Sundance: Why ‘Jihad Rehab’ furor is bigger than one film

The documentary “Jihad Rehab,” despite its questionable title, has the sort of premise that’s usually innocuous to indie film buffs. The film follows three men who were held for 15 years at Guantanamo bay, the U.S. naval base. They were then transferred to a U.S. prison. “rehabilitation”Facility in Saudi Arabia for ex-terrorism suspects. It’s a humanizing journey through a complex emotional process of self-reckoning and accountability, and a look at the devastating fallout of flawed U.S. and Saudi policy as the men are reconditioned from radicalization and warfare to polite society.

So I was confused to learn recently of the controversy around the film’s inclusion in this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which has since provoked an official apology from the organization. All at the behest of Muslims, and not Islamophobes.

I’m Muslim, and I like “Jihad Rehab.”(Cue the snarling.) But more importantly, I wanted to understand how Muslim filmmakers’ objections to the still-undistributed doc, organized into a social media campaign, spiraled into the latest firestorm over authorship and representation. It also made long-standing supporters of free expression, such as the Sundance Institute, suddenly on the side for censorship.

There are far worse, more dangerous, and more outrageous depictions of Muslims and Middle Easterners that you can challenge. Tie on a blindfold and throw a dart at a list of 21st century movies and you’ll hit a gross misrepresentation: “The Hurt Locker,” “American Sniper,” “Wonder Woman 1984.” We’ve been handy villains, victims and dispensable sidekicks. But “Jihad Rehab”It is not that type of film. It could be argued that it counters many of those tropes.

The documentary follows the friendships and trials of its Yemeni subjects as they transition from Guantanamo to Riyadh’s Mohammed bin Nayef Counseling and Care Center. They must complete a year-long program and pass a written exam to be eligible for release. “threat” assessment — and even then they cannot return home. Instead, they’ll live under monitoring in Saudi Arabia, prohibited from seeing each other ever again.

Director Meg Smaker follows the trio over three years, and the film features regular sit-down interviews, visits to their classes — life skills, coping with PTSD, social etiquette — and animated sequences that illustrate their frequent bouts of PTSD and anxiety over the events in their past and the uncertainty that lies ahead. The men speak in detail about imprisonment at Guantanamo, but it’s left ambiguous whether they were truly “terrorists,”The U.S. and Saudi Arabia call them individuals merely adjacent or something else. Whatever their backgrounds before imprisonment, their testimonials reflect the reality of their surveilled circumstances: They are a mix of defensive and guarded, honest and pained, and tellingly transparent when listing the progress they’ve made for off-camera handlers.

Meg Smaker, director “Jihad Rehab,”Official Selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

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(THR / Sundance Institute)

Their fortunes change with the changing political landscape. After Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman seizes power in 2017, the filmmaker is denied access and the men languish as they languished in Guantanamo, all while Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, perpetuated by a Saudi-led military campaign, threatens their families. Smaker, who’s lived in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, continues to follow up as the program falls apart, including after the men’s release, when they’re isolated from their homeland and trapped by laws that forbid them to work in a country they cannot leave. The film is a moving portrait that shows the pain and destruction of souls in war. It’s largely an anonymous portrait of people caught up in decades-long conflict. Many reviewers were unanimous before the controversy broke.

Independent Muslim filmmakers disagreed. They argued that the film started from a presumption of guilt — that the men were portrayed as terrorists though they’d never been formally charged with a crime. They suggested that Smaker should’ve had more Muslims in decision-making positions for the film. They also claimed that her methods put interview subjects at risk.

It is understandable that Muslims would be skeptical about yet another film about Muslims set against a backdrop of the so-called War on Terror. It is difficult to ignore the concerns about the title. The issue at the heart of the matter is not easily dismissed. “Jihad Rehab”maelstrom refers to the film’s content, but also to the fact that it was made and directed by a non-Muslim black filmmaker. It arrived at a time in which the debate about who is allowed tell whose stories was already boiling.

It may be the stickiest argument in culture today: After hundreds of years’ worth of misrepresentation, creators of color and other artists from marginalized groups have rightfully begun to demand ownership of their own narratives, correcting a history of their peoples being viewed through a white lens. The novel is one of the most controversial projects that has come under fire. “American Dirt,” called out by Latino groups; Ken Burns’ documentary “The Vietnam War,” challenged by Vietnamese filmmakers; and Sia’s movie “Music,”The autism community was ignited by this. Their projects had merit, but their one-sided view or appropriation of history, immigration needed to be challenged — and that never would have happened if those works were killed off before they even arrived. These moments and the debates that they sparked are part of how this will all work out, not just over it.

Now the question is how can we promote authenticity in authorship without silencing diverse filmmakers, petrifying conflict avoidant gatekeepers, and eating each other alive? There are no rules or guidelines for the rabbit-hole of possibilities that wider representation opens. Can a South Asian man tell a South Asian woman’s story? Can a Shia tell a Sunni tale? Is it progress if a white filmmaker teams with Indigenous creatives? The answer: It’s complicated.

But ultimately there’s a difference between vociferously criticizing a film — a key part of culture-making — and stifling its exhibition, as some opponents of “Jihad Rehab”Have attempted to do. (Some have even claimed that proponents of the film are patronizing for even suggesting it’s humanizing or empathetic, which borders on an ad hominem attack.) A film losing its shot at an audience over such a controversy doesn’t encourage critical thinking about images of Muslims. It throttles them.

The fight is over “Jihad Rehab” has diverted attention from the unquestionable problem here — the lack of representation of Muslim filmmakers at Sundance and other major festivals — to single out a film seen, to this point, by vanishingly few people. The festival’s own flat-footedness hasn’t helped matters; to display provocative work, as is its mission, requires sustained engagement with stakeholders long before, and after, the lights go down. Two Sundance staffers have resigned to protest the screening of the film. The festival has now issued an apology and nearly everyone is unhappy. Festival leaders apologized for the hurt caused by screening of the film. “to balance freedom of creative expression and support for contentious and thought-provoking work with the assurance that it is presented with proper context and space for debate, and to maintain, and where necessary evolve, a curatorial process that upholds our mission and values.”

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

Both are possible and there is always room to improve.

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