The footage is indeed remarkable. A group of former Guantánamo detainees, held captive by the US for 15 years or more, are undergoing what is described as a rehabilitation program for Islamic militants in Saudi Arabia. We watch as they learn about Freud in interpersonal skills training, draw their feelings in art therapy, swim laps in a state-of-the-art indoor pool. “Right now, you smell like sweat,” one instructor tells them in a lecture on how to find a wife. “How will she put up with you? Dress nicely for her.”
Such intimate access to men made largely invisible by America’s “war on terror” is a rare feat in journalism, especially in a secretive dictatorship like Saudi Arabia. So how did the documentary film-maker behind Jihad Rehab, since renamed The UnRedacted, manage it?
That has been the subject of fierce debate and protest since the film premiered at Sundance earlier this year. The director, Meg Smaker, claims that the participants gave consent to be filmed and were able to speak freely. But other film-makers, led mostly by Muslim women, have argued that Smaker’s is an unethical project that does a disservice to its main characters, all of whom spent many brutal years in Guantánamo, none of whom were ever charged with a crime. The fallout cost the film high-profile backing and cut into its festival prospects.
Now, it’s become a minor cause célèbre for opponents of “wokeness” who paint the protest as an example of cancel culture run amok, an “angry mob” of “whinging hysterics” who say white people shouldn’t make films about Muslims. In recent weeks, Smaker has been the subject of a flattering profile in the New York Times and featured by the National Review, Megyn Kelly, MSNBC and Sam Harris. Her supporters say the protests amount to an own goal, that the film treats its subjects with a compassion otherwise missing from the American conversation about Islamic terrorism.
But a number of people interviewed by the Guardian – among them documentary film insiders, former Sundance staff, human rights experts and a Guantánamo lawyer who called the film a “propaganda ride” – along with documents describing the film that have been shared with the Guardian, raise complex questions about how the film was made, loose standards in documentary film-making, the long-term effects of US torture and the free will of men transitioning from one deeply oppressive environment to another. Smaker, for her part, argues they gave their full consent to participating in the film – but whether that’s indeed the case might depend on your definition of consent.
Backlash at Sundance
In the small and tight-knit US documentary world, many had been aware of Jihad Rehab for years before it premiered at Sundance early this year – film-makers routinely pitch the same funds, attend the same retreats, apply for the same fellowships.
The project, Smaker’s first feature-length film, had attracted attention for its remarkable access. A number of journalists had previously written about the Mohammad Bin Naif Counseling and Care Center – renamed the Counseling and Care Center since the former crown prince was ousted by Mohammed Bin Salman – a detention facility in Riyadh that, according to the New York Times, has “treated” some 6,000 men, including 137 men transferred there from Guantánamo.
But Smaker seemed to have gone deeper than the tightly controlled media tours of typical journalist delegations. The film-maker is a former firefighter who spent time in Afghanistan and Yemen and studied Arabic and Islam, and has previously said she had “lust for political economies in war-torn countries”. Over several years, she filmed a number of men, first in the Saudi center’s so-called rehabilitation program and then as they struggled to adjust to post-incarceration life in a dictatorship that grants them few legal rights.
That access intrigued many in the documentary world. It gave others pause. Press freedoms don’t exist in Saudi Arabia, where film productions require government minders and official sign-off. “An ‘inside access’ film in Saudi Arabia? It immediately raises questions,” said Marjan Safinia, an Iranian film-maker and co-director of And She Could Be Next.
Smaker has repeatedly said that she got inside the center through persistence and tenacity, after a year of pressing contacts within the Saudi government before they finally relented. “I knew that if I could get these guys on my side, then I could get the access I needed,” she wrote in a 2018 application for funding that the Guardian has reviewed. “But I had to convince them that the film wasn’t a hit job, and that if the Center was as effective as they claimed, then the film would bring the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia positive attention.”
Smaker told the Guardian that there were relatively few restrictions on her access to the center – the government told her she needed to obtain consent from her subjects, she said, and couldn’t film any entrances or exits that were currently in use. She also said she insisted – and center staff agreed – that she be allowed to speak to the men without government representatives in the room, and that they could not review any footage or a final cut of the film. She has previously said that her protagonists, newly arrived at the facility after a decade and a half in Guantánamo, joined the project voluntarily, impressed with her Yemeni Arabic and coming to view her as a “white Yemeni” whom they could talk to.
Last December, Sundance announced the lineup for its January 2022 festival. Jihad Rehab had made the cut. A few days later, six film-makers, most of whom had previously received funding from Sundance’s artist-support programs, wrote a letter, which has been viewed by the Guardian, to Tabitha Jackson, the festival’s director, and Kim Yutani, its director of programming. “We are a group of Arab and Muslim filmmakers with concerns over programming of the film Jihad Rehab at the upcoming festival,” the letter begins. They acknowledge they have not seen the film but say some of them have viewed excerpts and have raised concerns with Smaker over the years in previous encounters that were dismissed.
The signatories raised a number of issues, from the title of the film to the Saudi government’s relationship to the production. “[J]ihad is a spiritual Islamic practice that has been repurposed and abused to mean many things it is not. Moreover the word ‘Rehab’ is in fact referencing a Saudi Arabian carceral institution, not a voluntary rehabilitation center,” they wrote. “We know that stories of this nature require access via the Saudi Arabian government – a government that has a terrible human rights record, that was involved in the murder and disememberment of acclaimed journalist Jamal Khashoggi, that is engaged in an unprecedented PR push to change its image while continuing a horrific war on the Yemeni people and continues to viciously persecute political dissidents and journalists.”
Smaker told the Guardian that while she understands that for many US Muslims, “jihad” refers to spiritual work, the men in the center use the term differently. She says that she ran the title by Islamic scholars, who said it makes sense when you watch the film, but that she changed it to avoid misinterpretation by people who haven’t seen it.
On an entirely separate track, controversy simmered within Sundance. Most of the Sundance Institute – a grant-making body that supports independent film-makers – is walled off from the festival programming process and only learned of the film after it had been selected. Two senior institute staff members, both no longer with Sundance, told the Guardian they worried that lending it the prestige of the festival would undermine the commitments made by the institute in recent years to equity and inclusion.
Karim Ahmad, then the director of outreach and inclusion at the Sundance Institute, was also bothered by the title when he first heard of the film. Then he watched it, and his concerns grew more acute. “It was unclear what measures were put in place to protect the protagonists, who were on camera being pushed toward saying critical things about the Saudi government – which, if the film was to get any kind of distribution, could obviously put them in danger,” said Karim.
Under pressure from staff, Sundance agreed to facilitate a review of Smaker’s security practices and connected her to consultants who could suggest improvements.
In an era of hacking and state surveillance, it wasn’t unusual for Sundance to take security measures around sensitive films. Journalists and film-makers working in sensitive environments are increasingly trained on how to protect themselves, their sources and their digital data. More unusual was a request from the festival of an individual film-maker to take such steps after a film had been accepted – festivals typically assume those bases are covered during production.
But, one former staffer notes, this was an unusual film. “The extreme precarity of the people on camera was evident,” said Brenda Coughlin, at the time the director of engagement and advocacy at the Sundance Institute, who has navigated complicated security landscapes while producing films like Dirty Wars and Citizenfour.
“When we learned that the film didn’t have safety and security protocols in place, alarms went off. So we recommended field experts and resources to the film team, in the hope that even at such a late date, there might be ways to mitigate risk to people in the film.”
Thom Powers, the documentary programmer for the Toronto international film festival and one of the biggest names in the US documentary world, had had contact with Smaker in the past. Now, she reached out to tell him about Sundance’s review. He emailed Jackson to object to the move, worrying that by caving to “outsiders who have little insight into the filmmaking process”, Sundance was setting a precedent for a level of vetting that film festivals wouldn’t be able to adhere to.
It was only after he sent the email – which has been repeatedly cited by Smaker’s defenders – that he learned from talking to members of the documentary community that the letter came from seasoned film-makers, some of whom he had worked with before. “This was not,” he told the Guardian, “an uninformed kneejerk protest by people who just didn’t like the title of the film or didn’t like the director’s photograph.” If he had known what he knows now, he says, he wouldn’t have sent the email.
“If I were to do it over, I would have held back from writing that letter. It was written in the midst of a quickly unfolding situation that I was still trying to understand. Within 24 hours, I had gathered more information and came to realize the matter was more complicated than I understood. I decided to pull back and make more effort to listen to a wider range of viewpoints,” said Powers.
Sundance ultimately gave the film the green light to screen; the National Review reported an outside consultant found that Smaker had “met or exceeded standard industry protocols”.
A question of consent
At the opening of Jihad Rehab, a voice asks over a news montage the question that frames the story: “Can you ever truly rehabilitate a terrorist?” The film proceeds to follow four Yemeni men, recently transferred to the Saudi facility after spending 15 years in Guantánamo without charge, as it sets out to answer the question.
In the initial screening of the film at Sundance, animated text appeared behind each one, outlining what they were ostensibly detained for – “armed hostilities against the US”, “member of Al Qaeda and the Taliban” and “bodyguard for Osama Bin Laden” were a few of the accusations.
They tell Smaker about the torture they endured at Guantánamo, including waterboarding and sexual abuse. They describe their path to Guantánamo and their dreams of freedom. In the latter half, they struggle to adjust to life outside detention under draconian restrictions imposed by Prince Mohammed, who nearly stops their release. The tone of Smaker’s film vis-a-vis the Saudi regime becomes much more critical with his rise, which also created new obstacles to Smaker’s continued access. She told the Guardian that the only time a government minder was in the room was on her last visit, after Prince Mohammed’s rise.
In the film, Smaker does not question the veracity of the allegations the Americans made against them. “Do you think your life was easier when you were in Afghanistan with al-Qaida?” she asks one of the protagonists. On a number of occasions, they show evident discomfort with her line of questioning. “You eat the mind,” the man says as he appears to unravel under the weight of stigma and destitution. “Don’t push me.”
When she presses another man to discuss his confessions – whether to the Saudi or the US government, it is not clear – he declines. She pushes, and he leaves the interview. We learn he refused further contact with her. The camera then cuts to a Saudi official claiming that some men fail rehab and return to terrorism. “Not all of those who enter the hospital come out cured,” the official says. The implication seems clear. When asked by the Guardian about the insinuation, Smaker said that of all her subjects, she was indeed less confident that this man was successfully “rehabilitated”.
The subjects – former Guantánamo detainees who endured years of brutality, fabricated evidence and indefinite imprisonment – are foreigners living under surveillance in Saudi detention. (Yemen was deemed too unstable to receive citizens captured by the US; the men are part of a group Saudi Arabia agreed to receive in an agreement with the Obama administration.)
The acute vulnerability of these men makes it largely impossible to evaluate whether they could ever genuinely consent to participate in a film facilitated by their jailers, critics say. Previous Guardian reporting has shown that many ex-Guantánamo detainees, especially those resettled to third countries, lack basic rights, face extreme barriers to rebuilding their lives and are particularly vulnerable to deportation.
In a 2017 BBC story about the center, the reporter gets at some of this tension: “The Yemeni returnees looked uncomfortable, having been shepherded into the tent to meet our delegation of western academics and journalists, watched over by the Saudi staff. Every one of them would have been all too aware that their words were being carefully monitored for any hints of violent intent. Their imminent release depended on it.”
Smaker’s defenders have argued that many important films have given voice to incarcerated people, a reality that routinely requires reaching agreement with the powers that incarcerate them.
One of the subjects told the Guardian reporter Thaslima Begum that he hadn’t known the film would be shown internationally and was unaware it had screened until after the Sundance premiere. “My life is already difficult but this film poses a serious threat to my life and that of my family,” he told Begum. Smaker expressed disbelief that he ever said such a thing, and told the Guardian she had spoken to him as recently as mid-July, though not about the film.
She has consistently maintained that the men consented to participating, that they signed consent forms in both English and Arabic. She said she explained the documentary process at length, including the fact that it would be submitted to film festivals and potentially viewed globally. She says she repeatedly impressed upon them that they could refuse to answer questions and leave the project at any time, as evidenced by the one subject who did so, on whose “rehabilitation” she cast doubt.
Treatment of participants
Letta Tayler, an expert on counter-terrorism at Human Rights Watch, watched the Sundance premiere and immediately had questions about informed consent – the principle that the participants should have an ongoing understanding of how their information will be used and what they’ve agreed to take part in. “I have serious concerns about whether the film-maker, who I believe was very well-intentioned, understood the potential for these men to have been forced to speak with her,” she told the Guardian. “We are not talking about a rights-respecting democracy here.”
Tayler’s other concern was the presumption of guilt threaded throughout the film. “Are they being ‘rehabilitated’ for crimes which they may never have committed, and may have confessed to simply in the hope they would be deemed ‘repented’ to get out of detention?”
In response to criticism, Smaker has argued that the men are given the entirety of the film to make their case. She points to the fact that one of her subjects begins the film arguing his innocence, before he changes his story to speak frankly about time he says he spent fighting in Afghanistan, as evidence that he grew to trust her with the truth – and it is true the men often seem to be speaking openly with her.
Smaker and her critics are talking past each other. From their perspective, the question of the subjects’ past actions is not possible to assess given what they’ve gone through and the coercive context they’re in – and it’s deeply problematic to try in that environment, especially on camera. (The fact that so much “evidence” against Guantánamo detainees was obtained through torture also makes it impossible to try them.) But from Smaker’s perspective, she is taking them at face value.
The ambiguity was lost on many reviewers of the film, who describe the protagonists as former terrorists, members of al-Qaida, and, in one case, “a former bodyguard for Osama Bin Laden”.
Presuming guilt in the absence of a conviction, let alone charges, is frowned upon in journalism. Critics of the film contacted those outlets, which corrected parts of their reviews.
Smaker did confirm that, after Sundance, she added text explaining that the men were never charged during their years in custody.
In response to the criticism, Smaker has said that she held screenings for Muslim audiences who loved the film. She points to an anonymous Saudi co-producer and a Yemeni executive producer. She references years spent in Yemen to counter suggestions she wasn’t well placed to make the film, which she argues tells a humanizing story about the complex forces driving men to terrorism. “One friend told me if any film can get Guantánamo shut down, it’s this one,” she said in the podcast interview.
This wasn’t the first time Smaker was accused of treating subjects with carelessness. In 2015, she invited the protagonist of a short film she made about Cuba’s “first female boxer” to the SXSW festival in Texas, where the film was up for a prize. Last year, the woman, Namibia Flores, told a Mexican magazine that Smaker had left her alone in an Austin home outside the city, without food or a phone, and instructed her not to speak “to any journalist or anyone other than her or her assistant”. For four days, Flores said, she only saw Smaker when the film-maker came in, drunk, at night. When Smaker’s parents arrived in Austin, according to Flores’s account, they took her out to buy food, a phone, a coat and a toothbrush.
The film won a prize for best documentary short. But when a friend wrote to Flores to say that Smaker had been speaking ill of the Cuban government, Flores panicked that she would be refused entry back home. “I was very furious and told Meg that she had to buy me a return ticket right then and there,” she told the magazine.
The magazine profile does not suggest that Flores faced any difficulty re-entering Cuba, or any other negative repercussions.
In a correspondence with the Guardian, Flores said that what transpired was worse than what was recounted by the magazine.
She said she slept on a floor during her time in the US, one dirty with cat hair and urine. During her time in the US, she says, Smaker gave interviews about her without her knowledge, saying she had deserted Cuba. Flores also said that Smaker told her she’d need to get a job in order to pay her own way home – and that Smaker reversed herself only after another film-maker stepped in to persuade her.
“She never gave me a penny even for a coffee,” Flores told the Guardian.
In response, Smaker says that she helped Flores find work in the US but that the boxer struggled due to cultural differences and isolation, and that she might have invented a narrative to explain to friends and family back home why things hadn’t gone well for her in America. She added that she traveled back to Cuba with Flores, and that her intervention with Cuban boxing officials helped get a ban on female boxing lifted.
‘Serious ethical issues’
With Sundance online due to Covid restrictions, Jihad Rehab was seen by far more people than a pre-pandemic festival audience.
Clive Stafford Smith, a human rights attorney who has represented dozens of Guantánamo detainees, was aghast at Smaker’s use of the US government’s claims against the men. “Those are the wet dreams of the US military about each of the prisoners,” he told the Guardian. He penned a letter to a number of the film’s backers explaining that torture had produced those claims, and that the men had had to admit to them if they were going to get out of Saudi detention. He also provided an example of portions of the film that he says could jeopardize one of the protagonists.
“In the notorious Saudi ‘rehabilitation’ center (named after Prince Muhammed bin Nayef, who was himself notorious for his own abuses of human rights) if you did not admit your guilt you were not going to get out,” he wrote. The Guardian is publicizing the letter here for the first time. Identifying information about the men has been redacted, though any viewer of the film with basic knowledge about Guantánamo can easily identify them.
“It pains me to have to bring all this up but the Saudis clearly allowed Ms Smaker access in order to use her,” Stafford Smith’s letter concludes. “She has been taken for a propaganda ride in a way that revictimizes the victims. I do hope you will take steps to make sure no film goes into circulation with such ethical flaws.”
Stafford Smith says that in a subsequent phone call, Smaker accused him of being the one risking the men by listing their full names in the letter, which has never been made public. (“It would take anyone with the slightest wit about a minute to figure out their names from her film,” he told the Guardian.) He also said a lawyer for Smaker suggested he could be liable for a loss of earnings. (“They need to threaten people who don’t know what the law is,” Stafford Smith said.)
Smaker denies Stafford Smith’s account of their communications and that the film is propaganda for Saudi Arabia. She did say that she came, over time, to become impressed with the rehabilitation program, and that depictions of Saudi Arabia as a categorically terrible place can be oversimplified.
A group of former Guantánamo detainees not featured in the film also wrote a letter, sent through Cage, an advocacy group supporting victims of the “war on terror”. They said that they had been in touch with two of the protagonists, who were not aware the film was being released publicly, said that it posed a serious risk to their lives and said that they wanted its distribution stopped. The Guardian has viewed these messages but has not independently verified them. Smaker says she has been in contact with three of the men in the film and they have not expressed any such fears, and has discredited Cage as a group that believes that everyone who has ever been through Guantánamo is completely innocent.
The consequences kept coming. The protests ballooned on social media and in industry press. Brenda Coughlin and Karim Ahmad resigned from Sundance. XTR, a documentary studio, took its name off the project. It was withdrawn from the South by Southwest film festival, then the San Francisco film festival. Abigail Disney, an executive producer on the film, pulled her backing after receiving Stafford Smith’s letter and apologized for her involvement.
Sundance hosted a heated all-staff call to discuss the fallout, after which it issued a statement: “It is clear that the showing of this film hurt members of our community – in particular, individuals from Muslim and MENASA [Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian] communities – and for that we are deeply sorry.”
In early March, 17 film-makers – “a group of Muslim, and Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian (MENASA) filmmakers”, all of whom had seen the premiere – wrote a final letter to Sundance calling for new processes to evaluate films accepted to the festival, along with a host of measures relating to training and diversifying festival personnel.
They also addressed Smaker’s identity in a critique of the kinds of films depicting the “war on terror” that Sundance has screened in the past. According to an analysis the film-makers conducted, fewer than 35% of the films the festival has screened dealing with Muslims, the Middle East and North Africa in the last 20 years were made by film-makers who are Muslim or from those regions.
They add: “While some of the public discussion about ‘Jihad Rehab’ has centered on the issue of authorship – and while it’s well understood that predatory reporting on the ‘War on Terror’ has contributed to a culture of Islamophobia – this is not the principal or most egregious problem with this film. In fact, this issue pales in comparison to the serious ethical concerns the film brings up.” They invited fellow film-makers to sign on to the letter; more than 200 did.
‘We’re trying to entertain’
The controversy over Jihad Rehab has come against the backdrop of an expanding conversation about ethics and representation in documentary, long a sort of wild west without the standards governing traditional journalism.
Loose standards have left the fast-growing industry vulnerable to a steady stream of controversies – from the AI voice generator immortalizing Anthony Bourdain to the Hulu production that paid for an interview with a Fyre Festival founder. The millions poured into the industry by streamers like Netflix and Amazon is only exacerbating the problem. “We’re not in the news business. We’re not trying to do truth to power,” the Netflix CEO, Reed Hastings, said when defending his decision to censor an episode of Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj at the behest of the Saudi government. “We’re trying to entertain.”
At the same time, vibrant discussions are mounting within the independent film community about “authorship” – ways that the background and perspective of the film-maker shape stories and affect participants in documentaries. Detractors say the concept is as much about exclusion as inclusion. “According to these standards, not only are outsiders incapable of understanding the experiences of others, they don’t even have the right to try,” writes Sebastian Junger, the co-director of Restrepo, a documentary about the war in Afghanistan from the perspective of US soldiers, in a piece defending Smaker.
Marjan Safinia, the Iranian film-maker, who co-wrote the letter to Sundance, said there had been “a zeitgeist shift that benefits voices that have previously been marginalized and, as a result, threatens people who have previously had privilege and power.” In recent years, a growing number of programs supporting diversity in documentary have emerged, and groups have begun coalescing around best practices for ethical film-making that ensures informed consent and protects the dignity of participants.
“It’s important to acknowledge that the people who are at the forefront of raising these questions are people from communities who have been historically underrepresented in journalism and documentary, whose communities have a long history of being misportrayed and viewed through bias,” Thom Powers of the Toronto festival told the Guardian.
‘We’re putting our necks on the line’
Smaker’s cause has been heavily promoted by the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (Fair), a group that rails against identity politics and counts a number of prominent figures on its board, including Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Steven Pinker, Andrew Sullivan and Bari Weiss.
“What is Meg’s crime? She is not a Muslim herself, and according to the group of people attacking the film, should therefore not be allowed to tell these kind of stories,” reads one communication from Fair.
Both Fair and Smaker have argued that the film’s detractors hired lawyers, paid for Twitter campaigns and threatened people involved in the film – allegations that the film-makers who led the protest vehemently deny.
“The organizing that happened is just basic activist organizing to inform people about an injustice,” said Malika Zouhali-Worrall, one of the film-makers who wrote the open letter. “On Meg’s side, she didn’t see that any of this was people with genuine concern for the safety of the men in the film. She saw it all as a conspiracy to take her down.”
After Sundance, Jihad Rehab went on to screen at smaller venues like the Zurich Film Festival and Doc Edge New Zealand. With her mainstream distribution prospects dampened by the controversy, Smaker is setting out to screen the film on her own. Thanks to the recent media blitz, she has crowdfunded more than $500,000 from over 7,000 donors.
The protest seems to have made an impact beyond the changes Smaker made to the title and some of the text cards. Sundance now requires film-makers applying to the festival to summarize the steps taken to ensure the safety of their subjects, including the “nature of consents” obtained and post-screening plans to prevent harm. A standardized grant application used by a number of funders has also adopted new questions relating to “positionality”, access and accountability to film participants – though Sundance says that many of these changes have been in the works for while, before Jihad Rehab was ever screened.
The film-makers who protested against Jihad Rehab have expressed bewilderment that their critique has become the object of the latest culture war backlash. In recent weeks, a number of them have received racist messages on social media.
Assia Boundaoui, an Algerian American filmmaker who directed a film investigating the FBI’s surveillance of her Illinois community, is frustrated that the recent coverage has oversimplified a nuanced critique to focus only on Smaker’s race. “It’s just reductive. Laura Poitras is a white woman who’s been making films about this subject for more than a decade, and she’s incredible at what she does,” she says. “It’s been really disheartening to feel like the truth has been so thoroughly distorted, and that the actual critique of this film is being lost in this cacophony over her whiteness.”
The film-makers say their protest was primarily about demanding better from Sundance, a career-making organization they had longstanding affiliations with, one that sets the tone for much of the industry. They say they’ve risked their careers by taking on the most powerful people and institutions in documentary film.
“Positioning us as some kind of organized, funded mob, which has the power to censor, is not truthful. We are a group of independent film-makers putting our own necks on the line,” said Safinia. “It’s career suicide to speak up.”