Jihad Rehab: A problematic documentary challenging the ethical rules of non-fiction filmmaking

Jihad Rehab
5 min read
22 April, 2022
Film Review: Megan Smaker’s latest effort is a highly controversial documentary about a group of former Guantanamo convicts who take part in a year-long programme of de-radicalisation in Saudi Arabia.

Without mincing words, Jihad Rehab is certainly a problematic film about a controversial subject.

World-premiered in the US Documentary Competition of this year’s Sundance Film Festival (20-30 January), in her latest endeavour American firefighter-turned-filmmaker Megan Smaker (Boxeadora, Methel Island) decides to deep dive into the lives of a group of four former Guantanamo detainees of Yemeni citizenship. 

"The screening of the film jeopardised the safety and security of the subjects involved, it provided a platform for subpar journalistic ethics and standards and reproduced bias against Muslims as well as those perceived to be Muslim"

The four take part in a year-long programme of 'de-radicalisation' in Saudi Arabia, with the ultimate goal to start a new existence from scratch and the prospect of finding a job and creating their own family.

Culture
Live Story

Over the last two months, Smaker’s documentary has sparked much debate.

In an exclusive letter published by film magazine IndieWire on 3 March, a group of Muslim and Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian (MENASA) filmmakers accused the Park City-based festival of “reckless programming.”

According to these filmmakers, the screening of the film jeopardised the safety and security of the subjects involved, it provided a platform for subpar journalistic ethics and standards and reproduced bias against Muslims as well as those perceived to be Muslim.

"The four take part in a year-long programme of 'de-radicalisation' in Saudi Arabia, with the ultimate goal to start a new existence from scratch and the prospect of finding a job and creating their own family"

The signatories lament that some other reviews published by the main entertainment trades bill the subjects as “terrorists” and “jihadis”, adding that the four men are guilty of terrorist acts.

Jihad Rehab
The exclusive access Smaker gains to Mohammed bin Nayef Counseling and Care Center in Riyadh is remarkable

As a matter of fact, however, the US government detained them for over ten years without trial, while torturing them physically and psychologically.

"Before the publication of the letter, this raging debate pushed two of the festival’s staff members to resign"

The signatories accuse that such misrepresentation and the lack of clear ethical standards (and boundaries) can also promote Islamophobia.

Before the publication of the letter, this raging debate pushed two of the festival’s staff members to resign. An apology statement followed, signed by Sundance’s CEO Joana Vicente and festival director Tabitha Jackson.

Spectators who are not aware of these facts may end up experiencing a different type of film, and perhaps some will even find it compelling.

Culture
Live Story

While Smaker’s biography suggests that there was a genuine interest in pursuing her research on such a delicate topic – and, most probably, she was driven by the best intentions – the film doesn’t ultimately stress on or depict adequately the men’s lack of formal trials.

We see them being introduced by title cards listing the charges they face, with the director often pressuring them to admit their culpability during the interviews.

It would be unfair to say that the subjects didn’t have their say throughout and that there are no signals of reciprocal trust, but the whole context, its dynamics, and the way the film is edited and told are ‘interferences’ one should not ignore.

The exclusive access Smaker gains to Mohammed bin Nayef Counseling and Care Center in Riyadh is remarkable, but it’s not sufficient to treat her subjects – including their flaws, bias, sexism and controversial aspects of their biography, to state the obvious – with adequate depth and fairness.

Jihad rehab
Smaker sheds light on some of the rehabilitation centre’s practices and controversies

On another positive note, Smaker sheds light, at least in part, on some of the rehabilitation centre’s practices and controversies.

According to Dr Hameed, one of the criminal psychologists working at the facility, the risk of being radicalised is particularly high among people aged 15-25 since they are still forming their identities. While the programme can’t guarantee a 100% success rate, he argued that over 3,000 people managed to complete it and started a new life.

Culture
Live Story

The focus of the programme is on teaching “interpersonal skills” and developing “critical thinking.” Detainees move around a rather comfortable environment similar to that of a school or a guesthouse.

Smaker adds some interview excerpts with Khalid, a former bomb maker who is presented as one of the programme’s successful graduates – we find out he has a family and is running his own business, but he is obviously reluctant to share his past.

"When is the right time for documentarians to halt a project and stop filming?"

Smaker visits again the centre after some years and we find out that its role has been significantly reshaped, with many former convicts dangerously left to themselves.

When is the right time for documentarians to halt a project and stop filming? When do they need to seek help? How important is the safety and well-being of the subjects they are filming, regardless of their (assumed) level of morality and their past life? Hopefully, the turbulent distribution of this documentary can teach everyone in the industry something valuable about curatorial strategies, the filming of sensitive subjects and unconscious bias.

All in all, Jihad Rehab is a very divisive piece. It surely includes some eye-opening takes and it is clearly the result of an intense, five-year-long research.

At the same time, however, it fails to embrace some essential ethical principles of non-fiction filmmaking – above all, the subjects’ safety and consent. It is still worth a watch, but with a pinch of salt.

Davide Abbatescianni is an Italian Film Critic and Journalist based in Cork, Ireland. 

Follow him on Twitter: @dabbatescianni