For better or worse, one of the most talked-about movies at Sundance is “Jihad Rehab.” The documentary from American filmmaker Meg Smaker follows three Yemeni men recently released from Guantanamo Bay following 15 years of unlawful detainment. Before rejoining society, they spend time at a “rehabilitation center” in Saudi Arabia. Smaker gained exclusive access to the facility, and spent five years making a documentary that she hoped would to “pull back that curtain of Oz. And just see the human behind that curtain.”
However, some early responses to the film have argued that “Jihad Rehab” perpetuates harmful stereotypes about Muslim men and potentially places the subjects in danger.
Documentarian Julia Bacha described the film as “dangerous orientalist gaze and really poor filmmaking. I fear for the safety of protagonists who weren’t given the chance to see it.” Letta Tayler of Human Rights Watch wrote that Smaker never asks whether the men she profiles inside this ‘rehab’ center were convicted of or even charged with terrorism. Though the US held them for years behind bars at Guantanamo, they weren’t.”
There has also been discussion about how Smaker, a former firefighter and first-time filmmaker, gained access to the Mohammed Bin Nayef Centre for Counselling and Care when the likes of “60 Minutes” and the New York Times had been denied. Smaker said that she simply gained access through persistence and exercised editorial independence, and did not allow Saudi officials to approve anything in the film.
In addition to the charges of endangering human lives, she also denies that the film perpetuates racist stereotypes. In fact, she thinks the opposite is true. “I know so many people who look at these men as monsters and psychopaths, like they’re worthless, and it’s those people I’m trying to challenge,” she said. “Their stereotypes about these men, and about who they are. That was the intention behind this: You have these stereotypes of these men and you think you know them, but you do not. Here they are telling their own story.”
As Smaker firmly stands by “Jihad Rehab,” the film is currently seeking U.S. distribution.