Jihad Rehab is a documentary by Meg Smaker, a former firefighter who moved from California to Yemen and then to Saudi Arabia following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Subsequent to its inclusion at the January 2022 Sundance Film Festival, both the film and filmmaker have become pariahs in elite film circles—mostly because Smaker, a white woman, dared to make a movie about the experience of Islamic men.
"Film critics warned that conservatives might bridle at these human portraits," notes The New York Times in a recent, much discussed article about Jihad Rehab's cancellation. "But attacks would come from the left, not the right."
The film centers on four men who were accused of terrorism, imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, and later sent to a rehabilitation center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The center's purpose is ostensibly to deradicalize and reintegrate its involuntary participants. The New York Times describes it as spanning "an unlikely distance between prison and boutique hotel."
This sounds like a fascinating subject for a documentary; according to several favorable reviews, the film forces audiences to reckon with the humanity of its subjects, even if they were accused of terrible crimes.
"The absence of absolutes is what's most enriching in Meg Smaker's new documentary," wrote The Guardian. "What follows is a heady plunge into restorative justice, mind control, and cultural conditioning. This is a movie for intelligent people looking to have their preconceived notions challenged."
It bears repeating, but the expectation—from Smaker and others—was that if anyone would find the film offensive, it would be a sort of self-described patriotic conservative who is disinclined to empathize with alleged jihadists: even those who were arrested while underage, maintain their innocence, and were subject to torture at Guantanamo Bay.
But conservatives aren't canceling Jihad Rehab. Liberals are.
"The bottom line is such," wrote Jude Chehab, a Lebanese-American filmmaker, in a review of Jihad Rehab that criticized Sundance for daring to feature it. "When I, a practising Muslim woman, say that this film is problematic, my voice should be stronger than a white woman saying that it isn't. Point blank."
Indeed, this was the visceral component of the torrent of criticism that has greeted Smaker: She is a white woman creating a film about a religion and a culture not her own. (That she has lived in the Middle East for years, enmeshed herself in the culture, learned Arabic, and gained unprecedented access to people we would be better off trying to understand apparently makes little difference.)
"As an alumnus of the festival and recipient of a grant from the Sundance Institute Documentary Program, I am deeply disheartened," wrote Assia Boundaoui, another critic.
It is fine, of course, for people who dislike a film to criticize it; cancel culture does not strike merely when one artist critiques another work of art. The controversy surrounding Jihad Rehab, as The New York Times tells it, is clearly on another level:
More than 230 filmmakers signed a letter denouncing the documentary. A majority had not seen it. The letter noted that over 20 years, Sundance had programmed 76 films about Muslims and the Middle East, but only 35 percent of them had been directed by Muslim or Arab filmmakers.
Sundance noted that in its 2022 festival, of the 152 films in which directors revealed their ethnicity, 7 percent were Middle Eastern. Estimates place Americans of Arab descent at between 1.5 and 3 percent.
Sundance officials backtracked. Tabitha Jackson, then the director of the festival, demanded to see consent forms from the detainees and Ms. Smaker's plan to protect them once the film debuted, according to an email shown to The Times. Ms. Jackson also required an ethics review of the plans and gave Ms. Smaker four days to comply. Efforts to reach Ms. Jackson were unsuccessful.
The Times notes that the South by Southwest and San Francisco film festivals canceled plans to screen the documentary.
But no one did more damage to Jihad Rehab than Abigail Disney, a filmmaker and member of the Disney family who served as an executive producer for the film. She initially described it in excited terms as "freaking brilliant." But then she changed course, penning an open letter of apology.
"I may not be in total agreement with every criticism of the film but that does not obviate my responsibility to earnestly own the damage I had a hand in," she wrote. "I call upon my colleagues now, whether you are gatekeepers, funders, curators, heads of institutions, agents, buyers, critics, or other filmmakers to rethink how we all behave when we are called out for our failures and shortcomings."
The letter—which (ironically) reads like the transcript of a hostage video—expressed Disney's commitment "to not creating any more pain, if only by accident or in ignorance." She apologizes for causing "trauma," and says that her "mistakes are myriad so I will not be able to claim them all in a single list, but I will try."
Disney's apology letter addresses the other, major criticism aimed at Jihad Rehab, which is that Smaker's interview practices are unethical, given that the men are unwilling participants in the center's rehabilitation program: They are compelled to be there, and thus cannot give consent to be interviewed.
"I should have pushed back on the idea that the protagonists consented to appear in the film," wrote Disney. "A person cannot freely consent to anything in a carceral system, particularly one in a notoriously violent dictatorship."
This is deeply unpersuasive. For one thing, Smaker attempted to speak with 150 different detainees, and only four agreed to talk. If the other 146 said no, it would be reasonable to think that the four who said yes did so with a modicum of self-determination. It's also standard practice for journalists to interview inmates who are incarcerated in prisons; there's no generally accepted journalistic convention that such reporting is unethical.
Nor is it wrong for a person of a certain gender or ethnicity to attempt to understand, depict, explain, and create art about a foreign group. There's a major difference between empowering voices from marginalized communities to tell their stories and shutting down seemingly good-faith efforts like Smaker's film. Los Angeles Times media columnist Lorraine Ali expertly highlights this distinction, writing that "a film losing its shot at an audience over such a controversy doesn't encourage critical thinking about images of Muslims. It throttles it."
It's natural for works of storytelling that engage with weighty, political themes to provoke wildly discordant reactions among audiences, and if Jihad Rehab had merely irked some especially sensitive viewers, this issue wouldn't be worth mentioning. But there is an active effort underway, not merely to criticize this kind of art, but to banish it from elite discourse. Note as well the psychologizing on display: Smaker is accused of causing harm, anger, and trauma. These terms are spreading insidiously, and ought to be scrutinized by all who value true diversity.