Film

Sundance doc on Saudi "rehab" centre sparks controversy

Firefighter turned documentarian Meg Smaker has been criticized for perpetuating the typical Western view of Muslims as terrorists in her doc 'Jihad Rehab' which just premiered at Sundance.
Sundance doc on Saudi "rehab" centre sparks controversy

“Are you a good person or a bad person?” This is the kind of question that Meg Smaker, a US-born, former firefighter turned filmmaker asks her subjects in her documentary Jihad Rehab. We at MIME haven't yet watched the film and will reserve our opinion of it until we do. However, this simplistic approach to the very complex themes and ideas that Smaker is tackling in her film, leaves us baffled. Life is seldom lived in black and white, occupying instead the various hues of grey that reside between good and evil. In other words, asking a person whether they describe themselves as good or bad is as insightful as judging someone's character based on what kind of food they like. Or even less so, actually...

The synopsis of Jihad Rehab is quite cryptic: "A group of al-Qaida members are transferred from Guantanamo to a secretive rehabilitation center for Islamic extremists." We will add that the centre happens to be in KSA and the men are all Yemeni.

Known for her award-winning short on Cuba’s first female boxer, Boxeadora, which depicted one woman's defiance "of Fidel Castro's ban on female boxing to follow her dream of Olympic glory..." as the film's website describes, Smaker has recently become a sort of go-to expert on the Middle East and the Gulf in particular, simply because she's traveled there and, in her own words, studied "Arabic in the Yemen" in 2006. She seems quite comfortable as the blonde, girl next door image of a propaganda machine that accepts US policies, and those of their allies, at face value.

The original title for her latest film was Untitled Terrorist Rehabilitation Film and the doc describes life inside a controversial programme in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where Yemeni former prisoners of Guantanamo Bay are "rehabilitated." If we take all which the American political system and the media have told us at face value -- i.e. that the men in Gitmo were all terrorists and the Western world was the angel in this narrative, while the Arab world the enemy -- then Jihad Rehab works. It's a simplistic, Bush/Trump-supporter kind of view of the world, where Americans continue to trample all other cultures in the name of "Liberty and Justice for all."

But again, here are those broad strokes painted in black and white, which don't allow for any grey areas. The film seems to justify many of the actions taken in and around the Muslim world in the last twenty years, all in the name of 9/11 -- instead of questioning war and destruction and the loss of life in the Region. And where did the American Constitutional right of being "innocent until proven guilty" go?

Unsurprisingly, Muslim and Arab filmmakers have been in an uproar over the documentary on social media, while newspapers and the mainstream media call Smaker's doc "Courageous" (Tomris Laffly on Variety), "Eye-opening" (Jordan Hoffman on The Guardian) and even a doc that "questions our beliefs about terrorists" (Ronda Racha Penrice on The Wrap).

Again, we haven't watched it and perhaps there are sparks of brilliance in there, however we have to question the choice of a festival like Sundance that hardly ever features any Arab filmmakers telling their own stories, from their own perspectives. It is great that included in the same festival's line up is Laura Poitras short doc Terror Contagion about the ongoing investigation into the Israeli cyber-weapons manufacturer NSO Group and the use of its Pegasus malware to target journalists and human rights defenders worldwide. That evens out the score a little bit. Just a tiny bit though...

We still can't help but wonder, as Lebanese-American filmmaker Jude Chehab did on Twitter and later in her article, how many great films by Muslim filmmakers were passed on to include Smaker's in the programme in Utah.

If we want to watch some courageous documentaries, or even features, how about Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People by Jeremy Earp and Sut Jhally, a very good learning tool on how propaganda really does make a difference in the perception of an entire people, and even the Oscar-nominated The Square, directed by Jehane Noujaim, produced by Karim Amer on the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 and the role Tahrir Square provided as a meeting place for the protesters.

And let's promise to finally find a different narrative to define those who are different from us. The old, tired John Wayne way of viewing the world just doesn't work anymore in our modern, multinational, diverse, pluri-religious world.

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