“Are you a good person or a bad person?” This is the question that documentarian Meg Smaker poses to one of her subjects in a quietly reflective moment of “Jihad Rehab,” her thought-provoking film about Saudi Arabia’s controversial rehabilitation center for radicalized extremists. “I don’t know,” comes the response from a man with a hefty résumé. “That’s your job to figure out.”
But Smaker is on a different mission in her searing film, the very existence of which often feels like a miracle and an interrogative act of defiance. Not seeking clear-cut answers about what separates good from evil, “Jihad Rehab” is more interested in the why of things, asking questions and soberly, searchingly assembling its discoveries through unprecedented access. That doesn’t mean Smaker absolves anyone of the crimes they’ve been accused of — that’s not really her job, any more than proving their guilt might be. (The film has been criticized of misrepresenting its subjects.) But as a former firefighter who moved to Afghanistan just months after 9/11 to educate herself on a part of the world she knew nothing about — studying both Arabic and Islamic theory during later years of residing in Yemen — she brings a unique temperament to her unprecedented project, fusing insider expertise with outsider curiosity. To this end, she wonders who these men are as human beings and whether there could be a realistic place in society for them.
Despite some rare accounts of people who’ve faked their way through the 12-month program just to rejoin al-Qaeda right after, the Mohammed bin Nayef Counseling and Care Center seems, at first glance, mostly to work in its mission to provide a transformative halfway house of sorts for former Guantánamo Bay detainees. This is at least what the Yemeni trio Nadir, Ali and Mohammed hope for on their path to a normal life.
The principal subjects of Smaker’s film, they have all been recently released from Guantánamo after spending no fewer than 15 years inside. While the men were never charged or tried, all three are introduced as former al-Qaeda members, with Nadir having also served as Osama Bin Laden’s bodyguard. Beyond that, Ali is burdened by the destructive legacy of his notorious militant brother Qasim al-Raymi, the emir of al-Qaeda in Yemen, who was directly responsible for poaching Ali as a jihadist at 16 years of age. Cagey arms specialist Mohammed, meanwhile, denies any wrongdoing at the start, only to confess his involvement in terrorism later on as he grows more comfortable in front of the camera.
This is a testament to the interviewing skills of Smaker, who follows the detainees — or perhaps it’s more appropriate to call them patients — for three years, both within and beyond the Center. On the inside, the men take classes in everything from contemporary etiquette to Freudian theory, create basic pieces of art and enjoy the institution’s various recreational facilities, including a sparkling swimming pool. It’s eye-opening to witness their inner moral battles, not having considered the devastating consequences of their actions before. “I didn’t understand 9/11,” Nadir admits. To him, it was no big deal that two buildings went down: why not just build another pair?
Elsewhere in the facility, the men attend lectures about married life, expecting to find brides upon their release with the start-up job and money promised by the government. The advice they receive is at best antiquated, and at worst infuriatingly misogynistic. “Women age faster than men, so find someone much younger,” they are told. Sometimes disrespected by the very men she portrays, Smaker commendably maintains a nonjudgmental tone throughout such segments, even when an angry, uncooperative Mohammed yells at her, aggressively explaining how a woman her age should just be a mother and wife. Viewers may not have Smaker’s patience or charity.
After a brief montage of getting acquainted with modern life — from movie theaters and shopping malls to the wonders of the internet — the trio is discharged, and the tone of “Jihad Rehab” significantly changes in its second hour. We’ve all seen enough movies about the hardships of real-world transition after prison, but the increasingly frustrated Nadir, Ali and Mohammed are faced with different challenges as civilians, especially after two of them get married and have children. Under the new administration of Mohammed bin Salman, the men find that they can neither legally work in Saudi Arabia nor, per the law for the Center’s graduates, leave the country for Yemen. Smaker seeks further answers in this chapter, going back to the Center’s administrative staff for help, and getting only a bureaucratic dismissal in return. It’s no longer their problem — they’ve done their part.
“Jihad Rehab” promises no absolute conclusions, and delivers none either. But notwithstanding some distracting directorial choices — notably the superfluous use of animation — there are ample reasons to admire and even be in awe of Smaker’s film, chief among them the courage and tireless inquisitiveness of Smaker herself. This kind of willingness and aptitude to understand the layers of the otherized has never felt more urgent.