Sundance liked her documentary about terrorism, but Muslim critics didn't.
The film festival gave Meg Smaker's "Jihad Rehab" a coveted spot in its 2022 lineup, but they later said they were sorry after people complained about her race and the way she made the movie.
Meg Smaker felt exhilarated last November. After spending 16 months filming in a Saudi rehab center for alleged terrorists, she found out that her documentary, "Jihad Rehab," would be shown at the Sundance Film Festival in 2022, which is one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world.
Her documentary was about four former Guantánamo detainees who were sent to a rehab center in Saudi Arabia. They told her about how they were attracted to Al Qaeda and the Taliban when they were young, how they were tortured, and how they were sorry.
Film critics said that conservatives might be upset by these portraits of people, but the reviews were good after the festival.
The Guardian said, "The lack of absolutes is what makes it most interesting," and added, "This is a movie for smart people who want to have their preconceived ideas challenged." Variety said that the movie "feels like a miracle and a defiant act of asking questions."
But the attacks would come from the left, not the right. Arab and Muslim filmmakers, as well as white people who supported them, said that Ms. Smaker was afraid of Muslims and spreading American propaganda. Some people thought it was wrong for her to tell the story of Arab men since she was white.
Sundance leaders changed their minds and said they were sorry.
In an email to Ms. Smaker, Abigail Disney, who is the granddaughter of Walt Disney, said that "Jihad Rehab" was "freaking brilliant." Now she said it wasn't true.
In an open letter, Ms. Disney said that the movie was "like a truckload of hate."
Ms. Smaker's movie is almost impossible to see because it can't get to audiences. Invitations to important festivals were taken back, and critics in the world of documentaries used social media to put pressure on investors, advisers, and even her friends to take their names off the credits. She is almost out of money.
"I was so naive that I kept thinking people would get over their anger and see that this movie wasn't what they said it was," Ms. Smaker said. "I'm trying to tell a true story that many Americans may not have heard before."
In the documentary world, which is a tight-knit and mostly left-leaning ecosystem, there are often fights over authorship and identity.
Many Arab and Muslim filmmakers, who, like everyone else in the business, struggle to make money and get noticed, criticized "Jihad Rehab" for having a story that had been told before. People say that Ms. Smaker is the latest white documentary filmmaker to tell the story of Muslims through the lens of the war on terror. They say that these documentary makers use a white, Western point of view to film victims with empathy.
Assia Boundaoui, a filmmaker, wrote about it for the magazine Documentary.
"It makes me sick to see my language and the places where people in my community come from used as backdrops for white savior ideas," she wrote. "The talk is all about empathy, but the energy is Indiana Jones."
She asked festivals to let Muslims make "films that aren't about war but are about life."
In literature and film, there has been a long-running debate about whether artists should share racial or ethnic identity and sympathy with their subjects. Many artists and writers, like the documentarians Ken Burns and Nanfu Wang, say it would be suffocating to tell the story of only their own culture and that the challenge is to live in worlds that are different from their own.
In the case of "Jihad Rehab," the identity critique is tied to the idea that the movie should be political art and look at the historical and cultural injustices that led to these men being locked up at Guantánamo.
Some critics and people who make documentaries say that this mandate is too simple and dull.
Chris Metzler, who helps choose films for the San Francisco Documentary Festival, said, "What I liked about 'Jihad Rehab' was that it gave viewers the chance to make their own decisions." "What I was seeing was not propaganda."
Ms. Smaker is defended by other people. A Muslim TV critic for The Los Angeles Times, Lorraine Ali, called the movie "a humanizing journey through a complex emotional process of self-reckoning and accountability, and a look at the devastating fallout of flawed U.S. and Saudi policy."
She doesn't like Sundance.
"In the world of independent film, identity politics are often used as weapons," Ms. Ali said in an interview. "The movie did its best to understand where these men came from and how that affected them. It's not fair to throw away a movie that many people should see."
From being a fireman to making movies
Ms. Smaker was a firefighter in California when planes hit the World Trade Center on September 11. She was 21 years old at the time. She heard firefighters calling for revenge and wondered, "How did this happen?"
She hitchhiked through Afghanistan and stayed for five years in the old city of Sana, Yemen, where she learned Arabic and taught firefighting. Then she got a master's degree in filmmaking from Stanford University and went to a place in Riyadh that Yemeni friends had told her about: the Mohammed bin Nayef Counseling and Care Center.
The Saudi monarchy doesn't put up with much criticism. This center tries to help people who have been accused of being terrorists. It is a long way from a prison to a boutique hotel. It has a gym and a pool, and teachers offer art therapy and lectures about Islam, Freud, and the real meanings of "jihad," which include personal struggle.
So, the original name of the documentary was "Jihad Rehab," which many people, even those who liked it, thought was too simple. Ms. Ali, a critic for the Los Angeles Times, said, "The movie is very complicated, but the title is not."
So, the director recently changed the name of the movie to "The UnRedacted."
The US sent 137 prisoners from Guantánamo Bay to this center. Human rights groups are not allowed to go there.
But reporters from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and other newspapers have talked to prisoners. Most stayed for a few days.
Ms. Smaker would stay for more than a year to figure out why men join groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Saudi officials let her talk to 150 prisoners, but most of them waved her away when she was done. She found four talkative men.
These conversations are the heart of the movie, and they go much deeper than the news stories that came before. Critics were not put off by that. Ms. Disney, who is a big deal in the world of documentaries, picked up on a point that the film's critics made. "A person can't freely agree to anything in a prison system, especially one in a dictatorship that is known for being violent," she wrote.
This is something that can be argued about. Journalists often talk to prisoners, and documentaries like "The Thin Blue Line" give them a strong voice, even though this "purist" hurdle of free consent isn't always passed.
Ms. Disney turned down an interview request and told Ms. Smaker she wished her well.
Lawrence Wright wrote "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11," which won the Pulitzer Prize. He spent a lot of time in Saudi Arabia. He watched the film.
"As a reporter, you know that prisoners have to follow rules, and Smaker could have said that more clearly," he said. "But she was trying to figure out why people might have done terrible things, which is a big mystery, and this doesn't hurt her efforts."
He also said that getting close to someone was a big deal.
Ms. Smaker wanted the film to be like an unfolding story. It would start with American accusations—that the person made bombs, drove Bin Laden, or fought for the Taliban—and then peel back the layers to find the person.
Trust won out over mistrust. Men said that they joined Al Qaeda because they were bored, poor, or wanted to defend Islam. What came out was a picture of men on the verge of middle age taking stock of their lives.
"Are you a terrorist?" she asked one of the men.
He bridled. "If you fight me, I'll fight you. Why do you say that I am a terrorist?"
Her critics say that these kinds of questions sounded like accusations. Pat Mullen, a film critic from Toronto, wrote in Point of View magazine, "These questions try to humanize the men, but they still paint them as terrorists."
Mr. Metzler from the San Francisco festival said that a documentary filmmaker should ask questions that are on the minds of the audience.
In fact, the movie is mostly about how the U.S. tortured people at Guantánamo Bay. Ali al-Raimi got there when he was 16. He said, "Every day was worse than the day before."
He tried to kill himself by hanging himself.
"Nothing was worse than Guantánamo," he said.
The men wanted normal things like marriage, kids, and a job. Khalid is a talkative man who was trained to make bombs. In the movie, he said that he now makes car alarms with remote controls in Jeddah. Uncertainty remains.
Success Cut Short
Sundance said in December that "Jihad Rehab" would be shown at its festival in 2022, which was held the following month. Critics went crazy.
In a tweet, filmmaker Violeta Ayala said, "A film about men from Yemen and South Arabia was made by an all-white team."
A Yemeni-American and a Saudi worked together to make Ms. Smaker's movie.
More than 230 filmmakers signed a letter that said they didn't like the movie. Most people hadn't seen it. In the letter, it was said that Sundance had shown 76 movies about Muslims and the Middle East over the past 20 years, but only 35% of them were made by Muslims or Arabs.
Sundance said that at its 2022 festival, 7 percent of the 152 films whose directors said what race they were were from the Middle East. Between 1.5 and 3% of Americans are thought to be of Arab descent.
Sundance's leaders changed their minds. According to an email shown to The Times, Tabitha Jackson, who was in charge of the festival at the time, asked to see consent forms from the detainees and Ms. Smaker's plan to protect them once the film came out. Ms. Jackson also said that the plans had to go through an ethics review, and she gave Ms. Smaker four days to do so. We weren't able to get in touch with Ms. Jackson.
The review found that Ms. Smaker met safety standards and then some.
Ms. Smaker said that a public relations company told her to say sorry. "For what was I sorry?" she asked. "For letting my audience decide for themselves?"
Some of the most important people in the documentary industry said that Sundance's demands were unique.
An executive who had run a big festival warned Sundance in an email that its demands of Ms. Smaker could make protesters stronger. Before sending out invitations, festivals will ask "two, three, or four times what are the headwinds," the executive wrote.
This executive had asked Ms. Smaker to show "Jihad Rehab" before, but she said no because her movie wasn't finished yet. This executive asked to stay anonymous because he didn't want to upset Muslim moviemakers.
"Jihad Rehab" made its debut in January, and most of the major reviews were positive. But Ms. Smaker's opponents did not change their minds.
"When I, a practicing Muslim woman, say that this film is problematic, my voice should be louder than a white woman saying that it isn't," wrote Jude Chehab, a Lebanese-American documentary filmmaker. Point blank."
Ms. Disney, the former champion, wrote, "I failed, failed, and failed to understand how tired and disgusted Muslim men and women are of always being portrayed as terrorists, former terrorists, or people who might become terrorists."
Her apology and Sundance's apology shook the business world. Invitations were taken back by the South by Southwest and San Francisco festivals.
Jihad Turk, who used to be the imam of the largest mosque in Los Angeles, was confused. Tim Disney, who was his friend and Abigail Disney's brother, invited him to a movie screening in December.
"My first thought was, 'Oh no, not another movie about jihad and Islam,'" he said. Then I watched it, and it made me think and was smart. My hope is that there is a brave outlet that is not afraid of activists and their too narrow views.
A Happy Ending That Never Comes
In June, Ms. Smaker's film was shown again, this time in New Zealand at the Doc Edge festival.
She was scared to take a flight to Auckland. Would this be called off in the end? Word got out, so Mr. Mullen, a film critic in Toronto, sent out a tweet to warn people.
"Oh my gosh, the controversial Sundance documentary Jihad Rehab comes out of hiding," he wrote. "Why would anyone schedule this film after Sundance?" File under 'we warned you!'"
The person in charge of the New Zealand festival, Dan Shanan, gave a shrug.
He said, "What went on at Sundance was not good." "Film festivals need to stay true to what they think their role is."
Ms. Smaker has used up all of her credit cards and even borrowed money from her parents when she was 42 years old. This is not her dream Sundance debut. She ran her hands through her hair and said, "I don't have the money or power to fight this out." "I'm not sure what to do."