This week I listened to an interview with Meg Smaker, a gutsy yet empathetic filmmaker whose documentary, Jihad Rehab, was initially hailed by numerous film festivals and critics, then condemned and dropped like a hot potato. The claim that the film was Islamaphobic is behind its sudden death sentence. After months of rabid social media posts, threatening emails, and other forms of public renunciation, Smaker found herself penniless and at a loss regarding how to revive a film that she’d dedicated more than 5 years of her life to. Luckily, Sam Harris of the Making Sense podcast (someone who has also weathered attacks from far-left activists), heard about Smaker’s ousting and wanted to interview her.
Many aspects of this story are infuriating. For starters, nearly all of Smaker’s most vocal critics have never met her nor watched Jihad Rehab. Several people who initially funded, worked on, or enthusiastically endorsed the film later turned their backs on Smaker. The backlash was so fierce, even large institutions like the Sundance Film Festival and The Guardian newspaper, both of which raved about the film before it became controversial, rescinded their support, leaving Smaker to fend for herself. Personally speaking, after listening to the interview, I’m angry because I’d love to see Jihad Rehab (the title has been changed to The UnRedacted) but may never get a chance.
My post this week summarizes Smaker’s story but I encourage you to listen to the podcast. I’ve linked to a Youtube recording of it above but it’s also available on Spotify, iTunes, and directly from the Making Sense website.
Looking for Answers after 9/11
Smaker’s path to becoming a filmmaker is worthy of its own docu-drama series. On September 11, 2002, she was working as a firefighter, a career that she’d always dreamed of and one that did not disappoint. She loved the camaraderie, the challenge, and the ever-changing skillsets she needed to learn to advance her career. But after 9/11, her bond with the firefighting community began to erode as she witnessed increasing anti-Muslim hostility and racist attitudes from many of her colleagues.
Unwilling to follow the throngs condemning all Muslims based on the actions of a miniscule, radicalized subset, Smaker felt she needed to walk away from the security of her South Bay Area fire station. She wanted to improve her understanding of Muslim people by learning what she could about Middle Eastern cultures. I, along with many Americans, felt similarly after 9/11. Over the ensuing years, we consumed books, articles, and films about life in Middle Eastern countries—some written by native Muslims, others by Western journalists, many of whom are white.
Smaker took a much more daring and direct approach. Six months after 9/11, she moved to Northern Afghanistan, meeting some of the most generous and welcoming people she had ever known. When conditions became too dangerous, however, she left the country. Within a year, she moved to Yemen where she stayed for 5 years, becoming fluent in Arabic. During that time, she supported herself by training Yemeni men to become firefighters. This is just a fraction of her overseas experience and why claims that Jihad Rehab typifies the pampered and pompous gaze of over-privileged white women is completely off the mark.
A Change of Direction
At some point, Smaker set her sights on becoming a documentary filmmaker. She returned to school, attending Stanford in her home state of California. At the time, she was contemplating making a film that would challenge the American view of fighting the “war on terror” and show why U.S. aggression in Yemen was having a devastating impact on the people of the Middle East.
Once out of school, however, Smaker remembered having heard about a rehabilitation center in Saudi Arabia with a mission of reforming terrorists. Some of the prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay had been released to this facility. The Saudi program was simultaneously praised by the Obama administration and condemned by right-wing politicians who characterized the center as a training camp for jihadists. Smaker (being Smaker) wanted to see for herself where the truth actually lay.
Into the Frying Pan
Gambling that her knowledge of Arabic and Islam gave her a shot at entering the rehab center and interviewing its detainees, Smaker traveled to Saudi Arabia. With the tenacity of a well-trained service dog, Smaker spent months prodding Saudi officials to allow her into the prison. “In places like Saudi Arabia,” Smaker said, “they never tell you ‘no’. But they throw hurdle after hurdle after hurdle. So eventually, people just give up.”
It took a year, but eventually, Smaker’s persistence and patience paid off. She was allowed to meet with a group of prisoners. As she explained who she was and what her intentions were in telling their story, the men sat silently staring straight ahead, none even acknowledging her presence. She asked to interview a different group of men. When that permission was granted, this group behaved similarly. I don’t know how many groups she met with or the time lapse involved but at some point, as she was speaking, a detainee noticed her Yemeni accent. He and others in the room were from Yemen.
They began to question her about how she’d learned Arabic, how long she’d lived in Yemen, and what she’d done there. It had been years since many of them had seen their homeland. They asked her about favorite places they’d frequented and were encouraged that she had visited them as well. Hours passed with no discussion of her film. Her goal was simply to demonstrate who she was and hopefully gain a bit of their trust. The strategy succeeded.
If you’re thinking that the hard part of Smaker’s project was behind her at this point, you’re sorely mistaken. She was in it for the long haul. She truly wanted to get to know these men. That would not happen over the course of weeks or even months. Smaker eventually interviewed around 150 prisoners at the center. But Jihad Rehab (The UnRedacted) features the lives of four of the Yemeni detainees.
After Smaker explained the longevity of the undertaking, the four men agreed to let her follow their lives both inside the prison and after they were released. They also agreed to her interviewing family members and other people in their lives. The next 3 years involved doing just that. The men were imprisoned for roughly half of that period, then released into Saudi society where they looked for gainful employment. Smaker followed them throughout.
An Ever-Mounting Flood of Accusations
Smaker expected her film to be controversial. After all, she was humanizing a population that many Americans condemned. As a result, she was hyper-diligent when it came to fact-checking and spent another two years pulling the documentary together. One example of her conscientiousness is the fact that she hired 3 different translators to verify the Arabic testimonies given in the film. She wanted to be absolutely certain that none of their words were misinterpreted. What she had not anticipated, however, is that when the attacks came, they came from the left, not from the right.
Sundance’s initial acceptance of Smaker’s film into the January 2022 festival was followed by a slew of invitations from other film festivals around the world. She’d screened the film before numerous diverse audiences including Muslims, Imams, film industry professionals, even a handful of Guantanamo guards. Across the board, the response had been one of enthusiastic support. So, when Sundance informed her that a group of her colleagues was questioning Jihad Rehab’s integrity, she assumed that there must be some sort of misunderstanding.
Thus began months of Smaker jumping through hoops as she tried to defend her work against an ever-mounting wave of opposition. It’s important to note that the first people to object were Arab filmmakers, some of whom had submitted their own films to Sundance and been rejected. These were her direct competitors. They were soon joined by an Islamic group called CAGE that is largely known for supporting Muslim detainees held at Guantanamo. According to Harris, however, this group essentially insists on the innocence of such prisoners. As a result, any film that might lead people to think otherwise is a prime target for them to attack.
Convinced that her most vocal critics had not seen her documentary, Smaker tried in vain to arrange for a screening. Rather than taking her up on the offer, the invited guests refused to attend, claiming it was unreasonable to ask them to sign a non-disclosure agreement—a customary practice when screening a film that has not yet been released to the public. Not surprisingly, many of Jihad Rehab‘s harshest and loudest detractors have never seen it.
As Smaker worked to deflect accusations of Islamaphobia, new objections arose. Some claimed that the film was a pure piece of Saudi propaganda, when in fact the documentary does not paint the Saudi regime in a flattering light. Others, accused Smaker of exploiting the subjects of her film who being prisoners weren’t in a position to turn her away. With objections to the film and cries of indignation flooding the liberal channels of social media, Sundance ended up issuing two apologies for having programmed it. Sundance’s 180-degree denunciation led every other festival that had initially screened and selected Jihad Rehab to cancel it, except for one in New Zealand.
White Woman Equals Not Qualified
After Sundance’s rejection, Smaker went through another round of screenings before Muslim audiences and again received overwhelming approval. The opposition to the film by this time, however, boiled down to the fact that she was not a Muslim and so should not be lauded for presenting a Muslim story—especially a story linked to terrorism and Islamic radicalization.
Violeta Ayala, a Bolivian-Australian Quechua filmmaker, is an example of a professional colleague who jumped on the anti-Smaker bandwagon, claiming on Twitter that there was “an entirely white team behind a film about Yemeni and South Arabian men.” In fact, many Muslims worked on the film including a Yemeni-American executive producer and a Saudi co-producer. Jude Chehab, a Lebanese American documentarian wrote, “When I, a practicing Muslim woman, say that this film is problematic, my voice should be stronger than a white woman saying that it isn’t. Point blank.”
As Smaker tells her story to Harris, her tone is direct and unassuming. She describes numerous insults and betrayals with an objectivity that astounds. When talking about attacks on people who worked with her on the film, however, she becomes irrate. Yes, she’s pissed that she and her work have been treated unfairly, but she’s close to tears when describing the negative impact on the careers of her crew members. The former firefighter can’t bear thinking that she was unable to save them from harm.
A Question of Integrity
At the time of her interview with Harris, last month, Smaker’s fire for reviving her film was nearly burned out. An excellent piece in the New York Times in September, had failed to garner the support she was hoping for. She’d maxed out her credit cards, borrowed money from her parents, and spent months talking to as many people as she could who were willing to listen. The problem was, she didn’t know many people and none of the people who might be able to help knew her in any substantive way. Some of her supporters suggested she apologize, thinking that perhaps if she demonstrated some level of contrition, all might be forgiven. I loved what she had to say about this when talking to Harris.
“You took my film’s premiere away from me, you took the film’s trajectory away from me, you took my reputation and my name and my career away from me. Like fuck if I’m going to give you my integrity, the one thing I have left.”
In my mind, Smaker is someone who is extraordinarily curious, furociously devoted, and clearly in possession of high ethical standards. Did she accurately portray the central characters of Jihad Rehab (The UnRedacted)? Did men once convicted of terrorism come off looking as though they are now redeemed and capable of safely rejoining society? Was Islam portrayed as a religion that is too easily corrupted to advance an evil agenda? Perhaps we’ll never get a chance to judge for ourselves. But that really is a shame because above all, Meg Smaker wanted to give audiences that opportunity.
Endnote: Thanks in part to Harris’ podcast, Smaker has received considerable financial support through a GoFundMe page. Little by little, a handful of film festivals and independent theaters are picking up her film. This week The UnRedacted won its second award from Rome International Film Festival in Georgia. Please consider contacting your local movie venue and asking that they add it to their program schedule. Messages to outlets like Netflix and Amazon Prime are also highly appreciated.