A Look at Cancel Culture’s Trashing of a Remarkable Filmmaker

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.

Smaker filming in Saudi Arabia
Smaker filming in Saudi Arabia

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Sundance Film Festival and The Guardian newspaper, both of which raved about the film before it became controversial, rescinded their support, leaving Smaker to fend for herself.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.

Smaker in Yemen
Smaker training firefighters in Yemen.

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.

Smaker in Saudi Rehab Center
Smaker in Saudi Rehab Center

Camera Rolling

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.

Still shot from Jihad Rehab
Still shot from Jihad Rehab

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.

Smaker at the Zurich Film Festival
Smaker at the Zurich Film Festival, September 2022

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.

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, translator, and mother of 3. Avid follower of French media, culture, history, and language. Lover of books, travel, history, art, cooking, fitness, and nature. Cultivating connections with francophiles and francophones.


  1. It’s because of this kind of thing that I’ve grown increasingly disgusted with the left over the years. There is too much dogmatic ideological purism, intolerance of different thinking, and identity politics, with the latter often shading into outright racism, as in this case. If a black African filmmaker made a documentary about some American institution, nobody would claim he was unqualified to do so because he was not white or American — and it would be absurd to claim so, especially if he had taken the trouble to get things right that Smaker did.

    (In fact, most people in the Middle East are “white” by any normal standard, including the definition used by the US census. And of course Muslim is not a race; Muslims can be of any race.)

    The film festivals which dropped Smaker under pressure, on the other hand, are cowards plain and simple. Knuckling under to bullying and cancel culture just leads to more of the same. They should learn from the publishing industry, which has resisted pressure to cancel controversial books, which in several cases went on to become best sellers.

    Sam Harris has a high profile in the atheist movement, which (unlike the political left) has never been shy about criticizing the crimes and bigotry of militant Islam. Hopefully his recognition of Smaker will bring her and her film some benefit, as your endnote suggests.

    I say all this, by the way, as someone who doesn’t at all agree with the viewpoint Smaker seems to be promoting. I don’t believe that evil people deserve any chance at rehabilitation or redemption. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the Saudi regime, which has done so much to foment Islamist extremism around the world, coddles Islamic terrorists in contrast to its brutal repression of peaceful dissent from its rule. But Smaker has an absolute right to express her own views.

    I love her defiant rejection of the suggestion that she show “contrition” and hope for “forgiveness” from the bullies. She has no need of their forgiveness. They have need of hers, but they do not deserve it.

    • I agree with your statement Infidel that “There is too much dogmatic ideological purism, intolerance of different thinking, and identity politics, with the latter often shading into outright racism” coming from the left. I wonder if the hyper-sensitivity will calm down or snowball into a political faction that eventually cripples or fractures the Democratic Party the way Tea Party activists have evolved into a faction that is hurting the Republicans.

      When the New Zealand film festival received requests to cancel the showing of Smaker’s film, they politely asked people to explain what exactly was objectionable about it. They never received an answer other than Arab filmmakers don’t like it. Smaker claims, however, that she’s never received objections from Muslim people (and she’s had many view the film) that she didn’t address.

      Yes, I’ve known of Harris for a long time because my husband Andy has read a few of his books and seen him speak. Harris has screened Rehab Jihad and at several points in the interview, he emphasizes that Smaker’s views of Islam are open-minded and far more supportive than he would be. He readily admits that Muslim people are justified in having a beef with him but he finds no merit to the criticisms he’s heard about Rehab Jihad.

      I love her defiance too. As documentarians become increasingly aware of her story, they are alarmed. This part of the film industry has traditionally been pretty left-wing but also gave filmmakers an opportunitey to voice whatever ideas they wanted to present as long as they stuck to the truth. The rejection of Jihad Rehab smacks of censorship and fear of controversy. If artists of all stripes can no longer make art that provokes, we’re in big trouble as a society. So I hope Sundance is feeling a lot of heat.

      As I wrote, I had a feeling that this post was going to touch a nerve with you. Thanks as always for weighing in.

  2. I plan to listen to the interview. At this point, I’m not sure how I’d feel about a film that shows the terrorists as individuals who’ve been redeemed, though I do believe that people can commit heinous acts and come to regret them. You write of her skepticism, but the potential for manipulation is certainly there.

    Nevertheless, the apparent caving by institutions that originally raved about the film and found it worth showing is profoundly troubling. I’m glad that the pressure is on, and I certainly agree with you that “If artists of all stripes can no longer make art that provokes, we’re in big trouble as a society.”

    I find this trend disconcerting, but I’m not unduly worried about the Democratic Party being overrun by it. Politicians have good antennae, and the message from this election was one of caution. I worry more about mis/disinformation from the right distorting the public’s perceptions about issues such as this one.

    Thank you for tackling a complex topic in a coherent and compelling way.

    • Hi Annie, regarding committing heinous acts, I don’t think we have evidence that all of the prisoners we held at Guantanamo committed heinous acts. However, my understanding is that those that Smaker interviewed were all members of Al Qaeda. In her interview with Harris, Smaker said that only about 1/4 of the prison’s population joined based on idealogical principals. Many of those who signed up did so for reasons that mirror young men in western countries that enlist in the military: looking for adventure, pressured by their family, financial reasons…

      Smaker was well-aware of the potential for being manipulated. One of the things she did to defend against that was following each featured prisoner over the course of a few years and interviewing many other people who knew them.

      I agree that the right exaggerates and mischaracterizes many left-wing positions that skirt the cancel culture issue. They are experts at painting themselves as victims of evil liberal views that are ruining America. I find such arguments to be particularly effective when they have a basis in reality.

      Good to know that you don’t think this trend will end up splitting the Democratic Party.

  3. The cancel culture will eventually do one thing: to effectively cancel Culture. No-one will be allowed to have a different voice. As an example: I shall probably be forbidden to write about Africa some day since I’m white. Just like that… Soon Flaubert will be barred from bookshelves. How dare he, a man, write about Madame Bovary, a woman?
    I will try to listen to the interview…

    • I like your statement Brieuc, “The cancel culture will eventually do one thing: to effectively cancel Culture.”

      Yes, there are so many examples of people producing excellent portrayals of communities that they are not members of. I’d like to know more about the Proud Boys too. Must I wait for one of their members to write memoir?

      Your book would/will be fascinating I’m sure.

      • I started a book, a few years ago on the sad situation of Latin American politics and permanent tendencies to dictatorship. Left or right. I had to put it away. Too depressing. Also was in Spanish. Had to be. But then it gives me those “readers” concerns. Who’ll read it in Spanish? I have another story in mind. But it needs to be written in French. Same problem… LOL.
        So, while I decide, I’m passing my Spanish short stories to English. You’ve already read a few. More coming.
        Bonne semaine mon amie.

  4. When I read your posts I’m always blown away. Did you work as a journalist at one point?

    I hadn’t heard of this film or filmmaker but I’m so dismayed by this story. I’m a liberal but the cancel culture from the left can be so disturbing. And over this particular work seems especially egregious, or even just dumb. Isn’t the whole point for the audience to see the complexity of this situation and try to determine something of it for ourselves, if that’s even possible? But at least be confronted with the difficulty and ambiguity of the situation? I would love to see this documentary and how sad that it’s looking like that may not be possible. I wonder why there’s not an avenue for her to distribute it herself, so more people could at least see it and weigh in.

    I know of Sam Harris but haven’t listened to his podcast. Just browsing through the episode descriptions, it sounds completely fascinating. Thanks for the intro to that, and to this filmmaker. I hope we’ll eventually get to see her work.

    • Thanks Rennie. No, I’ve never worked as a journalist. That would be fun though.

      Harris and Smaker talked at length about the possibility of self publishing. There are two issues. The first is that it’s really hard to make yourself known in an online world that is flooded with content. People that are already famous, like Dave Chapelle, can make a comeback by putting their new material on their web site. They already have a huge fan base that is hungry for more. Smaker is basically unknown and she pointed out several times that she doesn’t know people in high places that can pull strings for her.

      Secondly, she’s completely broke. Smaker points out that to self publish a film you minimally need a trailer and posters. She was estimating that 25k would be a bare-bones starting point. I was thinking 200k seems reasonable if you really want to get it in front of audiences.

      Many of the people, however, that have already worked on her film did so with little or no compensation. Having faith in the project and in Smaker, they felt it was worth the risk. So, I can understand her reluctance to add to the list of people that she already owes.

      I’ve known of Harris’ podcast but this is the first episode I’ve listened to. He definitely seems like someone you’d appreciate. Have you read any of his books? Letter to a Christian Nation is on my TBR list.

      • I haven’t read anything by him but the titles alone make them sound so good! The End of Faith sounds especially interesting, Letter to a Christian Nation too.

        Thanks so much for clarifying that so well. The financials of that are really staggering. I feel for her – there has been this massive “stay in your lane” push, and I completely agree that other voices need to be amplified, but it does a disservice to everyone to “cancel” this kind of careful, thoughtful journalism for the misguided reasons they’re giving. It’s madness to me. I get why she can’t take on that additional financial burden but I hope she’ll find some other way. I would love to see it.

  5. Americans just can’t seem to do subtlety anymore, shades of gray. It’s like talking to young grandchildren about the fact that a certain “bad” person has done these two or three “good” things. They have trouble grasping that.

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