“Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him.” — Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Before 9/11, six-foot firefighter Meg Smaker was happily following in her fire captain father’s footsteps. After 9/11, her world turned over. She watched her South Bay Area firehouse transform overnight “from this place of love and support and family to a place of fear and hatred,” she said in a Zoom interview. “It was unrecognizable to me. And I was young. So at that age it shook me to my core.”
And the simple good vs. evil tropes in the popular media didn’t satisfy her drive to understand what happened that day. Six months after 9/11, as Allied forces were launching bombing raids and ground operations in Afghanistan, the 20-year-old flew into the country and stayed with a family in the remote Northern province of Balkh. “I was immediately humbled by my own ignorance of the world,” she said. “And all the things that I had gleaned from mainstream media about these people, and about Afghanistan, completely contradicted what I experienced when I was there, the kind of hospitality and kindness and grace that these people showed me.”
Her experience inspired her to learn more about Islam. She moved to the lively expat community in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, for five years, where she studied Arabic, supporting herself as a fire academy teacher. The cadets ignored her at first, but she figured out how to earn their respect. (“You’re just a man,” they decided.) And she overheard them talking about a rehabilitation center for Saudi terrorists called Jihad Rehab.
When Smaker returned to the U.S. to finish college and attend graduate film school at Stanford, she was wrestling with how to reconcile the American view of “fighting evil” and the “War on Terror” with the devastation America hailed on Yemen. Inspired by non-fiction films like “Waltz with Bashir,” she decided to become a documentary filmmaker in order to show people like her conservative parents that there’s more going on in the Middle East than their shallow perspective would indicate.
“I flew my parents out to Yemen, and I love them, but they voted for Trump twice,” she said. “Just having that experience changed the way that they viewed that part of the world. And I know most people aren’t going to go to Afghanistan or go to Yemen. But the one thing I can do is bring a bit of my experience that, in my opinion, is a lot truer than stuff that you see in the media.”
Another event colored her layered view of the world. While vacationing with three friends along the Panama/Colombia border in 2003, at age 22, Smaker witnessed the banality of evil when they were kidnapped and held captive for two weeks; seven of the people being held in the camp were disemboweled and decapitated in front of their families, and their villages burned. During her captivity, she spent time with some of the young kidnappers, talking about high school crushes and sports. But she also heard why they were driven to join the AUC rebel faction: for money, to avenge their own family members killed by FARC, and to dissuade others from helping them. They became specific humans.
And after Smaker started making such short films as “Boxeadora,” (2015), about the only female boxer in Cuba, where female boxing was banned —until after her film showed there — she never forgot Jihad Rehab.
Her first feature took five long years and extraordinary patience to make. Many people on the ground in Saudi Arabia helped her, some of whom are thanked anonymously in the credits for their own safety. Smaker kept going in the belief that only she, with her understanding of Yemen and Islam culture, had a prayer of getting access to the 15-year-old Rehabilitation Center. CNN, 60 Minutes, and The New York Times all tried and failed over the years; she was the first journalist to gain entry after a year of back-channel negotiations and pressure.
“In places like Saudi Arabia,” said Smaker, “they never tell you ‘no.’ But they throw hurdle after hurdle after hurdle. So eventually, people just give up. And so that was the year of hurdles. And then eventually, I was able to put enough pressure on them, where they acquiesced and they said, ‘Okay, we will give you physical access,’ which they’ve never done before. And they said, ‘you can walk on the grounds. However, you’re not allowed to shoot one frame, unless these men agree to film with you from the jump. They knew there was no way that I was going to overcome that.”
Her lucky break: for the first time, the Saudi government accepted a group of non-Saudi nationals into the rehab center, from Yemen. When the men heard her speaking their local Yemeni dialect, their heads popped up. They engaged. She interviewed over 150 detainees at the center and at Al’ Hi’ar (the world’s largest maximum security prison for terrorists) before settling on three characters, all 15-year veterans of Guantanamo, to follow for the next three years.
“Most of them spoke English,” she said. “I knew the target audience would be American, and it’d be good to have, instead of always reading subtitles, to hear it from their mouths. But also, it was interesting to compare their experiences. Until I started interviewing these guys, I didn’t know that systematic sexual assault was a part of how these guys were interrogated.”
We watch the men move from a childlike simplicity from always being ordered what to do, to something more complicated, as they try to adapt to having agency and rejoining their families. Smaker noticed a pattern of why they got into jihad. One man saw Muslims being slaughtered in in Bosnia, so he went to go and join the fight. “That’s the one that most people are familiar with,” she said. “But the others have nothing to do with religious duty, or economic necessity. You have peer pressure. And a sense of adventure: someone was offered a ticket to Afghanistan to shoot rockets. Those are similar reasons why people join the U.S. military. So it’s not about being good or evil, but time and circumstance.”
As Smaker was finishing the film, it was put on hold for another year as she waited for the new Saudi government to restore her access to her subjects. She finally got one more week to grab them. And she put in another long stint wrestling with the narrative in the editing room, gradually, with help from her producers and editors, trimming it back to offer less context, more focus on her characters.
Clearly, Smaker’s empathetic problem-solving skills as a firefighter — often under duress in a fast-moving, high-stakes environment — served her well. “Making a documentary film, especially when you’re shooting in places like Cuba, or Saudi Arabia,” she said, “most of my time was not spent doing creative stuff. Most of my time was spent problem solving, maintaining access. And speaking the language really helps, especially in places like Saudi where if you have the kind of cultural understanding to be able to put things in a way that they can grasp, it helps with building relationships with people and building that trust.”
Financially ruined by credit card debt, Smaker hopes to make a Sundance sale that will make her family and friends and Yemen investors whole. And as a white American venturing into politically-charged territory, she has gotten some pushback from the documentary community. “I want to be able for this to have a life outside the film festival circuit,” she said. “The day after 9/11 there were 400 members of al Qaeda, and today, experts put that same number at around over 100,000. We’re having this whole conversation about the men, how they’re psychopaths or some other evil, how the religion is so misguided, like terrorism has become the bogeyman. This film is trying to pull back that curtain of Oz. And just see the human behind that curtain.”
Next up: She wants to return to Afghanistan to film a warlord who happens to be a little person.