern cinema industry.

Recently, as Joe Rogan and Dave Chappelle have reminded us, programming (curation, in other words) is the foundation of much modern media. Rogan’s controversial podcast lives on Spotify, while Dave Chappelle’s recently maligned The Closer special on Netflix. But, like Jihad Rehab and Sundance, they are singular pieces of media curated by an organization into their broader content offerings fully focused on the bottom-line. However, Sundance, a non-profit, relies on a two-fold business model, operates its Institute, which fosters marginalized creative voices, as well as its festival, which is reliant on more market-driven forces of sensation and conversation (the kind that directly translates into hard profit) – two forces that do not necessarily fall within the ideological ethos of the Sundance, or cinema, participants at large. From 3,762 feature-length submissions, Jihad Rehab was one of 10 selected in its respective category, thus essentially repudiating the prior developing controversies. Instead, relying on them for an ongoing and intense (social) media conversation loop, allowing for a bilateral cancellation call for its filmmaker, but a constant brand name reinforcement of its curator.

Jihad Rehab, a film by Meg Smaker
Jihad Rehab, a film by Meg Smaker

Capitalism vs. community

This reality leads to my perspective on the issues of subject ownership in documentary, which centers around the cautionary call of “beware the slippery slope”. How a focus on ethics, especially within a profit-driven system, opens up holes of hypocrisy many within the outrage industry are susceptible to collapse into. In the case of Jihad Rehab, this echoes true as well. Should Meg Smaker have made this film? That’s not for me, or you, to say. She is a person, a filmmaker, a member of the global society, with experience, ideas, emotions, questions, and flaws. She is allowed to express and explore any of these however she sees fit and in any way she sees fit. Such is the nature of inclusivity. It is not simply a superficial demographic marker of self-identity but an acknowledgment of perspective(s), both internal and external. In my limited viewing of Jihad Rehab, did the film seem authentic? Yes. Did it seem nefarious? No. But was its content and delivery problematic? Of course. I wouldn’t have made that film but, then again, as a person of third culture who has never engaged with any individual culture for more than a handful of years, according to some voices in the industry, would I be able to make ANY film? As, technically, I wouldn’t hold the sort of cultural relationship called for any community-driven piece of non-fiction content.

So, I believe that we are ill-formed to hold such virtuous absolutes in production. Documentary is a form; it is not a land rife for colonization. It has existed before and will exist after many of us involved with or discussing Jihad Rehab now. The individual creating an open expressionistic form holds no responsibility to any broader industry-driven consensus, as those are not concerned with perspective – only profit. And, as a form of topical exploration and one who frequently expounds on the virtue of dialogue, any subsequent demonization of those who explore it seems quite contradictory, thus opening up many avenues for ethically (and wholly subjective) based criticism (for example, the amount carbon emissions necessary for production to even occur. Does this mean that no one can make a film about environmental awareness?). So, perhaps it is Sundance, and in the industrialization of culture, truly at fault here. Diversity and inclusivity are not simply buzzwords for a diplomatic brand identity. They are also not surface-level, press release red meat to the audience base. They are deeply complex and involved conversations, operating very much within the tensions of capitalism and community, a place modern Sundance knows all too well.

"New to Bucharest by way of Amsterdam, Brooklyn, and a few others, Steve is the communications manager/industry editor for Modern Times Review documentary magazine. He was also senior editor for New York-based IndieWood/Hollywoodn’t.