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‘Jihad Rehab’ Review: A Provocative Look Inside the Spa-Like Saudi Facility that Tries to Re-Educate Former Members of Al-Qaeda

Sundance: Meg Smaker's vague but compellingly empathetic documentary explores the limits of rehabilitation.

Jihad Rehab

“Jihad Rehab”

Sundance

Somewhere in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh there is a prison facility called the Mohammed bin Nayef Counseling and Care Center. If not for the large sign above the front entrance, it would be easy to confuse the place for a spa in Palm Springs: the walls are low, the colors are warm, and the small buildings inside the compound are separated by lush patches of grass that people traverse on golf carts. Inside there’s a sauna, a lane pool, and several longtime friends who greet each other with love. Not even those famous Norwegian jails match the calm and comfort found at Mohammed bin Nayef, whose residents have been indefinitely detained without trial — some for decades on end.

More specifically, the Yemeni men at the heart of Meg Smaker’s vague but compellingly empathetic “Jihad Rehab” are former inmates of Guantanamo Bay, where they were held under barbaric conditions because of their respective ties to Islamic extremist groups like Al-Qaeda. But here — as the paid guests of a country that isn’t exactly known for its progressive approach to criminal reform — they are treated with dignity and taught what the Center refers to as “a truer version of Islam,” one that isn’t fueled by grievances or radicalized to the benefit of warlords. “The goal is to teach them critical thinking” is how one of the instructors puts it during the opening minutes of Smaker’s documentary. “Ideas can only be challenged by other ideas.”

Some aspects of Smaker’s presence behind the camera are seldom felt in “Jihad Rehab” — too seldom for a film whose subjects are visibly taking it into account — but her faith in the facility’s mission is clear from the start. Taken as a whole, “Jihad Rehab” is neither an uncritical advertisement for the program it observes, nor a simplistic argument in support of the notion that any captured member of Al-Qaeda is just a smile and a schvitz away from abandoning extremism. And yet it’s also not a documentary driven by skepticism, or directed by someone who accepts the argument that, “You are American, so you cannot understand.”

A former firefighter whose need to understand “the other” saw her move to the Middle East after 9/11 and spend years of her life earning unprecedented access to the Mohammed bin Nayef Counseling and Care Center, Smaker obviously didn’t make “Jihad Rehab” because she thinks that terrorists should be left to rot in a cage for the rest of their lives. On the contrary, Smaker is convinced that men are a product of their environments, and the setting for her debut feature is certainly a different environment than any her subjects have known before. It’s a perspective that all but the most xenophobic of her viewers should be able to agree with, and one supported by the innate humanity of the people who comprise her principal cast.

Over 3,000 men have graduated from the program, and “Jihad Rehab” spends most of its time on three more who are hoping to join their ranks — Yemenis who forged a bond at Guantanamo, and have continued to stick together now that they’ve been relocated to another foreign country. A man accused of being a former bodyguard for Osama Bin Laden, the reserved-seeming Nadir insists that jihad was never more than a job for him, and that the horror of 9/11 was so abstracted by Taliban radio that he literally didn’t understand what his boss had done. The fresh-faced Ali has a deeper if more involuntary jihad origin story, as his high-ranking older brother all but forced him into the family business. And then there’s arms specialist Mohammed, perhaps the most emotionally legible of the lot. A young man who’s been locked up for so long that he doesn’t know what Google is, Mohammed seems all the more reachable because of his sheepish history with Western vices.

Smaker prefers not to dwell on the specifics of what these men did to earn the “terrorist” label that follows them to this day, though she does encourage them to wrestle with the meaning of that word, and — in one especially absorbing section — even touches upon how that scarlet letter affects the members of their extended families. Instead, “the filmmaker” (as the onscreen text refers to her) would rather focus on the cultural and religious re-education that will inspire them to replace that label with a new one.

“Husband” is a popular choice, though sex is one of the many things that scare these men about the prospect of reintegrating into the general population. “Successful businessman” is another common aspiration, and one of Smaker’s most forthcoming interview subjects is a graduate of the rehab program who leveraged his experience with making remote-controlled bombs into a lucrative career making remote-controlled car alarms. We see the men draw flowers, learn to balance a budget, and embrace an ethically conscious relationship with Islam that has more in common with the faith that almost two billion people around the world practice in peace.

Their reward for these efforts is a 10-day vacation (with ankle monitors), presented here in a poppy montage of jet skis and hookahs — less jarring than it sounds midway through a film that maintains a lighter-than-expected touch during all but its most difficult moments. That tone might have something to do with the sense of security that its subjects get from their lives at the center, and their general reluctance to leave… a reluctance that only begins to curdle after a sudden change on the Saudi throne forces the men to stay.

That we share the subjects’ frustration at this turn of events is a testament to our faith in their progress, and yet the intrusion of the real world is also a difficult reminder that so much of “Jihad Rehab” is sealed inside a vacuum (as opposed to the film’s less difficult reminders of that same point, such as the scene where one of the inmates laughs at Donald Trump for being a spectacular dumbass). The spotty final act that follows these men into their uncertain futures doesn’t only cast doubt on how Smaker’s subjects might fare as free men, it also makes us wonder how well our understanding of them has been served by the broad emotionality of Smaker’s characterizations and the apolitical bent of her context; an occasional nod to the United States’ role in creating the conditions for terrorism is the exception to a film that largely elides any finger-pointing that might interfere with the individual healing at hand.

Between this film’s upbeat tone, erratic focus, and sentimental dependance on animation, that healing often comes across as little more than an abstract idea. “Jihad Rehab” is so eager to see its subjects as un-molded clay that it risks pounding them flat; one subject is so guarded that he removes himself from the project, but, life skills aside, the rest seem almost fully reformed by the time we meet them. As someone who has no trouble accepting that many extremists were recruited as poor and impressionable teenagers, that America’s foreign policy is responsible for creating many of the same boogeymen it ostensibly exists to protect us from, and that our own prison system is a perfect model for how to perpetuate recidivism, I can’t help but believe in these men and share Smaker’s faith in the program that helped them. Those less inclined to see things that way may — and hopefully will — find “Jihad Rehab” more impactful. The rest of us are left with an undeniably vital film that is made less convincing because of its assumption that viewers will need more of a reason to be convinced.

Grade: B-

“Jihad Rehab” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this review described the subjects as being “accused of jihad,” and referred to them as “jihadis.” This was an inaccurate use of the term “jihad” and the specific charges against the subjects of the film. To learn more about the conversations stirred up by this film, go here.

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