One of the most controversial movies to emerge from this year’s Sundance Film Festival is a documentary called “Jihad Rehab,” which follows a group of former Guantanamo Bay detainees.
Directed by American filmmaker Megan Smaker — a former California firefighter who spent five years in Yemen — the film follows several Yemeni men who were unlawfully detained for 15 years in the U.S.-run detention camp, before being relocated to Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Bin Nayef Centre for Counselling and Care — a so-called “rehabilitation center” for extremists who must graduate the program before they’re allowed to rejoin society.
The film tracks Ali, Nadir and Mohammed’s turbulent journey over three years as they try to come to grips with their trauma and navigate an uneasy future in Saudi Arabia, where it’s illegal for them, as Yemenis, to leave. (A Saudi-led coalition of Gulf states infiltrated Yemen’s civil war in 2015, carrying out air raids that have devastated the nation.)
While “Jihad Rehab” isn’t the first film in the grisly orbit of Guantanamo, its Sundance premiere has received heavy criticism from human rights advocates and other documentarians, many of them from Arab or Muslim backgrounds, who are concerned that the doc’s subjects are being framed as criminals (despite never standing trial in the U.S. or Saudi); that the men could be in danger following the film’s release; and that harmful stereotypes about Muslims are being perpetuated.
In an interview with Variety, Smaker and executive producer Mohamed Aabas — a Yemeni criminal justice reform advocate who joined the project in 2020 — discuss their filmmaking journey and address the doc’s critics.
How did you first hear about the center and secure access?
Smaker: It was in 2007. I was [in Yemen] training cadets in firefighting and I overheard a conversation about a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia. Half the men were Yemeni and half were Saudi, and according to what I overheard, they sent the Yemenis to prison where I think some were executed, and they sent the Saudis to what they referred to as “jihad rehab.”
It took me over a year to get access. The Saudi government never tell you “no,” they just throw hurdle after hurdle at you, and then eventually you give up. After a year, they finally granted me physical access to the center. When [the men] heard me speaking [Arabic in a Yemeni dialect] their heads popped up. Word spread throughout the rehab center, and all these doors opened. I wound up talking to about 150 to 200 of these guys, and then followed up with a small group of four over the next few years.
Why do you think these men agreed to participate in the film? (One does eventually exit the film halfway through filming.)
Smaker: Well, I don’t want to speak for them, but I have an idea. I think that with Ali, he had been cast under the shadow of his brother’s reputation [an Al-Qaeda leader in Yemen], and he wanted to tell his own story as an individual. And [Mohammed] definitely had things he wanted to say about America, about Guantanamo, and this is the message that he really wanted to bring up. I think they all had their own individual reasons for participating.
Have they seen the film?
Smaker: No, they haven’t.
Did you ever have reservations about the center and their motivations for letting a filmmaker come in and meet with the participants?
Smaker: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, how could I not? At the beginning, I was very skeptical of the center, and aware that all governments want to craft a positive image of themselves. What was nice is when I originally went there, the interest was the center. But when I actually met the subjects of the film, my curiosity and my interest was much less about the center and more about these guys and their stories.
Some critics of the documentary say it frames the subjects as terrorists, even though they weren’t charged with any crimes and didn’t sit trial. What do you make of that discussion?
Smaker: The first time you see them, we give [a list] of what the U.S. government has accused them of, in one shot. But for the next 90 minutes, we let them tell their side.
Aabas: Part of my real concern right now is that Meg turned on the light to show what was going on, and now the talk is not about these men, or what’s happening with the Yemeni detainees; it’s about the terminology or who got access. We’re forgetting that there’s a community here that has generally been — excuse my language — shit on by our Gulf neighbors. I know a lot of these people have really good intentions, but I wish the focus would be on the Yemeni community. All of that is being brushed aside for controversy on terminology, or on who made this film, rather than the actual story.
I can completely understand where you’re coming from, and I can see how that would be problematic for you as a member of the Yemeni community. I’m just curious if you have any thoughts on how people might have come away without necessarily acknowledging the specificity of their situation as Yemeni, but rather as terrorists?
Aabas: I just want to point out that we invited [the film’s critics] to a screening of the movie. I flew down to Los Angeles to join Meg and offered to sit and have a discussion with them, before Sundance. They refused to meet with us or screen the movie, and they wanted to deal with Sundance only. That kind of makes me wonder what their motives are. It’s not necessarily about the film’s subject matter.
Do you think that could be because they felt the film had already been done and there was little that could be changed?
Smaker: All the other documentaries that have been done on [this topic] with the exception of one have sensationalized it, and have been very fear-mongering and have reinforced stereotypes — and they have mostly been done by white directors. So I understood the initial pushback when they saw it on the lineup at Sundance, and they said, “Oh, not another one of these.” And so I wasn’t angry. I was like, “Yeah, I completely understand why they’re probably feeling this way.” And that’s one of the reasons we invited them to come talk to me and Mohammed, and see the film and say, “If we are missing something, let us know, because we’re still editing.”
Would it have been a slightly different film if it had been a filmmaker from the region who’d been given access?
Aabas: It is not about why or how Meg got access, but being thankful that she did. And I have to ask a lot of those filmmakers: Have they tried? Have they truly tried? If any of them are able to show that they travelled to Saudi Arabia, and tried to gain access, my hat’s off to them. But she actually did the work.
If you had received some of these filmmakers’ feedback before, what would you have changed?
Smaker: It’s hard for me because I don’t know what the feedback is. I’ve heard that they don’t like the film, but I don’t know because, again, we haven’t been able to meet with them. One of the people who has been helping on the film is a religious leader. And he reached out to this group just less than a week ago to be like, “Hey, let’s talk,” and they refused to even meet with him. So I can’t really address the criticisms if no one’s able to tell me what those are.
To summarize, some argue that the film tries to “humanize” the subjects while still questioning whether they are criminals, and also that the film perpetuates harmful stereotypes. Some also take issue with a white director tackling this subject matter with a different gaze than someone from the region.
Smaker: When it comes to what should and shouldn’t go in the film, and in terms of keeping our subjects safe, I always defer to people who actually know the local politics and the ways that things work in Saudi Arabia. My co-producer and legal counsel over there know way better than anyone Stateside about what to put and not put in the film. I think it’s easy to look at a film and say they should have done this, that and the other, but unless you actually know the local workings on the ground, I’ve managed to defer to the people who do and can make those decisions for the film.
One of the subjects is shown going to see someone identified as a drug dealer during a period when he’s struggling with unemployment after release. Could that endanger him if he’s still in Saudi?
Smaker: That scene was edited in a way that makes it a bit ambiguous. When I saw the first cut of the film, I thought that would be problematic. I told [my Saudi co-producer to flag] any scene that could get the guys in trouble or make them unsafe, and she didn’t flag that scene. She said that, in the film, the only thing [I] need to be concerned about is if they say anything bad about the government.
Did you get further legal counsel on that as well?
Smaker: Yeah. We have a lawyer in Saudi Arabia that has been advising and counselling us in terms of what things should and shouldn’t be in the film to keep these guys safe.
What’s going to happen when the film comes out, and potentially affects these men? Have you thought about that scenario?
Smaker: Yeah. We have consulted with security experts here and in Saudi Arabia, and we have an action plan laid out for that on a plethora of levels. I can’t go too much into that, but when you’re making a documentary film, it’s not just about telling the story. It’s about considering people’s safety and taking every step you can to mitigate that risk, which we have thus far.
Did Saudi authorities need to have any approval of the footage you used?
Smaker: No, nothing.
How did you fund the film?
Smaker: We scraped together anything we got, like $2,000 here or $5,000 here. This wasn’t funded by any kind of distributor. We didn’t have a huge grant. This was all just a bunch of people who are really passionate about the subject matter scrambling together, asking friends and family to help out. Most of the people who worked on this film for the last half decade aren’t getting paid. Everyone really believed in the project and believed in the importance of these men’s stories. A lot of it for me [comes from having] lived in Yemen for so long, and seeing my own country carpet-bombing the country and throwing Yemenis in Guantanamo en masse. If I can’t call out my own government for doing that kind of bullshit…
Aabas: This is something the documentary filmmakers who are complaining are not realizing: that there’s a vested interest. Meg spent almost five years there. Yemen is not Dubai. We are a country that’s struggling and facing crises from so many different fronts.
What has it been like for you to see some of the comments being made about the film?
Smaker: When I made the movie, I knew it was going to be controversial. I expected the pushback to be from the Alt Right saying, “You’re giving these men a voice. You’re not considering the victims of terrorism.” None of us were expecting [this]. It doesn’t feel good, but at the same time, having lived in Yemen for so long and seeing the images portrayed about the place, everything I saw on mainstream media directly conflicted with the experiences that I was having in country.
I wholeheartedly agree that the majority of images that are out there are very damaging. So even though it hurts to see it, I also understand that being a part of a community that has been for so long represented in a way that was hurtful and sensationalist…I understood because of the trauma that has been present in those communities for so long.
It’s hard because for me I know so many people who look at these men as monsters and psychopaths, like they’re worthless, and it’s those people I’m trying to challenge — their stereotypes about these men, and about who they are. That was the intention behind this: You have these stereotypes of these men and you think you know them, but you do not. Here they are telling their own story.