Cowardice at Sundance

Why was Jihad Rehab canceled? And who is behind the most serious charges leveled against the documentary?

A picture of Meg Smaker looking over the camera, at the horizon
Tai Power Seeff / The New York Times / Redux

Updated at 3:37 p.m. ET on October 28, 2022

Just about every movie you have ever wanted to see is available to stream. Download some app, and $3.99 later, the opening credits will roll. But the films that command the attention of the real cinephiles are those unavailable to stream at any price. For years, the king of this category was The Day the Clown Cried (1972), a comedy about the Holocaust by the Nutty Professor star Jerry Lewis, who was ashamed of the film and prevented its release. You have not seen it. You cannot see it. These are “lost” films, and in many cases the reasons for their loss—politics, orphaned IP, good taste—are as interesting as the films themselves.

The latest entry into this forbidden category is Jihad Rehab (2022), a documentary about former Guantánamo prisoners in Saudi Arabia. You have not seen it. You cannot see it, unless its director, a Californian named Meg Smaker, has sent you a copy, or you attended one of the few film festivals that agreed to show it and did not subsequently back out. In December, the film was considered one of 2022’s most compelling documentaries, and the chances were high that some streaming provider would be pushing it into your living room with great insistence right now. But in January, the Sundance Film Festival screened it, and some employees of the Sundance Institute, which operates alongside the festival, soon resigned in protest. Even before viewing it, some in the industry had criticized the film for a multitude of sins, including the exploitation of its subjects and cultural insensitivity. The film’s best-known financier, Abigail Disney, repudiated the film, and others who had seen it and admired it spoke up to denounce Smaker. Distributors and other festivals shunned it, and it is currently sitting mostly unviewed on Smaker’s hard drive in Oakland, California.

I have seen it. Jihad Rehab (which the filmmaker is retitling The UnRedacted) is a sensitive and complex film. It follows four Yemenis and one Saudi accused of terrorism by the United States and then released into the care of Saudi Arabia. Since the mid-2000s, Saudi Arabia has operated a rehabilitation program where accused terrorists take classes, play Ping-Pong, paint pictures, and undergo counseling sessions to prove their suitability for release. (I have visited this rehab center, and it is just as odd as it sounds.) The men in the film come across not as demonic but as flawed human beings. They seem intelligent, if occasionally mischievous, and thoughtful about their lives. The film notes that neither the United States nor Saudi Arabia has ever tried or convicted them, and that the circumstances of their imprisonment in Guantánamo were disgraceful, even downright torturous. The film also leaves little doubt that all four men were at one point part of al-Qaeda, a death cult that has killed thousands of people.

“I was naive,” Smaker told me when I met her in Oakland, soon after The New York Times had published an article about the backlash to her film. “I thought the right was going to go hard in the paint over this film.” She says she warned investors that conservatives might not like that she spoke with her subjects as people, that she joked with them, that she did not scold them, that her questions were neutral and not aghast. Instead the right hasn’t even had a chance to attack the film, because documentary filmmakers—a left-leaning and antiauthoritarian bunch—saw it first. The New York Times focused on their contention that this film about Muslim terrorists, made by a white, non-Muslim woman, was Islamophobic. An open letter from several dozen “Muslim, and Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian (MENASA) filmmakers” outlined their case to Sundance:

By platforming Jihad Rehab, the Sundance Film Festival engaged in reckless programming that: (a) may have jeopardized the safety and security of the people in the film; (b) provided a platform for subpar journalistic ethics and standards; and (c) reproduced bias against Muslims (and those perceived to be Muslim).

They proposed several remedies, including “mandatory anti-Islamophobia training” for the staff of the Sundance Institute; an accounting of the racial and religious identities of Sundance filmmakers who cover MENASA topics; and a commitment to support more filmmakers who looked like them by “diversifying your screeners, reviewers, programmers, [and] implementing external accountability partners (with particular emphasis on increased Muslim, Middle Eastern, South Asian and African representation).” Only one of the seven proposals focused on ethics or safety; the rest were mostly about identity.

The letter said the film “recycles harmful and Islamophobic narratives” by presenting yet another story about Muslims as terrorists, and “strangling space for the work of Muslim, and/or MENASA filmmakers to tell stories outside of these violent frames.” This strange criticism would be more persuasive if the attacks of 9/11, perpetrated by, among others, 15 Saudis on behalf of an organization founded and led by a Saudi, had not happened, or if al-Qaeda had not in fact perpetrated terrorist attacks in Yemen, in Saudi Arabia itself, and elsewhere, or if only a fraction of al-Qaeda members were Muslim, rather than all of them. Smaker has not been sifting through the region’s back alleys for obscure and embarrassing trash. The story she found is relevant to the lives of millions of Saudis, Yemenis, Americans, and others, and suggesting that she is wrong to want to tell it, or that audiences would be wrong to want to watch it, is ludicrous.

Smaker is a tough woman, with an earthiness to her humor that probably helped when she penetrated all-male environments. (She was a firefighter before she became a filmmaker and trained firefighters in Yemen for three years before going to Saudi Arabia.) “Firefighting is all improvise, adapt, and overcome,” she told me. After receiving complaints about the film, but before it had ever been screened, Sundance demanded that Smaker provide an independent review of the film’s ethics and any danger that the words might pose to those on camera. Sundance gave her a long weekend, an absurdly short time, to commission outside experts and lawyers to provide a report. She improvised and adapted, paid lawyers at weekend rates, and at a cost of nearly $20,000 was handed a report that cleared the film of ethical lapses. (Judith Matloff of Columbia Journalism School watched a cut of the film, interviewed Smaker and others, and wrote on the basis of their answers that “they have met or exceeded standard industry protocols to protect the security” of their subjects.)

Sundance showed the film. And the criticism continued. The list of people thanked for their contribution to the film was more than 300 names long, and one by one, Smaker told me, those who were in the film industry were inundated with messages and calls, many of them not in a spirit of critique but of threat. Smaker says that even one of her Arabic translators was threatened with blacklisting if he did not denounce the film publicly as Islamophobic.

“I didn’t come up through documentary filmmaking,” she said. Her father was a firefighter too, which meant that unlike many of her peer documentarians, she didn’t have family wealth to back her films. And she instinctively followed a code of trust and honor that is standard in fire stations but, she was crestfallen to realize, not in the film industry. “In a fire station, guys will lie about some things. They’ll lie about how many women they slept with. But they won’t lie about whether they did an equipment check. Not in a million years.” They will not betray one another, and they will stand up for one another—especially a station captain standing up for her firefighters. “You protect your subordinates. That’s your job, and you take the hit to protect them.”

Smaker sobbed when she described how her antagonists picked off her colleagues and pressured them to remove their names, or denounce a project they had hitherto admired. Smaker says she had a health scare midway through editing her film, and she chose two friends to finish it if she died. One of them, Alexandria Bombach, saw the film, worked on it as a story consultant, and praised it—then turned around and wrote a long denunciation on Instagram after the mob came for her. Smaker says she was shocked at the betrayal, but even more wrecked when she realized that her subordinates were getting burned. “I thought, At least I can take the heat for this. At least it’s me and not them. Then I realized I could not protect them.”

Even some of the film’s detractors have dismissed the critique of Smaker for being the wrong race. Gail Helt, a former CIA officer who advocates closing the Guantánamo prison, told me she thought Smaker was in fact “hyping the ‘Islamophobia, white-woman’ critique of the film”—emphasizing it, in other words, because it is the weakest weapon in her opponents’ arsenal. Smaker and her defenders have “got this whole straw-person thing they’ve come up with, about whether a white woman can make a film,” Clive Stafford Smith, a lawyer for several dozen Guantánamo prisoners and a fierce critic of the film, told me. “Of course she can.”

“Bullshit,” Smaker said. “All the original articles about the film talk about Islamophobia and being harmful to the [Muslim] community. That was the original attack, and it only moved to the other things when it came out that my executive producer, co-producer, and assistant editor were all Muslim.” Although Smaker is white, one of her executive producers is Yemeni, and she took pains to conduct early screenings of the film for Yemeni and Muslim audiences. The Arabs and Muslims who questioned the film seem to originate mostly from the filmmaking world—specifically, filmmakers who, unlike Smaker, hadn’t made films selected for Sundance.

That leaves a few much more serious charges, leveled by fellow filmmakers and by activists who, like Smaker, are eager to see Guantánamo closed: (1) Jihad Rehab was made at the behest of the Saudi state, (2) its subjects did not or could not consent to their appearances, (3) it does not sufficiently stress the strain and inhumanity they have faced in U.S. and Saudi custody, and (4) the film endangers its subjects.

The first two critiques were sent to Sundance—Smaker is not sure by whom—before anyone other than Smaker and her team had seen the film. The first is nonsense. At one point the film refers to the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, as having taken power in a “political coup.” In addition to being false (MBS was appointed by his father, King Salman), this claim could not possibly have been made in a film controlled by the Saudi state.

The Saudi state’s total lack of a sense of humor about dissent is what makes the second and third points more potent. Stafford Smith told me Smaker’s interviews amount to “torture statements,” and they could hardly be otherwise: These men are veterans of a near-lawless prison camp where torture was commonplace, and were at the time of their interviews in the custody of a country credibly accused of killing and torturing its prisoners. “In Guantánamo,” he said, “I don’t think anything my clients do is voluntary.” So, too, in Riyadh. The rehab center requires its charges to admit that they were terrorists. But the film leaves us with the impression that they are in fact guilty, and that their admissions of guilt are authentic. Anyway, under these conditions, how could they possibly have consented to be filmed?

Stafford Smith scores some points here. The men did not have lawyers to swoop in and tell them to not incriminate themselves. (Smaker spoke with their lawyers from their time in Guantánamo, but says the Saudis prevented the lawyers from talking with their former clients.) Jihad Rehab does inform viewers that the men were in Guantánamo, and it is impossible to watch it and believe that the men interviewed are able to speak without dire consequences if they say something that irks their captors. This is true of most prisoners on Earth, of course, except perhaps those lucky enough to have committed their crimes in places like Scandinavia, where the most serious reprisal against inmates is to downgrade the thread count on their duvet covers.

Smaker says Stafford Smith’s interpretation of ethical filmmaking in a Saudi prison would ensure that no film was ever made about Saudi prisoners. And she says her process in seeking the interviews, and explaining the nature of the project to the few who were receptive to her advances, built in safeguards against what Stafford Smith fears. “For a year, the Saudis said no,” she said, “and when they finally said I could go in,” they put up so many barriers to her project that she suspects they were trying to get her to give up. “They finally said I could go into the prison, but I couldn’t film any inmates unless they agreed to be filmed.” Out of more than 150 prisoners she spoke with, almost no one did. “The Saudis knew that was going to happen,” she told me. “They wanted to be able to say, We tried. Sorry!

“Then something serendipitous happened,” she said. She discovered a group of Yemenis. “So I went in and sat down, and I started talking in the thickest Yemeni accent I could muster. And as soon as I started speaking, their heads all popped up, like, What the fuck? There’s this white woman speaking our mother tongue.” After a few hours of chitchat, three of the nine Yemenis agreed to talk with her individually. If the Saudis planted those guys, or frog-marched them into the interviews, they engineered the situation with extreme finesse. (In my time as a target of Saudi PR, extreme finesse is not a phrase that I’ve thought to use. If Smaker’s account of her selection of subjects is true, then it does seem unlikely that the subjects were hand-selected by the Saudi state.)

Their behavior on camera is inconsistent, and their lines unrehearsed. Their claims change; one begins by denying that he was in al-Qaeda, then gradually admits that he was. One of the four subjects, Abu Ghanim—“the smartest,” Smaker told me—quickly grows weary of her questions and stands up and walks away mid-interview. “All he wanted to do was say what he wanted to say about how bad Guantánamo was and how hypocritical the Americans are,” Smaker told me. “He said his message, then he just stopped talking.” If he could stop talking whenever he wanted, that suggests he did not have to talk at all.

Stafford Smith, the Guantánamo lawyer, has every reason to want to discredit any film suggesting that Guantánamo holds actual terrorists. “I would always say to my clients, ‘I’m not here to ask you about what the U.S. says you did,’” he told me. “‘I’m here to ask you what they did to you. We’ll put them on trial.’” It’s a good defense strategy—especially when the client is guilty as hell—but it’s harder to pull off when your clients’ friends are on-screen admitting to making car bombs.

The most serious criticism of Smaker’s film is also the most mysterious. It originated with Cage, an NGO staffed in part by Stafford Smith’s clients now free after stays in Guantánamo. Although not well known in the United States, Cage is notorious in the U.K. for mixing its civil-rights advocacy with a rather sinister form of Islamism. Its best-known employee is Moazzam Begg, a former Guantánamo detainee, and it counts several other black-site alums on its staff—including a filmmaker, Mansoor Adayfi, who was a 2021 Sundance fellow and signed the open letter against Smaker. According to Stafford Smith, his Cage clients are in touch with at least one of Smaker’s subjects and have been told by him directly that the existence of this film places him in danger. A reporter for The Guardian also said that one of the men, Mohammed al-Hamiri, “told The Guardian, ‘My life is already difficult but this film poses a serious threat to my life and that of my family.’”

Something is strange about these claims. Like all graduates of Saudi Arabia’s terror-rehab program, the men are forbidden from contact with former or current jihadists, including one another, and are not supposed to talk with foreigners or the media. (Smaker says the Saudi government gave them special permission to talk with her.) The Guardian’s reporter told me the quote was “shared with The Guardian.” I asked Cage and Stafford Smith for proof that any of the men has claimed to be at risk. They did not reply. It would be strange for the Saudi government to ungag one of the subjects of the film, just so he can tell Cage or The Guardian that the Saudi government might harm him if the film comes out.

Smaker, who of course has her own incentives, says she has been in touch with most of the subjects by WhatsApp within the past month or two. She said she received a message from one of the men in February expressing worry about the film—but the message was written in lawyerly Arabic, not the bantering English he’d used in the past, and it ended with the word “instructions.” When she followed up to ask if he was all right, she said he responded as casually as ever, and they remained in touch until the summer. She played me a few recent voicemails from the others, and they did not sound like they’d been recorded at gunpoint. One of the men sounded vaguely drunk.

Smaker also noted that the men said nothing in the film that might have upset Saudi officials. She says that if the prisoners ever said something the Saudis might dislike, she cut it for their safety. Stafford Smith did not point to any particular line of dialogue that would have put the men crosswise with the Saudis, but he did add that one said he hoped his brother, an al-Qaeda leader in Yemen, would die, and that the sentiment might inspire al-Qaeda to kill him.

It’s hard to know what will inspire al-Qaeda or the Saudi state to kill someone. These are not the most rule-bound organizations. If one of the interview subjects is genuinely freaked out, then asking Smaker to justify his presence in the film is reasonable. But why should the world rely on the word of Cage (Begg, its spokesperson, is a British man who chose to live under Taliban rule in 2001) to know what Mohammed al-Hamiri thinks?

The film is still lost. But what is lost does not always stay lost. Smaker, who describes herself as “broke,” recently crowdsourced an effort to distribute Jihad Rehab independently—editing a preview, renting theaters, taking other steps that would normally be handled by companies. The crowds were interested: Smaker’s GoFundMe reached $600,000, after the author Sam Harris featured her on his podcast and chipped in $25,000 personally. Smaker says she’ll rent theaters one at a time, and is trying to stretch out the money so her film gets the same exposure she thought it would before the controversy.

But there is still the matter of her subjects’ fate. “It’s very easy to disappear someone who no one has heard of,” Smaker said. The film might in that sense be an insurance policy: Make the subjects famous, and the Saudis can’t touch them. Many other Saudi prisoners’ names are known only to their friends and family, and of course the government. In her view, the denunciation of the film has robbed those men of “one of the last options they have to speak for themselves,” unfiltered by Cage or her WhatsApp messages. Once the film is available, at least they’ll be heard, and audiences can decide for themselves whether to condemn them, Smaker, both, or neither.

This article originally suggested that Smaker's last communication with one of her subjects was a message in lawyerly Arabic. In fact, according to Smaker, the two traded occasional greetings for a few months after that message.