Michael Powell, New York Times, September 25, 2022
Meg Smaker felt exhilarated last November. After 16 months filming inside a Saudi rehabilitation center for accused terrorists, she learned that her documentary “Jihad Rehab” was invited to the 2022 Sundance Festival, one of the most prestigious showcases in the world.
Her documentary centered on four former Guantánamo detainees sent to a rehab center in Saudi Arabia who had opened their lives to her, speaking of youthful attraction to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, of torture endured, and of regrets.
Film critics warned that conservatives might bridle at these human portraits, but reviews after the festival’s screening were strong.
“The absence of absolutes is what’s most enriching,” The Guardian stated, adding, “This is a movie for intelligent people looking to have their preconceived notions challenged.” Variety wrote: The film “feels like a miracle and an interrogative act of defiance.”
But attacks would come from the left, not the right. Arab and Muslim filmmakers and their white supporters accused Ms. Smaker of Islamophobia and American propaganda. Some suggested her race was disqualifying, a white woman who presumed to tell the story of Arab men.
Sundance leaders reversed themselves and apologized.
Abigail Disney, a grandniece of Walt Disney, had been the executive producer of “Jihad Rehab” and called it “freaking brilliant” in an email to Ms. Smaker. Now she disavowed it.
The film “landed like a truckload of hate,” Ms. Disney wrote in an open letter.
Ms. Smaker’s film has become near untouchable, unable to reach audiences. Prominent festivals rescinded invitations, and critics in the documentary world took to social media and pressured investors, advisers and even her friends to withdraw names from the credits. She is close to broke.
Battles over authorship and identity regularly roil the documentary world, a tightly knit and largely left-wing ecosystem.
Many Arab and Muslim filmmakers — who like others in the industry struggle for money and recognition — denounced “Jihad Rehab” as offering an all too familiar take. They say Ms. Smaker is the latest white documentarian to tell the story of Muslims through a lens of the war on terror. These documentary makers, they say, take their white, Western gaze and claim to film victims with empathy.
Assia Boundaoui, a filmmaker, critiqued it for Documentary magazine.
“To see my language and the homelands of folks in my community used as backdrops for white savior tendencies is nauseating,” she wrote. “The talk is all empathy, but the energy is Indiana Jones.”
She called on festivals to allow Muslims to create “films that concern themselves not with war, but with life.”
The argument over whether artists should share racial or ethnic identity and sympathy with their subjects is long running in literature and film — with many artists and writers, like the documentarians Ken Burns and Nanfu Wang, arguing it would be suffocating to tell the story of only their own culture and that the challenge is to inhabit worlds different from their own.
Ms. Smaker envisioned the film as an unfolding, opening with American accusations — bomb maker, bin Laden driver, Taliban fighter — and peeling layers to find the human.
Distrust yielded to trust. Men described being drawn to Al Qaeda out of boredom, poverty and defense of Islam. What emerged was a portrait of men on the cusp of middle-age reckoning with their past.
Ms. Smaker asked one of the men, “Are you a terrorist?”
He bridled. “Someone fight me, I fight them. Why do you call me terrorist?”
Her critics argue that such questions registered as accusation. “These questions seek to humanize the men, but they still frame them as terrorists,” Pat Mullen, a Toronto film critic, wrote in Point of View magazine.
Sundance announced in December that it had selected “Jihad Rehab” for its 2022 festival, held the following month. Critics erupted.
“An entirely white team behind a film about Yemeni and South Arabian men,” the filmmaker Violeta Ayala wrote in a tweet.
Ms. Smaker’s film had a Yemeni-American executive producer and a Saudi co-producer.
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 review concluded Ms. Smaker more than met standards of safety.
Ms. Smaker said a public relations firm recommended that she apologize. “What was I apologizing for?” she said. “For trusting my audience to make up their own mind?”
“Jihad Rehab” premiered in January; most major reviews were good. But Ms. Smaker’s critics were not persuaded.
“When I, a practicing Muslim woman, say that this film is problematic,” wrote Jude Chehab, a Lebanese American documentarian, “my voice should be stronger than a white woman saying that it isn’t. Point blank.”
Ms. Disney, the former champion, wrote, “I failed, failed and absolutely failed to understand just how exhausted by and disgusted with the perpetual representation of Muslim men and women as terrorists or former terrorists or potential terrorists the Muslim people are.”
The apologies shook the industry. Shortly after Sundance apologized, South by Southwest rescinded its invitation. Ms. Disney’s note came a week later. In April, the San Francisco festival dropped the film.